(Published on Baristanet Sep. 17, 2010)

In the expansive and romantically lit interior of Montclair, NJ’s relatively new Peruvian restaurant, Costanera, and awash with its intoxicating scents, sights and sounds, it’s easy to be transported to Lima, or Quito, or another busy Latin city.

The restaurant, whose earth-tone walls were studded with slices of log on the one side, and wood cutouts of animal and large insects on the other, was a hive of activity at 7:00pm on a recent Saturday evening, and almost packed to capacity when I visited it with my husband and two young sons.

As we perused our menus, a procession of servers marched out of the kitchen doors and into the banquet room, seafood platters precariously piled high at shoulder height, weaving their way confidently to several eagerly waiting tables.

Although I didn’t need to inquire of the friendly diners at the next table – their enthusiasm presumably reflecting the quality of their platters – a lady there volunteered that the seafood was “excellent, it couldn’t be fresher. It’s hard to go wrong with seafood with it’s so fresh.”

Our gracious hostess, Tatiana, said Costanera bought its seafood from Yama Seafood and Bay Treasure, and did their shopping early each day.

Costanera certainly is full of bustle, the visual spectacle combining with the lively cadences of Spanish conversations.

The strains of pan-piped folk music could just be heard in the background, proving no competition against the world’s noisiest espresso machine.

Well, we were hungry and open to anything new and exciting, and took in the menu options as we munched on an assortment of bread in a basket and a very interesting little platter of fried, giant corn kernels, served with a boldly spiced chimmichurri sauce.

First things first, when dining with little people: the kids’ menu.

Happily, in place of the usual hot dog and hamburger offerings were slightly more exotic ones: Pan roasted fish fillet (turbot, grouper or tile fish), Tacu-Tacu Jr. or Peruvian rice and bean hash with sweet plantains and soft egg or 1/4 rotisserie chicken with french fries (the best french fries ever).

There was also Salchi Papas – sliced, grilled beef on a bed of vegetables or fries. And the best bit, the fries – which are crisp, ever so tasty and made of Yukon gold potatoes – may be substituted for vegetables or any other side dish on the a la carte menu.

My kids picked the rotisserie chicken and the fish fillet, which arrived at the same time as our appetizers, were fresh and very appetizing in appearance, and were attacked with gusto.

My husband and I shared a few appetizers as well as the mains, to better acquaint ourselves with Costanera’s repertoire. Causa a la limera, $9, a terrine of mashed potato, layered with chicken and Peruvian olive mayonnaise, sat pretty on the plate and was good, if a tad heavy on the spud front.

But Chicharron de Pescado, $12, or quinoa-crusted fish fingers (turbot that day), served with a salsa sauce, took the cake. Crunchy and perfectly seasoned on the outside (full of protein, too) and moist and flavorful on the inside, I’d happily pair this with a salad and make an entree of it any time.

The first entree to arrive was the Pescado Entero, $26, an entire fried, striped seabass, laid majestically over a bed of pickled onions and olives in a smoky, paprika and capsicum-based sauce. The fish was extremely fresh and delicious and the sauce rather moresome. (It unfortunately didn’t photograph too well but I’m planning to make another attempt with a subsequent visit.)

Churrasco a Lo Pobre, or grilled black angus steak, took us to meat heaven. Done medium rare, as we’d asked, it was grilled to perfection, albeit a tad overzealously seasoned, and served with tacu tacu maduros (sweet plantain) and a fried egg. The combination of sweet versus sour against exquisitely cooked meat was intoxicating.

The superb service at Costanera was pretty much the best we’ve experience so far in Montclair. Our server, Tatiana, was not only polite, friendly and great with kids, she knew the menu inside and out and took our gentle comments about the slightly oversalted steak with grace, apologizing profusely, offering to redo it and thanking us for the feedback. We later found that the only dessert we’d ordered (we really were stuffed) came au gratis as a reparative gesture by the restaurant.

That dessert, a creme caramel-type flan, was creamy and smooth and did all it was supposed to do, a sweet end to a perfect meal.

Following is an interview with the owner of Costanera, Juan Placencio, which took place several days after the restaurant was reviewed in order to make for an objective experience that day:

Are you the sole owner? Do you own any other restaurants in NJ or in the US?
Yes, I own the restaurant with my family. Father Pablo William, mother Ana Maria and brother Jonathan Joel. We also own a more casual restaurant in Kearny, NJ called Oh! Calamares, at 102 Kearny Ave, Kearny.

What made you pick Montclair for Costanera? Tell us a little about yourself.
I was introduced to Montclair by a long time family friend Ursula Garcia, owner-operator of Greek Delights. I do live near by in Lyndhurst but grew up in Hudson County, mainly North Bergen. I am 28 years old. Don’t have a wife or children, but my girlfriend, Tatiana and my best friend, Jeffrey, help me run the restaurant’s front of the house.

How is the restaurant doing? When did it open?
The restaurant, thankfully is thriving. Our goal is to bring a NY style of dining to Montclair. We want to epitomize the slogan found on the Bloomfield Ave banners “Montclair Center, Where the Suburb Meets the City.” We officially opened on May 6th and 7th for a soft opening. The official grand opening was May 13th, 2010.

What’s the story behind the interior decor of the restaurant? The wood slices, etc.
The restaurant name Costanera translates to seaside or waterfront. The inspiration derives from oceanside piers where the fisherman would dock their boats with the day’s fresh catch. I did not want to go the route of fishing nets and plastic sea life nor did I want to go with the yacht or boat theme, either.

The sliced logs represent the piers themselves and the opposite side of the room represents the sand with the textured effect. The flora and fauna wood sculptures are replicas of the Lineas de Nazca or the Nazca lines found in Ica, Peru. They are giant geoglyphs or crop-circles of sorts drawn in the desert. These designs are only fully appreciated by air.

Nazca is located in the province of Ica a southern coastal region. I find that Peru is always associated with Machu Picchu and the Andean region, so Nazca represents another rich, interesting cultural aspect of the country.

Did you grow up in Peru?
I was born in Lima, Peru in 1982. But immigrated with my parents to the states in 1984. My family is mostly in Lima, but my family is from Trujillo, a northern coastal town.

(The above review was conducted without the knowledge of the restaurant and no special notice was paid of the writer during the meal, over and above what seemed to be excellent treatment of all the patrons in general)