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From a Land Down Under

Fresh and hot in SC: A new restaurant with an Australian twist from the brilliant minds behind Pearl Alley Bistro

By Jessica Neuman Beck

New restaurants open up all the time in Santa Cruz, but a new restaurant by the owners of Pearl Alley Bistro? That's something worth talking about.

"I had a few hours when I would otherwise be sleeping," laughs Marc Westburg, the force of nature otherwise known as Barossa's co-owner, "so I decided to open up this restaurant. It was a neat building. I liked it."

The building in question is a two-story Victorian on Cedar Street, near Caffe Pergolesi. Estimated to have been built in the mid-to-late 1800s, the house needed considerable retrofitting before it would be suitable for use as a restaurant. Westburg wanted to keep the feel of the building while adding modern touches like a concrete bar and stunning murals on both the floors and the ceilings.

"We went, 'How do we make it look like Australia?'" Westburg laughs. "The floor is a mural of the different parts of Australia--a wave, and then all kinds of sea turtles and crocodiles and lizards," he says. "I didn't put any kangaroos on the floor because I figured we'd put them on the menu."

The menu is a diverse assortment of burgers, steaks and seafood with an authentic Australian touch. "We will have a vegemite sandwich for all those who want them," says Westburg with a laugh. He's also including Australian Barrimundi, a fish similar to English sole, and kangaroo. "We're going to do foods from Barossa, from Barossa Valley--that's the first free settlement in Australia," Westburg says.

Settlers of the Barossa valley came primarily from Eastern Europe, and unlike many other Australian settlers, they came of their own free will. "They weren't persecuted by anyone, they weren't criminals, they weren't religious fanatics or anything like that--they were adventurous, and they didn't like the climate," says Westburg. "They went as far away in the world as they could go, and they pretty much ended up in Barossa Valley."

Australian settlers in the late 1700s to early 1800s developed a sort of fusion cuisine, strikingly similar to the fusion cuisine we use today. They took techniques and flavors from their homeland and incorporated them with foods native to the Barossa valley. "They just added in Australia all the fruits and vegetables and things that they had available to them, which were all completely new," Westburg explains. "But they liked the old flavors, so you get a bunch of neat combos of things that they probably wouldn't have seen before. Very quickly prepared, not marinated for a long time, kind of a nice, quick, low-fat, healthy, high protein diet."

The Australian connection is more than just coincidence. "I looked for a theme that would embody or incorporate the era of this building. I went and looked at Colonial, Victorian," says Westburg. "There was good old Australia, India, a couple of places like that. We didn't need another Indian restaurant, and we're certainly not going to cook any English food, so I decided on Australia."

Westburg has spent a lot of time in Australia, and the Barossa region is one of his favorites. "It's kind of like Napa Valley, you know, really hip little restaurants," says Westburg. "The food in Australia is absolutely fabulous everywhere you go."

Barossa promises to be a unique--and unpredictable--dining experience. "I went along at Pearl Alley Bistro for about 10 years and never made anything twice," Westburg says. "That's my goal." He does intend to purloin one popular dish from Pearl Alley--the corn and rock-shrimp fritters. "We're going to deep-fry it in the mustard seed oil and serve it with a very spicy mayonnaise," Westburg says. "Really good. A little bit different."

The bar, too, is a little bit different. Located on the second story, the bar itself is concrete and features such temptingly named drinks as the Tasmanian Devil and the Wombat. Diners and bar patrons can mingle in the back, where there will be leather couches, or on the second-story deck facing the street. "Although there are a number of outdoor dining options in downtown Santa Cruz," says Westburg, "none offer a second- story view."

Westburg and his staff are putting the finishing touches on the restaurant (at 517 Cedar St., 831.425.8070) and hope to have Barossa's doors open to diners by the middle of March. His public eagerly awaits.

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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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