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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Standard Bearer: Chef Damani Thomas proudly displays his renowned mushroom collection.

The Marvelous Land of Oswald

Dining icon cooks up sweet sorcery from fresh seasonal harvests, expert service and true bistro atmosphere

By Christina Waters

Oswald on a winter evening is always a good idea. Especially if you love chanterelles, earthy root crops and bitter greens of the season. The trio of tulip bouquets at the entry creates a playful faux primavera. The seasonal menu currently offers several specials in addition to such ideas as wild mushroom crostini, gnocchi with porcini butter, lamb with white beans and hazelnut pesto, pork tenderloin with braised cabbage. Their offerings continue to set high standards, with intriguing use of chèvre, vinaigrette sauces and spicing that borders on magical realism.

A trio of high-quality breads is offered, rather than an onslaught of indifferent francese, We especially loved the chewy levain from Kelly's on recent visits. Ann and I savored glasses of velvety Storrs Zinfandel 2000 ($8.50) with our appetizers of duck confit ($10) and feisty spice-encrusted langoustinos ($9.50).

A tiny portion, the shellfish arrived salty and irresistible, surrounded by a pool of electrifying satsuma tangerine vinaigrette containing a dice of shallots and pears. The duck confit consisted of an enormous leg that sat unattractively on a pillow of frisée and toasted hazelnuts. Delicious, the game was too wan and beige for eye appeal. This kitchen uses salt, European style, as a mineral ingredient in recipe design, as we discovered on another evening--and not merely as a condiment intended to step up flavor.

Ann's evening special of salmon fillet arrived in a hearty embrace of baby artichoke "stew" topped with a zesty Meyer lemon relish ($19). Dessert that evening of almond custard torte ($8) arrived suggestively warm and topped with vanilla ice cream. It was a voluptuous, yet uncomplicated finish to a meal of forthright flavors. Along with excellent decaf, the tender almond cake hinted at 19th-century Vienna.

The next week, Jack and I returned to sample more of Oswald's winter creativity, joined by a glass of plummy Savannah-Chanel Pinot Noir '00 ($8.50) and another of Tim Adams Cabernet Sauvignon '00 from Australia filled with leather and cherries ($9).

Two knockout appetizers started us off. A brilliant salad of unrestrained frisée--a playful botanical--had been tuned to a higher power by a dusting of diced, roasted butternut squash, a strew of jewel-like pomegranate seeds and tiny morsels of chèvre ($7.75)--such three-dimensional poetry. The pale red of beef carpaccio was echoed by the deeper red of diced beets in a small appetizer highlighted by shaves of Parmigiano-Reggiano and local black truffle oil. Tiny flecks of truffle perfumed each bite of this subtle and wonderful dish ($10).

My entree that evening was an evening special of provençale fish soup created from a variety of shellfish stocks and fennel, deepened with tiny croutons and a float of plush saffron crème fraîche ($7.50). Jack was undone by his plate of Idaho trout--three fat fillets done to exact moistness--adorned with a side of perfect crispy onion rings and sitting on a bed of braised bitter greens and vinegar-marinated wild chanterelles ($18). Tiny beets and turnips offered earthy support--quite a dish!--a tiny cosmos on a single plate. This is the sort of harmonious culinary thinking that Oswald keeps delivering to its legion of satisfied regulars. Only a lackluster apple tartlet underwhelmed the otherwise fulfilling meal. Four slices of baked apple decorated a tiny (tough) puff pastry square, which was made momentarily wonderful by a scoop of house-made honey lavender ice cream ($6). It was a silky conceit of memorable ice cream that could have used more lavender. Unlike the appetizers, this dish needs reinvention. The paintings, the signature tulips, the sensitive service--Oswald's ambience is without flaw. Creative cuisine and realistically sized portions complete the winning equation.

Address: 1547 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz
Phone: 831.423.7427
Hours: Dinner 5:30-9:30pm, till 10pm Fri and Sat; closed Mon
Ambience: *** Vivacious to noisy depending upon the crowd, but intimate and welcoming in every way
Service: ***1/2 Outstanding and gracious--an unbeatable combination
Cuisine: *** Stunning seasonal creations packed with style and flavor
Overall: Oswald rarely disappoints, with its winning combination of sophistication, skillful service and sexy food.

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From the February 5-11, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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