David Valencia has been in restaurant kitchens for the past 14 years – a relatively short time by executive chef standards – but the 33-year native of Colombia has experience far beyond those years. Valencia, executive chef at Costa Palm Beach, has cut his teeth at such fabled restaurants as The Modern in New York City and trained under Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse.
He later joined renowned hospitality group EMM Group to open Catch with Top Chef Winner Hung Huynh in New York and Miami and was Chef de Cuisine at Meat Market Palm Beach before opening Costa (with owner and veteran Palm Beach restaurateur Sascha Bennemann) earlier this year.
All of Valencia’s high-powered training and learning is paying off at Costa, located on the second floor of The Esplanade on Palm Beach’s trendy Worth Avenue.
“Modern Mediterranean’’ is how Valencia describes Costa’s menus, which feature several of what might be considered Valencia’s “signature’’ dishes. Among them is the amazing Salt Baked Branzino, a three-pound Crispy Pork Shank (for two) and for lunch, an off-the-chain Lamb Burger.
“I wanted to bring something different with a lot of different flavor profiles – big bold flavors,’’ Valencia said.
Those bold flavors certainly come out in dishes such as the Salt Baked Branzino served with arugula emulsion, grilled lemon, olive caper tomato relish. It’s a terrific explosion of flavors that has many guests telling friends, “Get the Branzino,’’ when they go to Costa.
“I’ve been doing something similar (in terms of preparing the Branzino) for the past seven or eight years,’’ Valencia said. “For whatever reason, this is the dish people come back for. I didn’t expect it to be like that.’’
And don’t fret. The full fish is for presentation purposes only.
The Crispy Pork Shank goes back to Valencia’s childhood days in Colombia.
“Pig was my thing,’’ Valencia said with a smile. “We had a big farm and we had a pig for every big holiday.’’
Valencia’s Crispy Pork Shank is cured in salt, garlic and spices for 24 hours and cooked for three to four days to allow the meat to tenderize. When customers order it, Valencia flash fries the pork shank to get the skin extra crispy. It’s then presented to the guests table side and returned to the kitchen where in the inside meat is prepared for serving.
“You’ll never have a better piece of pork,’’ Valencia said.
I’m certainly not going to disagree. If you’re into pork, the Crispy Pork Shank is a “must have’’ on the Costa menu. Same with the Branzino if you’re into fish.
Some of my other favorites? The Hamachi (served with finger lime, avocado, sumac and cilantro) as an appetizer. The Moroccan Lamb Stew is outstanding. And you can’t leave without having the House Hummus served with house made Naan Bread.
A good way to get to know the Costa menu is to take advantage of its Summer Menu (3 p.m. to 7 p.m.), which features items such as the Hamachi and House Hummus, as well as Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail and Chicken Escalope (grilled chicken breast, zucchini, eggplant, herb puree, arugula, lemon), each for 50 percent off the regular menu prices.
“I don’t change the quality or the sizings,’’ Valencia said. “That menu is a real treat for somebody to try something that’s not as expensive and to try something maybe they haven’t had before.’’
One taste of Valencia’s big, bold flavors, however, and they’ll be back.
Steve Pike (www.myspiketravel.com) is an award-winning food and travel writer. He lives in Delray Beach, Fla.