Santana Row Welcomes Oveja Negra
Out with Citrus; in with Oveja Negra.
The Hotel Valencia in San Jose’s Santana Row has transformed its former restaurant into a new concept with a new name. Chef Ocean Orssten still remains at the helm, but now he’s creating a menu of “unruly tapas.” Hence the name, Oveja Negra, which in Spanish means “black sheep” or refers to the odd man out. It’s his whimsical way of saying he’s not necessarily doing typical traditional tapas here, but more globally-inspired, off-beat small plates.
I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant recently to check out its new look, which sports brass tack-hammered, dark banquettes, white curved-back chairs, and Moorish accents.
The signature cocktail is the Mezcal Brillante ($14) that puts smoky mezcal in the spotlight with the tartness of grapefruit. A rim of freeze-dried yuzu with yuzu marmalade gives each sip an extra sweet-sour pucker.
A cast-iron pan of Padron peppers is brought to the table on the house. I was surprised to see these peppers at this time of year, as they normally grow locally summer through fall. They are known as the Russian roulette of peppers because one out of every five is hot. But you can’t tell which it will be until you bite into it. These Padrons lay under a blanket of gooey melted mozzarella and Gouda, sort of like mini chiles rellenos.
The Thai Kampachi Kitfo ($16) is a play on the Ethiopian steak tartar dish. Only here, it’s done ceviche-style with Kampachi cubes tossed with Serrano chili, berbere spices, lemon juice, and tangerine oil. You can scoop up the Kampachi with the two long, curving fried plaintain chips garnishing the dish. It’s a beautiful dish that has nice acid and balanced heat. But if you’re a fish purist, you might find the taste of the Kampachi rather lost in translation.
The Barbacoa ($20) aims to be the signature dish of the restaurant, and it’s a good one to lay claim to that. Lamb shoulder is rubbed with chiles and epazote, then wrapped in banana leaves before being slow-roasted overnight. The meat is sticky-tender like the best short ribs. It has a smoky, complex taste that reminded me of Mexican mole. It comes not only with a marrow bone, but corn tortillas made with marrow mixed into the masa. You don’t get marrow spoons, however, so you’ll have to use your knife carefully to extract the rich, meat butter-like marrow out of the bone. The griddled tortillas are tasty, though a bit greasy, maybe owing to the marrow in them.
Cauliflower Pakora ($12) are florets that are battered and fried, then tossed with a mustard seed vinaigrette, frisee and a Dijon-honeysuckle emulsion. They definitely have a good kick of heat.
Mashed Potato Croquettes & Tots ($15) was rather confounding, as any semblance of crispiness was missing from this dish. And that’s what you long for with anything named croquettes or tots — the wonderful interplay between crunch and custardy softness. Here, it was all softness, like big balls of mashed potatoes smothered with mushroom gravy that didn’t have a very pronounced loamy funghi flavor, either.
Pop Goes the Chicken ($15) is where fried chicken meets popcorn. Even as Citrus, the restaurant has always served a solid fried chicken. The fry on this one remains superlative, with a crisp, airy crunch almost like Japanese karaage. The popcorn comes into play because it’s ground up and used to coat the chicken. Popped kernels also garnish the plate for a fun touch, but the popcorn does turn soft from the heat of the chicken. There’s a pool of salsa verde on the bottom of the plate, which you may or may not need, as I think the chicken tasted just fine without it. A few dehydrated apple slices are thrown in, too, rather inexplicably.
Daal Shrimp & Grits ($14) is a more fully realized dish. Garlicky, tamarind barbecue shrimp crown a bed of coarse white corn grits that do take on the texture of dal. The spicy curry-inflected grits get a reinforcement of curry leaves and charred cashews.
Desserts are all $11. We demolished the Chocolate S’Mores Creme Brulee Cake with its lovely presentation with torched marshmallow not just on the top of the ganache-heavy cake, but around the inner rim of the bowl. You’re sure to finish every morsel.
“Unruly tapas” are a fine idea. But a little more restraint could make some of them shine much more.