Photograph by Jenn Ireland
Team spirit : Chef Damani Thomas (left) and manager Keet Beck-Brattin make magic happen at Oswald. Shown: red trout with roasted sunchokes.
At long last, an old favorite materializes in a new location, expertise intact.
By Christina Waters
Gone are the high brick walls, the minibistro intimacy and those wild scarlet paintings. But after a long hiatus, Oswald is back, along with chef Damani Thomas, manager Keet Beck-Brattin and a short, sweet menu of brasserie satisfaction. Joining the list of appetizers, entrees and desserts (half dozen of each) is an eclectic selection of wines, short on California but long on France, Italy and German Rieslings. We spent but a moment wishing for more than five wines by the glass, because the A-Z Pinot Noir 2006 from Oregon ($12), a friendly Falanghina Feudi di San Gregorio 2007 ($8) and a bottle of the Cannonau Di Sardegna Riserva 2005 ($29) made our two recent visits sparkle.
Bravura floral displays reminded us of the old Oswald, but the new kitchen operates in "full disclosure" mode, offering lots of visual opera. Armed with sophisticated spirits, the chic full bar in the front room expands Oswald's libation appeal. But mostly we were there to dine--after such a long wait, who could blame us?
An elegantly structured prawn and orzo salad was a revelation on both of our visits ($12). Glistening in a pool of brilliant tangerine carrot broth, the oval pasta joined tiny cubes of apple and potato, punctuated by microdice of garlic chive. Because the cubes appeared identical, each forkful offered a flavor surprise--now sweet/tart apple, now earthy/savory potato. A trio of perfect sautéed prawns crowned this showpiece dish. The Oswald frisée salad ($9) delighted both visually and texturally. Tiny squares of butternut squash, interspersed with crimson pomegranate and creamy drops of chèvre--everything worked to infuse the boisterous greens with almost superbotanical energy. This a destination starter. As always.
Another appetizer of seared ahi accompanied by crisp chopped daikon and endive in sesame vinaigrette offered a blaze of textures, the crimson ahi fanning out like a rose against the chartreuse endive flecked with microcarrots ($13). On our second visit, the evening's soup--cannellini beans and green beans simmered into transcendence and topped with an unctuous parsley pesto--knocked us out with its wintery simplicity and earthy depth. We enjoyed the house bread and butter, which was generously replenished several times.
Looking forward to having the starkness of cinderblock softened, or at least camouflaged in the future, we enjoyed the swirling pace of the kitchen until our entrees appeared. A stylish and unexpected creation of mushroom "bread pudding" soufflé, studded with coarsely chopped Meyer lemon peel and bitter greens, was a hit with each diner at our table ($20). (Yes, we share tastes of our favorite dishes.) It was one of those miraculous concepts that reinvent a culinary standard while completely outstripping expectations. Soft yet substantial, earthy and moist--enough mouthfeel and chutzpah to convert a carnivore. An entree of classic house-cured roast pork arrived with sweet braised prunes, al dente green beans and a square of meltingly tender potato gratin ($22). Simple, not tricky, satisfying. Slices of red trout arrived sautéed crispy and stacked on a bed of roasted sunchokes, arrived with drizzles of aioli, and herbed oil ($22). Crunchy trout and sweet/rich root veggies--winter on a plate.
My favorite entree remains the seared diver scallops--enormous enough that two sufficed for a complete meal ($25). A sensuous braise of potatoes and fennel formed the textural, and aromatic, backdrop for the tumescent shellfish, while a garnish of tapenade and Meyer lemon gremolata crowned the crisp, golden tops.
Desserts were all excellent, including a textbook crème brulée, a sexy molten chocolate soufflé--not too sweet, just à pointe--and an almond custard torte ($10 each), especially when finished by an after-dinner Fernet Branca ($8). The food was always the draw at Oswald, and it is still.
Only the ambience poses challenges. Given its rather brusque location at the edge of two main thoroughfares and a parking garage, Oswald might work to soften its interior angles, lower the noise level and provide some islands of warmth and color in a rather dim interior. Even with a full bar, Oswald's wine list needs amendment--more by-the-glass and more local wineries--to successfully support the kitchen's culinary poise.
Address: 121 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz
Hours: Open for lunch 11:30am-2pm Tue-Fri; dinner from 5:30pm Tue-Sun
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