Photograph by Nikki Bowen
Maine Event: Chef Nicci Tripp's Maine lobster gnocchi is a Theo's standout.
The tiny, elegant Soquel eatery turns the ordinary into something special.
By Denise Vivar
I'm what you might call a sockaholic. Not a shopaholic; it's just about the socks. I used to save the special ones—the cashmere, the hand knits, the newer pairs—for "special" days. I had a similar pattern with cooking ingredients. I used to buy two bottles of olive oil—one really good bottle for significant dishes and another less precious bottle for everyday use. But I found myself usually reaching for the better olive oil, and one day it hit me like a day-old loaf of bread: every day is the special day. Every meal deserves the best ingredients. Each time I discover a restaurateur who feels the same way, I want to kiss the cook.One such place in our midst is a little house in Soquel where the people in charge grow their own organic vegetables, prepare divine dishes and welcome us to dinner. This is the house that Greta and Ethan Hamm built. They opened their doors in 1980 and called it Theo's. Upon retiring in 2002, they passed the torch to partners Roger Romano, Ed Blackmond and chef Nicci Tripp, whose contemporary and innovative style marries French technique with the finest local ingredients: organic local produce and sustainable meats and seafood. Recently my friend Nabil and I ventured out to visit the little house on Main Street. We chose a cozy table in the corner by the fireplace and gave ourselves over to the Theo's experience.
The menu changes regularly to reflect the freshest seasonal ingredients available, and on this night we read from the autumn harvest menu with its smattering of apples, pumpkin, cranberries and maple. Our glasses of Laird 2006 pinot grigio ($9) arrived along with the amuse bouche du jour: a tiny poached quail egg cradled in a delicate vin blanc sauce in the bowl of a spoon with flecks of pancetta atop. The spoon balanced simply on a small plate, one for each of us. This one perfect bite, prepared precisely to tease the mouth and the appetite, succeeded admirably.Our first course was the Maine lobster gnocchi ($16). Incredibly ethereal fingers of potato pasta very nearly floated in an eloquent bordelaise sauce amidst small chunks of lobster claw meat. We leisurely lingered over the plate, dipping nuggets of the crusty table bread into the residual pool of wine, marrow and shallot.
For our intermezzo we chose the pumpkin and cider "cappuccino" ($14), which was accompanied by a flatbread draped in a duvet of burrata cheese and chanterelle mushrooms. The burrata is a cheese of mozzarella and cream, which gives it a very soft and luxurious texture; it's served at room temperature and within 24 hours of its manufacture, so burrata on a menu is synonymous with "fresh." The pumpkin and cider cappuccino, essentially a clear soup served in a cappuccino cup, was warm and sweet and redolent with the smell of winter squash and apples. To cleanse the palate and ease the digestion, a small scoop of grapefruit and Campari sorbet arrived in small fluted glasses, and we arrived at the main course ready to enjoy every bite.
Nabil chose the paprika-dusted halibut ($29) served over lentils, celery root and grapefruit sections with a warm citrus vinaigrette. The halibut was delicious, and I loved the combination of the lentils and celery root. Happily, though, I loved my dish even more. I ordered the pheasant breast ($32), which was wrapped in pancetta and served with tiny cubes of squash with a hint of maple, spinach and a huckleberry gastrique. The pheasant was roasted to absolute perfection, firm and moist with a slight blush. The pancetta was crispy and mildly salty, which lent a wonderful taste and texture to the breast. Paired with the sweetness of the huckleberry reduction, it was heavenly.
For the finale we labored over our choice between the lemon tart, the vanilla bean soufflé and the cinnamon churros. Surprisingly, given my love of all things deep-fried and doughy, I have never had a churro, so Nabil relented and we went with Theo's version. It tasted almost as I expected—crispy, crunchy and sweet, with ample amounts of sugar and cinnamon clinging to the crusty dough. It was the cocoa diablo sauce, however, that brought this indulgence to a new level (and what dessert can't be elevated by a little dark chocolate sauce?). We ate nearly every churro on the plate, to our server's surprise.I recommend putting on your best socks and treating yourself to a meal at Theo's—just because today is a special day.
Address: 3101 N. Main St., Soquel
Hours: Open from 5:30pm Tue-Sat
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