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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Convivial Cuisine: At Cafe Cruz, the decor is classic California Grill.

Cruz Control

At 5 robust years old, Cafe Cruz appears likely to keep the entire county in spit-roasted meats and organic salads for years to come

By Christina Waters

CAFE CRUZ is one of those eternally happy places whose diehard patrons rarely choose to whisper when they can shout. Aided by the low ceilings and central exhibition kitchen--attractively lined in gleaming copper--the low-slung restaurant sports a noise level even the NBA would admire. The lively bar, whose merriment invariably seeps into the nearby dining rooms, sets the tone. You never feel monastic or isolated at Cafe Cruz. A bank of chickens spinning and turning attractively announces the central rotisserie.

Classic California grill decor, complete with butcher-paper table covering and a tumbler full of crayons, proclaims the restaurant's devotion to locally produced items. From organic greens to local seafood and goat cheese, the Central Coast's finest graces the menu.

There appears to be an emphasis upon speedy delivery, and speedy turnover of clientele. Our waitress brought out our appetizers almost the moment our bottle of Ahlgren Zinfandel 1997 ($27) was poured. Not much time to either enjoy a first sip of wine or to anticipate the meal to come. However, we did have a moment to enjoy the fresh francese from Kelly's. And notice the clientele's predilection for Banana Republic and Eddie Bauer.

From the nightly specials listing, I had ordered a salad of organic baby spinach--unbelievably tender, sweet and delicious--with roasted beets, glazed walnuts and gorgonzola ($7.95). Served on a plate with a 16-inch diameter, the salad was titanic. "I should have mentioned that it was big enough to share," our waitress noted as an afterthought. Beets dotted the perimeter, deeply flavorful, almost nutty with roasted depth, and while they were good, the entire creation was stuccoed with listless gorgonzola cheese (yes, I said listless) and more walnuts than the Nut Tree. It was way too much of everything, and sent a message of kitchen desperation. Appetizers should be appetizing, not overpowering. I wanted to consume the salad--not be consumed by it.

Jack's crab cakes came with a mound of tender, bare lettuces ($8.95). Too much for a garnish, too little for a salad, it was some sort of afterthought-without-a-vinaigrette. The crab cakes, which did indeed taste just like Maryland crab cakes should, were limp and uncrisp. The fact that they arrived only moments after ordering caused some uneasiness.

Our waitress, noting our distress over the abrupt delivery of appetizers, waited a veritable eternity before bringing our entrees. But they did arrive, and steaming briskly.

My half spit-roasted chicken was richly bronzed, though topped with a mysterious white squiggle that Jack pronounced to be horseradish mayonnaise ($11.95). The menu made no mention of it and it really trivialized an otherwise honest presentation of roast chicken. A side of creamy polenta offered little flavor, but didn't detract. A tiny bowl of slaw made from Napa and purple cabbages was vibrant, but overly sweet in a creamy dressing. I wished I'd ordered the garlic mashed potatoes instead. But the chicken itself was moist and flavorful.

Jack's special of local halibut on linguine ($18.95) was abundant with fat slabs of moist fish. Alas, here too an overwrought presentation disrespected the succulent seafood. Handfuls of grated cheese--not mentioned on the menu--topped the whole dish. The linguine was overcooked and the promised fennel appeared briefly at the bottom of the huge mound of pasta. Perhaps grilled halibut with a side dish of linguine topped with fennel might have showcased all the elements to better effect.

For dessert we split an order of chocolate pot de crème ($5.50) and decaf espressos. The order of densely textured chocolate mousse tasted properly indulgent and arrived topped with whipped cream and one of those adorable tube cookies I remembered from childhood.

Cafe Cruz
Address: 2621 41st Ave., Soquel
Phone: 831.476.3801
Entrees: Moderately priced
Extras: Full bar
Ambiance: ** Low-light, high-sound interior crowned by a copper-lined exhibition kitchen.
Service: *1/2 Always friendly, but spotty, and timing can lurch depending on size of crowd.
Cuisine: ** Solid American dining here, highlighted by locally produced freshness and excellent pricing.
Overall: Cafe Cruz is succeeding with its current bravura attitude and looks like it will keep on keeping on for the long run.

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From the February 16-23, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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