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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Match made in heaven: The Nicoise salad at Aquarius presents the best of land and sea. Served with a Scott Family Estate chardonnay and a Samantha Star pinot noir.

Aquarian Cuisine

The Dream Inn's gorgeous new oceanfront restaurant is a feast for the eyes and palate

By Christina Waters

THE SUNNY RESORT that is the Dream Inn still perches like a golden sandcastle along West Cliff Drive. Only now, the spectacular view of wharf and waves is available through the picture windows of Aquarius. Chef Philippe Breneman, formerly of Ventana Inn and most recently of Paragon in San Jose, is at the helm of the playfully modernist dining room, creating dishes as lovely as the sleek orange and sand-toned interior. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner--and for stylish cocktails just about any time you want them--the hotel's revamped dining room offers casually elegant (think San Francisco) fare designed to tempt locals and satiate visitors.

We started with a mezze platter ($8) and a special appetizer of organic cherry tomatoes, spiked with yellow plums, boccancini and infant arugula ($9). The luscious mezze platter was ample enough for two to share, with tzatziki, white bean hummus and tapanade served with a little basket of warm pita bread ($8). The salad was gorgeous, if quite small. The same size inconsistency was noticeable in our entrees, but I digress.

Aquarius offers small flights of three wines--a half-dozen possibilities--which are quite affordable for generous 2-oz. pours. The concept is sound, especially since it's a perfect way for visitors to sample local wines. However, the house has purchased small glasses for these tiny flight samples. While the mini-stemware takes up less space on the tables, it also prevents the wine from opening to maximum glory. The flight of local reds--an Ahlgren Cabernet, a robust Bargetto Merlot and Bonny Doon's sensuous Sangiovese--all showed nicely. But the non-chardonnay white flight included a palate-dampening Oceana Riesling so sweet that it dinged a Bargetto Pinot Grigio and a serviceable Longboard Sauvignon Blanc. The restaurant is only a month old. Fine-tuning will occur.

From a roster including organic chicken breast, pasta, local Petrale sole and Meyer New York strip steak, we chose the Niçoise composed of seared sustainably harvested ahi, slender green beans, fingerling potatoes and a lovely hard-poached egg. Chopped kalamata tapenade added plenty of zip ($26). My special of Maine day boat scallops was a visual knockout. Three scallops, sautéed to a glistening bronze, were paired with three plump squares of exceptional yellow watermelon. Each cube of ripe melon was topped with a knot of prosciutto and a sprig of arugula. A mint-inflected vinaigrette surrounded each item. All beautiful.

The couple next to us feasted on slices of an elegant chocolate mocha cake with Guinness gelato. We, however, chose an unremarkable dessert of airy angel food cake topped with a tiny dab of vanilla gelato and ringed with overly sweetened sliced strawberries ($9).

All said, we enjoyed our visit to Aquarius. Simply being in this room is a pleasure, especially at sunset, where you sip your wine and watch the surf turn to pink and gold. Bathers wrapped in their bright towels, the Boardwalk and Big Dipper make a panoramic postcard horizon. Aquarius owns the scenic view domain. Glamorous lounge, comfortable dining room, fresh and elegant food--and the endless blue ocean at your very fingertips. Time for a visit, yes?


Address: 175 West Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.460.5012

Hours: Breakfast: 7am-11:30am Mon-Fri; 7am-3:30pm brunch Sat-Sun
Lunch:11:30am-3pm Mon-Fri; brunch Sat-Sun;
Dinner: 5:30-9:30pm Sun-Thu; 5:30-10:30pm Fri-Sat.
Lounge: 11:30am-close Mon-Fri; 10:30am-close Fri-Sat.

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