Walking into Café Esencia on a bright and chilly Saturday morning in January is like walking into your most gracious friend's incredibly chic kitchen. And like a gracious friend, chef and owner Andrés Castello makes you feel welcome and well taken care of. Inspired by his Spanish background, extensive travels and love of Aussie cafes, Andrés has created a space that exudes the relaxed feeling of a European café while serving food that is beautiful, indulgent and good for you too.
Sunlight streams through the large, steel-framed glass windows and onto cozy clusters of tables. The smell of great coffee lingers in the air as beans are freshly ground. Locals pop in throughout the morning, bundled in sweaters and coats. They place their orders at the counter take a seat, and drop piles of newspapers on a table or dive deep into conversation - everyone slowly settles into their mornings. Nobody here is in a rush, nor is anybody rushing you out. A perfectly pulled cortado or maybe a beautifully scented rose latte arrives, followed a bit later by an egg sandwich or yogurt bowl, or one of their famous sourdough churro wheels. This is food executed with care. Everything is fresh and made to order, including the Spanish tortilla -- but only four days a week and only after 10 am, because, well, it takes a long time to make a perfect tortilla.
Café Esencia is one of those magnificent places that you wish was in your neighborhood, and if you are lucky enough to live in Ridgewood, it is! Scroll down for our interview with Andrés.
Q&A With Andrés Castello
Tell us about Café Esencia.
Café Esencia started with an idea to offer and share the traditional Spanish hangover "cure". Every good night out should end with an early morning of churros and chocolate. From there, the initial idea grew, as did the menu, including healthy seasonal bites to balance out the treats.
The sober inspiration for the café, and namesake, is a continuous reminder that our essence is conviviality. We seek to emulate the time period "La Convivencia" - when three great cultures (Muslims, Christian, and Jewish) thrived together in Southern Spain. We draw inspiration from the beauty and flavors that arose from their coexistence.
We are fortunate to have found a home in Ridgewood. I cannot say enough nice things about the neighborhood and the people here. The community is very friendly and diverse, and it's a pleasure to host residents.
What's your food philosophy?
My food philosophy is quite simple: I work with what is in season and play with balancing flavors and tastes. I find inspiration in the changing flavors of fruits and veggies as they come and go in and out of season. If it's in season, it's bound to taste good. I'm also very much inspired by Carlo Petrini and Slow Food's mission of Good, Clean, and Fair Food for all.
One of the most important aspects of a great space is setting the mood. How do you set the mood at Café Esencia?
Definitely with light! One of the non-negotiable conditions when finding the perfect space was to have a skylight and big windows. I'm not a professional designer, so I make things easy. I let natural elements like light and plants set the mood for me. I think that natural light brings joy into the space. Sunlight and moonlight comes in from different points throughout the day; it's fun and stimulating to the senses.
Finish this sentence - I hope every patron walks away from Café Esencia feeling...
...better than they walked in.
The mission at Café Esencia is to be a true restaurant; which, by definition, is a place where one comes to be restored.
Best party/restaurant/culinary experience you've ever been to, and what made it so special?
The greatest culinary inspiration has always been my family. Both sides of my family live and breathe food. We're a big family so daily meals were always a feast. That being said, I think my most recent culinary inspiration was a study abroad trip to Oceania. Sydney is an amazing foodie city; it's a melting pot of cultures, it's a port city with great fresh fish, and is close enough to wine country and farmland so the produce and meat is incredible. You really have it all.
What's your dream party?
I love a party where I have no idea what to expect, surprises are exciting. But if I have to visualize this dream party, there would be a mix of friends and strangers, it would be a late summer sunset with dinner and drinks, maybe there's a vineyard nearby, and we're close by the sea.
Do you entertain at home?
I used to quite a bit. I love hosting friends for dinners and the occasional brunch. I'm looking forward to having more time to entertain outside the café.
What's one chef secret that would be useful to people entertaining at home?
Organization is key. I always visualize and plan menus and events ahead of time, I write everything I have in mind down, and on paper. It starts off messy, but from the chaos, I begin making prep and shopping lists, and then it all starts to take shape.
You might think that too much planning stifles creativity, but I find it easier to have a plan, so that when inspiration strikes in the form of a recipe/ingredient it's easy to find the space for it.
Can you share a recipe from CE that would be great for people entertaining at home?
Yes, we'd love to share our current seasonal dish, the Butternut Squash Toast. It's easy to prep ahead of time and put together when you're ready to enjoy:
Butternut Squash Mix:
1 medium Organic Butternut Squash
1/2 tsp Cayenne flakes
2 medium Onions
1/2 tsp Nutmeg
1/2 tsp Cinnamon
2 tbsp Maple Syrup
2 tbsp EVOO
2 tbsp ACV
First, lightly sauté the onions over medium heat. Once lightly wilted, lower the heat and add the nutmeg, cinnamon, maple syrup, olive oil and apple cider vinegar and cook until the liquids have reduced and the mixture is syrupy.
Separately, peel and chop the squash. Season generously with salt and the chili flakes. Rub with olive oil and roast at 365 F for about 30 minutes, or until tender.
Once the squash is tender and the onions are cooked down, combine both and set aside.
Spread a layer of ricotta on the toasted sourdough bread.
Top with a layer of the squash mixture.
Finish with a light sprinkling of sea salt and garnish with freshly chopped mint.
Thank you Andrés! And be sure to check out Café Esencia:
68-38 Forest Avenue
Ridgewood, NYC 11385