Photograph by Nikki Bowen
The A Team: Chef Sean Baker, left, and owner Paul Cocking of Gabriella Café take a break.
A Cut Above
Local ingredients impeccably prepared set Gabriella Café apart
By Denise Vivar
My friend Holly is a persnickety sort, even more so than me. You know the type; perhaps you even have one or two in your life. When dining out they must sample the wine before committing to a full glass, or perhaps there's no sampling but glasses often go returned for replacements. Dinners too get sent back as if in a volley with the chef if the plate is not up to their discerning standards. But we love them, right? After all, they have the good taste to choose us as friends.
It was my good fortune recently to share an evening—a birthday, no less—with Holly, so I took my fussy friend to Gabriella Café, where I hoped she might feel well lauded and well fed. The cozy dining room there wraps you in an embrace with your fellow diners—murmurs of romance, celebration and conspiracy waft through the table lights and carafes of water and weave a snug comforter among the patrons. We're off to a good start when all is warm and fuzzy, I reasoned.
Paul Cocking, owner of the cafe, is on my list of restaurateurs who choose to buy local and organic. Gabriella has a partnership with Lindencroft Farm, which is dedicated to growing the restaurant's specialty produce—all the cool kids are doing this now—and it features TLC Ranch meats and local seafood as well. The menu changes regularly to highlight the best of the season's offerings. Oh, would that all restaurants did this.
On this night Holly joined me in a glass of the ever-pleasing Storrs Chardonnay ($9.50) as we considered the appetizers. The pan amore ($10) is a solid starter, with a slightly spicy eggplant caponata that will make you fall in love with eggplant if you're not already there. The halibut confit ($9) is also lovely, with the local halibut in a subtle Dijon-hazelnut dressing and cannellini beans, very thinly shaved sweet red onion, cherry tomato and opal basil.
These made a great lunch on a previous visit, so I was on a quest to try some other newcomers to the menu. Additionally, I had just enjoyed some of Justin Severino's charcuterie the previous evening, otherwise I would have been tempted by his pâté on the appetizer list.
I'm not much of a calamari fan, but we couldn't resist the grilled calamari and watermelon salad ($11). Sweet red and yellow chunks of watermelon flecked with mint leaves covered the plate while slices of calamari swam in a squid ink vinaigrette, all surrounded by orbs of mint oil on the periphery. Watermelon and mint are a deliciously matched couple, and the squid ink just begs you to dip your fingers into it (begged us, anyway, and we complied).
We also tried the baby beet salad ($10) with the gorgonzola and champagne-walnut dressing on wild arugula with bits of walnut. This came at the birthday girl's request, and we were both captivated by the perfect dressing over the tart arugula and sweet tender beets. We cleared this plate just as our entrees were served.
Holly had the white corn and morel risotto ($21) with baby leeks and black truffle oil, and I chose the seared halibut en brodo ($27) with chive blossoms in an heirloom tomato-habañero broth.
I was pleased that Holly liked her risotto, with its impeccably fresh sweet corn and aromatic baby leeks in a generous platter of arborio rice. This is where I step in as the captious chum—and why I rarely order risotto out. The grains of risotto need coaxing as they are simmering on the stovetop to pull the starch from the grain and give risotto its classically creamy texture. This requires near-constant stirring with the patient addition of liquid in small amounts, a consuming task in a busy kitchen requiring more than two hands. Too much liquid too fast and not so much stirring can result in a loose grain and slightly soupy texture. And that was the case here; while I found the risotto really dynamic in flavor, the texture missed a beat.
I was enamored with the halibut en brodo. The fish was perfectly seared, moist and flaky, and paired nicely with the vibrant habañero broth (kindly made mild for me by the chef). The tomatoes and chive blossoms were a sweet salutation to the summer bounty.
We split a glass of Graham's 10-year tawny port ($6), we made a toast to discerning women everywhere, then made a joint wish for enduring friendship over a single candle in the blackberry zabaglione ($9), both fitting celebrants for the sage and insightful diner. And we sent nothing back but empty plates and our gratitude to Cocking and chef Sean Baker.
Address: 910 Cedar St., Santa Cruz
Hours: Lunch 11:30am–2:30pm Mon–Fri; weekend brunch 10am–3pm; dinner 5:30–9pm Sun–Thu, 10pm Fri–Sat
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