Every once in a while a restaurant opens that feels completely fresh. Casa B, in Somerville’s Union Square, is one of these. In the downstairs dining room, couples share loveseats at a counter overlooking the open kitchen, watching the chefs at work. Live plants cover one wall. The lighting is flattering, the color scheme poppy red and bright white. Beautiful waitresses greet you - “Ho-o-la-a’’ - spinning the word out with utmost sass. The restaurant feels like a cross between Barcelona and a tropical island. Right now it might be one of the area’s best date nights, but that doesn’t mean two manly men speaking Spanish can’t feel perfectly comfortable here, tussling with tiny white porcelain spoons over the last bites of creme brulee.
Husband-and-wife team Alberto Cabre and Angelina Jockovich are architects who previously ran a catering company. This is their first restaurant, opened in December. (The “B’’ stands for Bobonis, the last name of Cabre’s maternal grandfather.) Part of its charm is that the pair plainly did much of the decorating themselves, and that it came out so well. The place is stylish and sparkling, modern and romantic.
Cabre, the chef, is from Puerto Rico; Jockovich is from Colombia. They’ve taken the concept of tapas and applied Latin and Caribbean flavors and ingredients. You won’t find gambas al ajillo or tortilla espanola. Instead, there are shrimp filled with yuca and wrapped in crisp bacon, served with cilantro-ginger dipping sauce, and “pizzas’’ of crisp plantains topped with tomatoes and cheese.
All of the dishes are designed for sharing, and the bilingual menu is heavy on finger food. Casa B also provides wee forks and knives.
Some of the dishes are served on wooden boards, such as a trio of ceviches - salmon, lobster (without very much lobster in it), and a fish that the Spanish side of the menu calls mojarra, the English side says is red snapper, and the waiter mumbles (we think) is hake. Unless you brought along your pocket fish DNA testing kit, just deem it enjoyable, with a nice balance of lime and the surprising addition of peas. There are shatteringly crisp root vegetable chips for scooping.
Other snacks, called pinchos, are served on toasts - for example, chicken gizzards, cooked with onions and plenty of butter, tender and savory.
The rest of the menu is composed of vegetarian, meat, and seafood tapas, small portions with big flavors. Albondigas are rich little meatballs with a surprising sauce: It’s fruity, made with guava. Slices of plantain are topped with sesame-crusted seared tuna and microgreens, with a creamy sauce tinged green with head-clearing wasabi. Colombian shrimp cocktail turns out to be a refreshing, spicy shrimp salad stuffed into hollowed-out potatoes. A special one night, carne mechada (described in English as Puerto Rican pot roast), is a deeply flavored stew of tender, crisp-edged pieces of beef. It’s served with gnocchi made from yuca, cloaked in brown butter and garnished with sage leaves, a very delicious fusion of bistro and Borinquen.
Casa B’s dishes are bright with citrus, cilantro, avocado, and red peppers. In a meal composed of small plates, there are usually a few duds. Here, a special of garlic soup one night tastes mostly of smoked paprika, while roast pork is tough (though the accompanying pigeon pea rice and tomato-avocado salad are good enough without it). But there’s a surprisingly low failure rate. We like almost everything we try. It’s easy to imagine Cabre and Jockovich back in their catering days, serving these festive dishes at one of those weddings everyone looks back on as having been great fun.
For dessert, tres leches cake is creamy and pudding-like, soaked in cream and condensed and evaporated milks, then topped with fluffy meringue. Casa B has a way with egg whites - another dessert features meringues layered with passion fruit curd. The confection sits on a plate washed in tart raspberry sauce, drizzled with chocolate ganache. The raspberry is a bit overwhelming, but the dessert manages to be both classic and novel.
At a restaurant where every evening feels like a cocktail party, it would be a shame to not have good drinks. Bartender Taso Papatsoris’s pisco sours are light as the meringue atop the tres leches cake, and his perfectly sweet caipirinhas pack a punch wrapped in velvet. (If you’re looking for margaritas, check the martini list, where they are mysteriously hiding under pseudonyms such as the Daisy and the Oro.) The cocktails go beyond the regionally appropriate - who would have guessed you’d find a solid example of an Old Fashioned? The wine list ranges over Spain, with side trips to Chile and Argentina; there is a nice selection of cava and sherry.
The upstairs space, a glorified hallway, is slightly awkward, designed to hold the overrun when the downstairs is full. Service is exceptionally sweet but not always polished. On one visit, dishes sometimes don’t jibe with their menu descriptions. The next time, ordering them again, we confirm we initially received the wrong ones. Oh well. Whatever we ate was great anyway. And Casa B seems to have cleared up the confusion by giving servers checklists, like you’d see in a sushi restaurant.
Despite little quirks, Casa B is remarkably well put together. There’s only one explanation: Cabre and Jockovich know what they’re doing. They have style. They know good food. When people open restaurants, they often talk about following their dream. Convivial, charming, and well-rounded, Casa B feels like one that has been fully realized.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.