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Photograph by Pete Shea
Swoon With A View: Crab-crusted ono and a boatload of scenery at Johnny's Harborside Cafe

On The Waterfront

A warm welcome, spacious interior and atmospheric vistas make Johnny's a can't-lose harborside destination.

By Christina Waters

Only a visitor from Mars--or an American under the age of 30--would have been surprised to see three grown women laughing and crying over the phrase, "The plane, boss, the plane!" The other diners last week at Johnny's Harborside probably figured that we'd simply been overserved.

Actually, we were attempting to explain the phrase to our British dinner partner Emma, and that little guy in the white tuxedo and the gracefully aging Ricardo Montalban, about whom Casey confessed to having had "many impure thoughts." It turned out to be a classic case of "you had to be there." Fantasy Island just doesn't translate, no matter how polite Emma tried to be.

The advance word was good about Johnny's Monday night three-course special. If $20 could buy us an appetizer, entree, dessert and a glass of wine, we wanted in. Emma diplomatically agreed that in the interest of reviewing she would try one of the a la carte items from the dinner menu. So we were three specials and an a la carte. Nursing her glass of off-dry Firestone Riesling ($7), she listened in amazement as we tried to explain why Tattoo always wore a tux as he pointed up toward the heavens yelling about the plane.

A basket of memorable sourdough arrived swiftly and we all metaphorically jumped in. Crusty and delicious, it was so good that we didn't even mind having to peel foil wrappers off the squares of butter. Susan and I were still chuckling over "the plane" as we began on beautiful salads of baby spinach and Gorgonzola, while Casey made quick work of her lobster bisque laced with toasted onions.

Emma was enchanted by the view from this upstairs dining room. And for good reason. Rowing sculls glided through the forest of bobbing masts as the water turned indigo and magenta in the setting sun. Though Johnny's full bar faces inward, the dining room is lined with glass and almost every table affords views to linger over. The salads were terrific, every single leaf of crisp baby spinach shimmered with a blackberry vinaigrette. And almost hidden in the dome of spinach was a core of Gorgonzola. Lots of Gorgonzola. No one in her right mind would complain about "too much Gorgonzola." But it was a lot.

Meanwhile, our glasses of wine, which included a full-bodied Argentine Malbec from Trapiche and a crisp La Crèma Chardonnay, were sipping nicely. Our waiter--quite attentive at the beginning and curiously absent at the end of our meal--explained that the glass of wine with the $20 prix fixe dinner is "a short pour." OK, so it wasn't a massive all-the-way-up-to-the-top pour. There's always the option of ordering another glass, isn't there?

Entrees looked great in their deep dishes. Emma's alabaster slab of ono was framed by a lavish salad of mixed greens dotted with pancetta and cucumbers ($16). Susan's seared salmon fillet was elegantly partnered with coconut-tinged jasmine rice and stir-fried baby bok choy dusted with infant radish sprouts. This was the outstanding dish of the meal--the salmon was perfectly cooked (unlike Emma's rather dry ono), and the rice made culinary sense with the rich seafood.

Casey and I each chose the "bistro steak." As you might recall from our Sestri experience several weeks ago, Casey prefers her flesh well-done. I like it rare. So our entrees of grilled flank steak resembled a "before and after" display. My slices of brick pink beef were fanned across herb- and cheese-laced polenta, sided with sautéed yellow zucchini and red bell peppers. None too flavorful, the beef was substantial and the accompaniments robust.

Desserts were prettily decorated with rosettes of what might have been whipped cream. We all agreed that the tiny cheesecake topped with fresh strawberries was the winner. The bread pudding would have prospered with some moistening agent. Hard sauce, perhaps?

Smart presentation, tasty appetizers, plenty of fresh bread and one of the finest views in town. The Monday three-course, $20 prix fixe dinner at Johnny's just might be what Tattoo would describe as--"the deal, boss, the deal!"

Johnny's Harborside Cafe

Address: 493 Lake Ave., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.479.3430

Hours: 11:30am-9pm Mon-Thu, 11:30am-10pm Fri,
10am-10pm Sat, 10am-9pm Sun; brunch 10am-2pm Sat-Sun

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