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Big Bird Bonanza

[whitespace] Ostrich Grill
Robert Scheer

Ham and Egg: Ostrich Grill chef Colby Reade has a way with preparing unique meats, as well as more straightforward fare like these goat cheese quesadillas with black beans.

With ambiance, service and carnivore action playing the starring roles, Ostrich Grill proves an attractive port in any storm

By Christina Waters

ALMOST UNABLE TO BELIEVE my eyes, I stared in amazement at Ostrich Grill's $10.95 Wednesday Night Special. What was being offered here was a petite rack of lamb served with garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables, plus a house salad and bread pudding dessert. I pulled another long sip on my 1992 Ahlgren Cabernet Sauvignon ($6.25) and considered this stunning possibility.

When Katya arrived, I revealed what I'd discovered and watched her eyes roll this way and that in disbelief. It was true, I nodded. Unable to speak, she pointed at the listing for a Bear Creek Winery Merlot ($6), communicating wordlessly to the savvy waiter as he led us to our faux ostrich-hide-bound booth.

A ceramic candleholder, shaped like a cracked ostrich egg, gave a soft light to our continued foraging. The evening's appetizer special of oak-grilled ostrich finished with chipotle barbecue sauce and served with Napa cabbage coleslaw ($8.95) looked good. Katya choose a starter of farfalle pasta laced with chicken and portobello mushrooms in a wine and herb sauce ($7.25), and we began to consume an incredible bread--sesame seed and corn francese from Gayle's bakery--like there was no tomorrow. After a few bites--slathered with unsalted butter, to which Katya perversely added salt--we didn't care about tomorrow. The bread was that good.

And while we loved our opening wines--the Ahlgren was rich and rounded, Katya's merlot was serviceable--it was a half-bottle of lovely, Burgundy-style Morgan Pinot Noir 1996 ($15) that moved us into the next phase of our Ostrich Grill evening. Ablaze with soft jazz, cozy oversized booths and wines properly showcased in huge goblets, the Ostrich knows how to pamper its patrons.

Though the cozy cosmopolitan grill--owned and operated by the Cafe Sparrow folks--offers a sensitive vegetarian menu long on salads, grilled veggies and pastas, the name of the game here is meat. Meat, ribs, barbecue and oak-grilled chops--serious carnivore fare. And to step foot into the sleek interior of the former Seafood Mama's is to find yourself squarely in the land of American cuisine. To twist the phrase: You are in Kansas--Kansas within a "down under" Oz.

However precious the ostrich theme might seem at first, one taste of my oak-grilled appetizer and I was reminded just how delicious this newly fashionable game meat really is. The tiny fan of rare meat--tasting like a pleasant cross between venison and duck and rubbed with a spicy chipotle chile paste--was joined by a terrific, tangy cilantro-laced slaw of purple cabbage ($8.95). It was a terrific appetizer, as was the thyme- and parsley-inflected pasta dish that suffered only from a surplus of oil and a paucity of pizzazz. The intrepid Katya isn't afraid to approach a salt shaker, however, and did so--often--throughout our meal.

I adored my house salad of small, very flavorful mixed lettuces--especially the tiny oak leaf and mizuna--heightened by a well-balanced vinaigrette. Katya polished off the bread and purred over her pinot.

The evening's special rack of lamb turned out to be true to its billing. A pomegranate marinade had given the rare chops a fruity depth, and the juices mingled deliciously with a roasted shallot demi-glacé. With such gorgeous meat, I found the garlic mashed potatoes to be a bit wimpy, though Katya liked them ... after she'd added salt. A side of overly sweet purple cabbage and tasteless green beans didn't bring much to the party.

Katya's entrée of lemon garlic prawns ($17.95) failed to deliver much interest. The prawns tasted as though they'd been steamed first and seasoned as an afterthought with the lemon and white wine that worked its way toward the accompanying rice.

Along with cups of strong coffee ($1.50), we split the bread pudding, which arrived along with an unidentifiable dollop of white stuff and zigzags of chocolate sauce. Very airy, it was sort of bread pudding lite. Next time we'll try the house crème brûlée.

Ostrich Grill
Address: 820 Bay Ave., Capitola
Phone: 477-9181
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm, dinner nightly from 5pm
Price: Moderate to expensive
Chef: Colby Reade
Ambiance: *** Sleek, cosmopolitan grill interior, complete with jazz, an intimate bar and contempo decor
Service: *** Warm, helpful and friendly
Cuisine: ** Some fine dishes, some near-misses--more aggressive tasting needs to occur in the kitchen
Overall: Ostrich Grill has style and more than a little substance, especially in the red meat department.

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the January 22-28, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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