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Photograph by Brian Harker
ON THE LAMB: Tender lamb chops crown a colorful plate at Avanti.

Westside Wonder

For more than two decades, Ristorante Avanti has treated Santa Cruz to fresh, vibrantly flavored seasonal cuisine

By Christina Waters

VARIOUS CHEFS have paved the way for Avanti's current helmsman Benjamin Sims, who continues the high standards that, once set, have never faltered. At the top of every Westsider's go-to list for reliable luxury at moderate prices, Avanti , with its fetching wine list and warm ambience, delivers again. And again.

Two recent meals fanned the flames of our longstanding affair with this rustic dining room. Avanti at Halloween was faience-bedecked and ablaze with costumed waitstaff and patrons. But there were no tricks in sight, only treats. A dinner of organic pork chop with crabapples and creamy polenta was a revelation of flavor intensity and seasonal savvy. But so was our "dessert" of pecorino sardo, garnished with an autumn-sweet date and freshly shelled walnuts. The cheese course! The adult dessert. What a sensational way to end a great meal. And a few weeks later, when we dined again at Avanti, we repeated that sensory ritual.

The small green-glazed bowl with its ceremonial olives arrived along with a better francese (new bakery?) that was fragrant and beautifully textured. To celebrate the opening of Dungeness crab season, the evening's special appetizer involved a baked avocado stuffed with fresh, sweet Dungeness crab blended with gossamer cream. Who knew that warm avocado could take on a deepened richness and nuttiness? And what better to go with the celestial crab? On the side were infant strands of wild arugula tossed in a Meyer lemon vinaigrette and a crimson orb of beets ($11).

Avocado and crab are both tough to match with wines, but the evening's list provided an Austrian Grüner Veltliner 2008 from Setzer ($7), a wine with enough salty minerals and apricot attitude to make friends with the strong veggies and ethereal shellfish. For our main dishes we turned to red wines—a friendly, rustic rioja, Marques de Lagarda 2004 ($8), and a plummy Tolosa Pinot Noir 2007 ($8).

Jack's pan-roasted rainbow trout arrived crispy skin side up, arranged in a diagonal tower atop a bowl of braised artichokes, shelling beans, a few tomatoes and a simple salsa of green herbs ($18). For me there was a lovely plate of Marin Sun Farms lamb chops ($23), sweet and tender, on a bed of deeply roasted root vegetables accompanied by sautéed cabbage and mashed fava beans laced with garlic and parmesan. The bright green beans winked at the pale pink lamb—a brilliant pairing, and so good that I longed for one more lamb chop. Jack's trout was pure, fresh-tasting and perfectly cooked. The moist, tight texture was fantastic, and while delicate, it nonetheless worked well with the rioja.

We closed with the Gorgonzola dolce ($6), a cheese so mellow in its boldness that it can afford to gloat. The rich, creamy cheese arrived with sliced apples, a single perfect date and walnuts. Seasonal harvests, local seafood, pastured lamb, aged cheese, interesting wines.

Avanti manages to make even consistency taste sexy.

Ristorante Avanti

1711 Mission St., Santa Cruz

Lunch 11:30am–2pm Mon–Fri; dinner nightly from 5pm


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