A Bay City Buffet in the Manors
Wilton Drive, Wilton Manors' main drag, is lined with gay-oriented restaurants, clubs, and businesses; it seems a short stretch of San Francisco has fallen from the sky and landed intact. Of course, in most ways, the city is just like any other -- it simply has more men. Likewise, Costello's Restaurant and Martini Bar is a fairly typical neighborhood dining establishment with a clientele that boasts a higher level of testosterone than most of its kind. It includes the essential elements of every successful local haunt: accommodating service, decent food, and fair prices.
The 200-seat room is handsomely decorated with neatly framed prints on olive-green walls, plush brown leather banquettes, and plenty of wood (floor, tables, and thick window blinds). It conveys a clubby male aura; a gracefully curved glass fenestra divides the room, and wall sconces topped with patterned plateware counter with hints of an elegant European bistro.
Appetizers such as shrimp cocktail, French onion soup, escargots, tuna tartar, and beef carpaccio form a pastiche of predictable Continental and contemporary favorites. One of the few distinctive offerings is a half-dozen bite-size wedges of artichoke bottoms topped with cream cheese and basil, breaded in coarse crumbs, and cleanly fried into creamy morsels splashed with marinara sauce. I'm no stickler for presentation, but a clump of wilted field greens did little to enhance the plate, nor did similarly limp leaves increase the visual allure of coconut shrimp. The quartet of tender crustaceans, darkly fried in coconut-flake crust, were pooled in a glossy red, sweet, and spicy garlic-chili sauce -- tasty but not much different from jarred Asian sauces available in the ethnic section of your supermarket.
Our waiter emphatically warned us that the "Cajun-crusted mahi-mahi with mango-jalapeño relish" would be hot, as in spicy, his remark striking me as akin to warning a diner that his "chocolate-cherry marshmallow ice cream sundae" will likely be sweet. Well, imagine one's surprise if the sundae is not sweet, or, as in this case, the fish not hot. Worse, it was overcooked and not pristinely fresh; the mango-jalapeño relish was nothing but a squirt of pink mayonnaise -- was this the "chipotle aioli" that comes with a grilled mahi-mahi sandwich, or the "chipotle remoulade" drizzled atop an appetizer of crab cakes?
I suspect they're all one and the same, as Costello's applies its sauces in willy-nilly fashion. Two hefty triangles of tuna steak, wrapped in spring roll skins and flash-fried to a velvety rare consistency, were supposed to come "severed" (this menu could use some editing) with "wasabi ginger glaze" but was instead slathered in the same shiny red-chili sauce as the coconut shrimp; I couldn't help but wonder if this also moonlights as the "ginger glaze" on an entrée of roasted duck. I was likewise curious, for a different reason, about "airline chicken breast" sautéed with capers and mushrooms in white wine and tomato sauce but wasn't intrigued enough to actually order it; I can only assume the dish is so named because "hospital cafeteria chicken breast" was already taken.
Now that I think of it, the "cabernet demi" draping a dense and delicious slice of gorgonzola meatloaf (that was mercifully light on the cheese) looked and tasted pretty much the same as the rich bordelaise bathing a juicy knob of grilled beef tenderloin. The filet, cooked as requested to a ruby-red medium rare, delivered as much taste as this most tender but least flavorful of cuts possibly can. Costello's also proffers thinner disks of the tenderloin stacked with portobello mushrooms and brie cheese -- the inherent blandness of filet mignon makes it a prime candidate for such dolling up.
Each dinner is accompanied by a choice of three starches: mashed potatoes with a light garlic touch; mashed sweet potatoes exuding so much sugar and spice (mostly cinnamon) that it tasted like the filling of a sweet potato pie; and a saffron-scented, yellow-colored pile of "rice pilaf" flecked with a few strands of wild rice and imbued with the heavily salted chicken bouillon flavor, and mushy texture, of a mix. On one visit, the vegetable was steamed, unseasoned, broccoli florets; on another, we were served a crunchy, bright-green mix of snow peas and skinny, French green beans. Sautéed shallots or a sprinkling of fresh herbs might have made these greens more engaging, but at the very least, the kitchen really should consider adding salt and pepper -- and should take the time to snip off the stem ends of the haricots verts. On the positive side, the place gives you a full meal of home-cooked food with fresh vegetables and starch.
Evidently, Costello's does not possess a queer eye for the great pie. We had ordered a tartufo (pistachio ice cream coated in chocolate), but as the waiter returned to announce that the last piece had been served, a different server stopped by to inform us that the kitchen had "just taken a chocolate truffle cake out of the freezer"; he went on to exclaim that it had a warm center and was really good. I ordered one mainly to satisfy my curiosity as to whether it would be, as I suspected, one of the disks of bitter dark chocolate that get microwaved until the middle melts and oozes -- routinely and incorrectly referred to as a "bombé" or "soufflé." That's just what this was, though with a twist -- they didn't nuke it long enough, so the interior was cold and not at all oozy. Key lime pie was also a thawed and flawed version of the real thing, a too-sweet custard on a paper-thin crust that tasted like raw dough. I'm not suggesting Costello's should hire a pastry chef, which is prohibitively costly for a humble neighborhood restaurant, but there are numerous desserts that are really simple to make (key lime pie being one); there are also better wholesale dessert companies. Not to pile it on, but I wouldn't be shocked to learn that my murky cappuccino was made with Bustelo.
John Costello and John Lombardo opened the restaurant in 1997. The latter John is sole owner now, his mother Cindy and manager Malcolm working the room in casual fashion and making diners feel like welcome guests. An efficient wait staff is also quite personable.
Costello's is a pleasant, comfortable, and keenly likeable place to dine, but the food clearly could be taken up a notch or two -- or three (hint: moderately priced, home-cooked fare with limited ambition needn't lack seasonality or scintillation). Wilton Manors appears to have a dearth of great restaurants. With everything else going for it, Costello's could fill that void with an upgrade of cuisine.
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