Hector Ruiz is a self-proclaimed south Minneapolis guy.
The enterprising chef owns three restaurants — Cafe Ena, Rincón 38 and La Fresca — all within 10 blocks of one another. His former El Meson was also in the neighborhood, and he and his wife, Erin Ungerman, live around the corner from cozy 10-year-old Ena, named for their daughter.
So it’s a bit of a fluke that Costa Blanca Bistro, Ruiz’s latest — and, it must be said, greatest — property is across town, lighting up an already restaurant-dense stretch of Central Avenue NE.
Costa Blanca isn’t the tapas restaurant that its early buzz had declared. The sense of variety is on point, but the portions — and commensurate prices — are much more generous than the nibble-scaled snacks that define tapas. Ruiz agrees.
“I consider it a small-plates restaurant,” he said. “But the whole idea came out of tapas.”
That format, with its diverse selection, makes for appealing dining, especially in groups, who can cover every square inch of their tables with plates and let the serious nibbling begin.
Costa Blanca can’t really be called a seafood restaurant — that’s too limiting — but Ruiz does emphasize all kinds of saltwater riches.
The selection doesn’t stray too far from anyone’s comfort zone, but who cares? Each shareable small plate is showered with more attention than the entree-scaled dishes encountered at lesser competitors.
One gasp-worthy example is a polenta cake topped with sea bass, an elegant white-on-white palette choice. Traces of saffron and truffle insinuated their way into the proceedings, and a tangle of thinly sliced fried leeks added just the right textural grace note. Come on, this big-league cooking is only $13?
In a more straightforward approach, the sea bass, rather than relying upon roasting, is seared in a hot pan, then finished with brown butter, surely one of mankind’s most enduring achievements. So good.
Even better? A pair of medium-size scallops, their browned exteriors perfectly in sync with a crispy fennel slaw. Another $13 miracle. Another don’t-miss: jumbo shrimp, cooked in their shells in tons of garlic and white wine; soak up the bowl’s must-consume-every-drop sauce with toasted bread.
The finger food continues with finger-shaped calamari, lightly coated with a coarse, crunchy polenta and notably juicy and tender, a habit-forming foil to all the dismally rubbery versions around town.
Mussels? Wonderful. Crabcakes? Just as good. They’re not the lumped-up versions that usually kidnap my appetite, but the crab’s inherent sweetness shines through.
Meat makes a few welcome cameos. Beef tips, marinated in sweet and spicy paprikas (the heat predominates but doesn’t overwhelm), is seared on a high-heat flat-top grill until the outside is crisped without compromising the meat’s velvety nature.
Ruiz’s affection for lamb comes through in the way he treats a pair of small, bone-in chops, infusing them with rosemary and thyme in a two-day marinade before they’re charred on the grill, the meat remaining pink and succulent. They’re served with sliced roasted potatoes and nicely caramelized Brussels sprouts, a combination that is as much a harbinger of the cold weather to come as leaves falling from trees.
Then there’s the impressive cured pork selection — a spectacular Serrano ham, a chorizo with a not-shy spiced-up kick — paired with a year-old manchego cheese and wonderfully salty and pungent olives, all imported from Spain.
Vegetarians aren’t overlooked. Delicate, chevre-filled croquettes are prepared two slightly different ways, one with an almost jam-like onion compote, the other with sweet peppers; both impress.
Cauliflower is coated with a spiced-up version of that same polenta used in the calamari. It’s fried, then tossed with earthy roasted artichokes and salty fried olives, the contrasting textures united by a pair of luscious aioli garnishes. Manchego, its nuttiness accentuated by an almond crust, is fried until it’s pliable enough to spread across garlic-rubbed bread, with a cool apple marmalade as a topper. Nice.
Dessert? Save the calories
Not every dish earned a repeat performance. A stack of thickly sliced red and yellow tomatoes, separated by a layer of roasted red peppers, couldn’t have been more stunning, but the tomatoes were chilled into flavorless oblivion. Loved the seafood assortment in a dish labeled paella, but it came off as a head-scratcher of a soupy stew, rather than a robust rice casserole.
Graze through the 25-plus savory dishes, and it’s immediately obvious that some building blocks are being drawn a little too often from the same well. A syrupy balsamic glaze, a colorful parsley oil, a teasingly sweet shallot compote, a luxurious saffron aioli, all delicious, but all annoyingly repetitive. Ditto the ubiquitous thin-sliced baguette.
Another disappointment? Dessert. Nothing’s to be out-and-out avoided (although the churros, which managed to be both flimsy and greasy, came close), but nothing rises above “serviceable,” a disconnect from the rest of the kitchen’s output. Oh, and weak ventilation meant that my clothes — and what little bit of hair I have remaining on my head — were seemingly doused in Eau de Costa Blanca.
Ruiz had initially considered the space — the former Pico de Gallo — about five years ago, but the proposal didn’t work out. In a case of Timing Is Everything, he was driving on Hwy. 280 this year in his catering truck, and a driver started honking. It was the landlord, and he was making the universal “call me” sign with his hand. The space was coming up for lease, and this time, they struck a deal.
“Northeast reminds me of south Minneapolis the way it was 12 years ago,” Ruiz said. “And there was nothing on Central like I wanted to do, something more high-end.”
He rebuilt the restaurant himself, with the help of an uncle and cousin, injecting pizazz into a narrow storefront with cool shades of slate, charcoal and pearl.
A snug, L-shaped bar, with 10 elbow-to-elbow seats, cozies itself up against the kitchen, and a big front window, which frames Central’s robust activity, is far more watchable than any flat-screen TV.
The initial plan was to christen the restaurant Alicante, after the city on Spain’s southeastern Mediterranean coast. “But then a friend said, ‘No one will be able to pronounce it,’ ” Ruiz said with a laugh. The friend pointed out that Alicante is on Spain’s tourist-friendly “White Coast,” or Costa Blanca. The name stuck.
Ruiz epitomizes the hardworking immigrant success story. He grew up about three hours south of Mexico City. He became a Minnesotan when, while still a teenager, a job at Tucci Benucch in Chicago led to a transfer to the company’s Mall of America outlet. A flurry of restaurants (Rainforest Cafe, Zelo, Cafe Un Deux Trois, Prima) followed, along with training at Le Cordon Bleu in Mendota Heights and a coveted apprenticeship at a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Paris. Thirteen years ago, Ruiz’s father cashed out his 401(k) to help his son bankroll his first south Minneapolis restaurant, El Meson. The rest is history.
“I think this one might be it,” said Ruiz of his growing number of restaurants. “I love to create new concepts. But I’ve achieved my goal. I’m glad that people in Minneapolis are paying attention to what I’m doing. Without them, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”