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Photograph by Jenn Ireland
chop to it: The lamb chops with garlic mashed potatoes and spinach are a favorite with Bittersweet regulars.

Beautiful Bittersweet

Big-city dining with an intimate attitude keeps Bittersweet Bistro on target.

By Christina Waters

The parking lot was full in midweek. Hmm, obviously Bittersweet Bistro is doing something right. Not that it ever wasn't. Once through the front doors, we were greeted by the happy sounds of a lounge packed with patrons. The rotating nightly "Recession Buster" specials are a big hit here, but Maureen and I were at Bittersweet for a full-on dinner experience. Seated near the cozy fireplace--somehow owners Tom and Elizabeth Vinolus have managed to carve up the huge footprint of the former Deer Park Tavern into intimate alcoves--we ordered a Manhattan, $8 (her), and a glass of Conn Creek cabernet sauvignon, $12 (me), and checked out the lengthy menu.

The menu here cuts a wide and appealing swath through New American cuisine, ranging from porcini-encrusted mahi-mahi to wood-fired pizzas and ribs. Our extremely helpful server was happy to give us plenty of time, but ultimately we made some selections. My oak-roasted artichoke--very large, gooey with balsamic vinaigrette and pricey ($10)--arrived along with a dipping sauce of lemon aioli ($10). Maureen's cup of butternut squash soup was soothing and earthy, topped with a decorative float of cream on top mimicking the floral design of an expert caffe latté ($7). Bread was brought to our table early during our dinner, and a plate was filled with olive and balsamic for dipping. Soft but unchallenging, the bread was serviceable throughout our meal. One of several servers--all very well-trained, swift and friendly--was happy to wrap half of the huge artichoke for me to take home. Being enfolded by richly hued wall treatments and thick carpeting made it a pleasure to linger between courses.

Platters arrived with our entrees, gorgeous to look at and steaming hot from the kitchen. An eyeful, as well as a plateful, my special filet mignon ($25/small) proved to be a tasty updated classic. As utterly satisfying as only steak and potatoes can be, this presentation offered the added intensity of a rich Gorgonzola whisky glaze and a colorful sauté of sliced carrots, beans and squash. The mashed garlic potatoes were plush. Maureen agreed about the potatoes, which also made a guest appearance on her well-endowed platter of lamb chops ($24). Bathed in a cabernet demi-glace (perhaps a hint of cognac?), the plump, succulent chops, were, like my rare filet, perfectly cooked to order. Being a carnivore does have its moments. And the very big, round, spice-and-leather cab didn't hurt.

So delicious was the steak that I almost finished it before reminding myself about Tom Vinolus and his opulent desserts. The chef and owner of Bittersweet, as locals will recall, has long been renowned for his creative pastries. Especially the ones involving chocolate.

So I reluctantly applied the brakes to my filet mignon, and after our dinner plates were cleared, discussed our options with Maureen, who, it must be told, consumed every single trace of her lamb, potatoes and garlicky spinach.

I am on the record as a big fan of the house lemon napoleon, one of those creamy yet crisp, sweet yet resoundingly tart tours de force. But I sensed that my dining companion was a chocolate person. And I was right. So after consultation with our server, we settled on a shared order of the Chocolate Mousse Cake ($11), which turned out to be a brilliant decision--especially when joined by a generous pour of Osocalis brandy ($12) which we also shared.

With just a tiny bit of flourish, our server produced a wide bowl covered playfully with squiggles of rich chocolate ganache icing. In the center sat an obviously fresh, very moist wedge of chocolate mousse cake thickly frosted with more decadent chocolate ganache. Bittersweet ganache at that. A fat oval of barely sweetened whipped cream topped the cake, and on the side was a scoop of housemade chocolate whisky ice cream. All incredibly delicious. Strawberries lounged in a shallow pool of crème anglaise and crisp cookie tuiles added verticality and contrasting crunch. A serious treat for chocolate fans, and I'm not ashamed to say that aided by a snifter of dreamy, locally made Osocalis brandy, we ate everything. Everything.

Bittersweet Bistro

Address: 787 Rio del Mar Blvd., Aptos

Phone: 831.662.9799

Hours: Open nightly from 5:30pm; happy hour 3-6pm

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