425 Ave. Alhambra, El Granada | 650.560.9039 |website
Half Moon Bay is a charming coastal town that is our go-to destination when craving ocean air and fresh seafood. It’s a straight shot headed west over Highway 92 and is less than an hour drive from our house, sometimes more like a half hour if the traffic gods allow it. I still rely upon the trusty Chowhound site for restaurant recommendations whenever I travel, and the descriptions of Café Gibraltar’s creative Mediterranean inspired menu popped out at me from the many seafood and pasta options. It was also featured as someone’s favorite restaurant on Check Please! Bay Area, so you can watch the show to preview the restaurant and read the glowing reviews.
The restaurant is actually in El Granada, which is just a stone’s throw up the road from Half Moon Bay, and does offer views of the water, although from across the road. Inside it is cozy with a feeling of romance from the sweeping canopies hanging overhead and the visual flourishes to beguile the eye like the jellyfish chandelier and the moorish frills on the window.
We were seated at a cozy table right by the open kitchen where we had front row seats to watch the action going on.
We began with warmed focaccia that was served with a gorgeous green dipping sauce made from olive oil, balsamic vinegar and aromatic garlic. The combination was addictive as all get out.
Chef-owner Jose Luis Ugalde is on the far right, in black. He has been cooking his entire life, beginning with classical French cooking, then mastered Mediterranean flavors and techniques while working at a variety of other kitchens, returning to the Bay Area and opening Cafe Gibralter with his wife and business partner Liam in 1998. The menu features Mediterranean cuisine with dishes from Italy, Turkey, Greece, Spain, Morocco, and France, using organic ingredients that are locally sourced. The three chefs were busy in the small open kitchen, it was fun to watch them preparing plates for the waiting tables.
We decided to have a light dinner and shared the Mezza Platter ($14). From the top left: a scoop of Ensaladilla de Piquillo, a soft creamy red pepper dip, Nazuktan (Turkish eggplant puree with mint & almonds), Tzatziky (garlicy yogurt dip), House marinated olives and pearl onions, Hummus, Tyrosalata (spicy feta dip), roasted garlic cloves, served with housemade bread. While there was plenty of flavor contrasts, there was a lack of texture on the plate with all of the soft creamy spreadables, we smeared blobs of this and that on the delicious focaccia. My favorite was the Tyrosalata, the spicy feta dip was full of rich pungent flavors which added glamor to everything it touched.
We shared the Gibraltar Salad ($9) made of baby greens tossed with cucumbers, shaved red onions and radishes, pecorino cheese, hearts of palm, balsamic vinaigrette and the crouton which was a deep-fried slice of focaccia.
We shared two appetizers. Coquilles et Pomme ($16) pan seared fresh Alaskan sea scallops, caramelized in an apple chardonnay glaze served atop a black beluga lentil mélange and finished with rhubarb chutney. It was a small dish but the lentils were hearty and the dish was quite filling. The scallops were succulent and sweet and went very well with the creamy lentils and the sweet acidity of the tomato.
The Chipirones Al Ajillo ($12) really tantalized our tastebuds with exotic and unusual flavors. Fresh Monterey calamari lightly floured and sautéed with garlic, lemon, chili, cinnamon and olive oil, atop a rich potato puree. The flavors in the sauce were vibrant and refreshing which really complemented the tender succulent calamari, and the potato at the bottom was an unexpected treasure.
It was an excellent meal, the dishes were full of flavors that were fun to eat, and now that I’ve sampled a bit of Chef Ugalde’s cuisine, I want to go back to check out the tasting menu!
A note about our stay. I had purchased a groupon for a room at the historic San Benito House on Main Street, which is lined with buildings dating back to the 19th century. It’s a funky building, full of charm and completely unhindered by modern conveniences (no TV, minimal plugs, no wireless). The room was clean, there’s a lively bar downstairs and there’s a basic spread for breakfast with coffee, tea, fruit juice, fruit, cereal, freshly baked muffins and hard boiled eggs included in the price, which was hard to beat at the $75/night groupon deal.
There was less than a foot clearance between the toilet and sink, which was super low. No electric plug in the bathroom either, but it has quite a lot of charm…
The beds are comfortable and you can’t beat the price for the location, which is walking distance to restaurants and cafe’s. Downstairs the San Benito Ale House itself has a fine selection of local craft beers and a surprisingly good menu of pub fare to be explored at a later time!