An earlier version of a review of Manuel Martinez's LV Mar restaurant in Redwood City gave the wrong name for Chef Martinez's first Redwood City restaurant. It is La Viga.
When it comes to Mexican food, Redwood City has become synonymous with taquerias. But Chef Manuel Martinez is doing all he can to make Redwood City the place for good Mexican food, period, most recently opening the decidedly upscale LV Mar toward the end of last year.
Martinez already had success with the more casual La Viga just a few blocks down Broadway and had worked in a number of high-end restaurant kitchens, including Palacio in Los Gatos and Reposado in Palo Alto. So a place that showcases his knowledge of French culinary technique, applied to Latin flavors, seems a natural fit.
Although the name LV Mar implies seafood, and most of the small plates and starters are from the sea, the restaurant offers plenty of options from the land as well, including rack of lamb ($28 for two chops, $36 for three) served with a demi-glace sauce that's punched up with dried chile and braised beef short ribs in a chile de árbol jus ($24 dinner/$17 lunch).
LV Mar is in the midst of Redwood City's thriving downtown restaurant scene, occupying the space that formerly housed Amelia's. The atmosphere is modern-minimalist with white walls and tablecloths, aquamarine accents and chrome and glass light fixtures.
The only artwork is a bright triptych opposite the large bar, which seats at least a dozen and has a nook with low tables perfect for drinks and appetizers. Happy hour runs daily, including Saturday, from the end of lunch service to 6 p.m.
The modestly priced wine list features wines almost exclusively from Spain and South America. Although LV Mar doesn't have a full liquor license yet, it offers some cocktails ($8-$9) made with spirit substitutes -- agave, rumlike and vodkalike "wines" that are fermented rather than distilled, with lower alcohol levels. Most drinks are on the fruity side, but the Rosa Mexicano ($9) I tried, made with muddled prickly pear, had a nice balance of tart and sweet.
The cocktails make a fine complement to many of the appetizers. The Ceviche de Camarón ($14) had nice, fat pieces of shrimp and a pleasant heat tempered by the addition of sweet potato and served with addictive coconut chips. A fairly traditional and scrumptious queso fundido ($10) was topped with wild mushrooms and served with fresh, handmade blue corn tortillas. (The type of corn may change with the season.)
LV Mar's prix fixe lunch is a great deal. It includes soup or salad and either a torta (sandwich) for $15, or a main plate for $21. Many of the main lunch dishes are also on the dinner menu, so it's a nice way to try some entrees for a fraction of what they cost in the evening.
We had a delicious sweet potato soup ($5/$7) tinged with fennel and honey. Both the mixed house salad ($7) and the one with butter lettuce and corn ($8) were beautifully presented and exceptionally fresh. The latter packs some heat from a dusting of ancho chile powder. The tangy lime dressing was applied too liberally, though. On another visit, the greens in the ahi tuna salad ($15) were limp, as though they'd been dressed for too long.
The execution and cooking of main courses was spot on; meats were tender, fish moist and all were well-seasoned. But there were some flaws in bringing everything together, which prevented many dishes from reaching their full potential. The scallops ($24), for instance, were paired with a delicious corn puree and earthy mushrooms -- a winning combination. But the addition of a mound of herbed rice detracted from the corn, and a heavy brown bordelaise sauce dulled the dish; a lemon beurre blanc would have brightened it.
The adage that you eat first with your eyes rang true with the pepita crusted sea bass ($24/$18). Although it sounded good, when I saw it at another table it was visually unappealing -- drab greens and grays. Still, we ordered it on another visit, and found the fish was very good and the gray corn, truffle and potato puree was terrific -- the backbone of the dish.
At lunch, the veal cutlet torta ($12) could have been improved by adding a crisp, slightly acidic topping, rather than mashed black beans and avocado, with more of the same texture. It left me wishing I'd ordered the seafood torta instead, which two diners raved about shortly after I'd placed my order.
On my visits, the menu was changing from winter to spring produce. We sampled things from two different dessert menus. A pear and almond tart ($7.50) with a rich, buttery pastry came with a delicious horchata ice cream. But the pears lacked flavor, possibly because it was not the peak of their season.
On a later visit, the desserts had a light, springtime feel. We settled on thyme custard ($7.50). Though set with gelatin and a tad stiff, the hint of thyme was accentuated by a brilliant lime crema. It was our favorite portion of the meal.
On both visits the service was friendly and attentive. Glasses of water and iced tea were always kept filled, and dishes arrived quickly, even at lunch.
Though not everything was perfect, LV Mar has many bright spots. With minor adjustments, it can be an excellent example of Mexican fine dining.
E-mail Jennifer Graue at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Redwood City, 650-241-3111, www.lvmar.com
The Dish: On the heels of his success with the more casual La Viga, Chef Manuel Martinez brings contemporary Latin cuisine to Redwood City's restaurant row.
Prices: Appetizers $3.50-$16; main courses $18-$36 (dinner), $10-$18 (lunch); prix fixe lunch $15 & $21; desserts $7.50; cocktails and wines by the glass $6-$13, by the bottle $22-$70.
Details: Martinez takes a decidedly upscale approach, combining classic contemporary cuisine, Mexican flavors and seasonal ingredients. Though seafood takes pride of place on the menu, there's plenty more to enjoy.
Pluses: The prix fixe lunch specials are good values; the nice selection of happy hour dishes includes lovely ceviches.
Minuses: Some dishes lack harmony from overproduction or competing elements that dull their overall impact.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:30-9:30; Friday 11:30-10:30; Saturday brunch 10:30-2:30; lunch 11:30-2:30; dinner 5-10:30 p.m.; daily happy hour 2:30-6 p.m.
Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.