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Capitola Keeper

Robert Scheer

Soupy Sales: Chef Erik Chapple lets the rich aroma of Balzac Bistro's minestrone take him away.

Balzac Bistro hosts villagers and visitors with fine wine, substantial cuisine, above-it-all view and warming hospitality

By Christina Waters

Several recent visits to Balzac Bistro, situated as everybody knows smack-dab in the middle of Capitola-by-the-Sea, reminded me why neighborhood hangouts are such an endearing concept. With its striped wallpaper and forest-green wainscoting, the two-story wine bar tucked inside a restaurant has always reminded me as much of an English pub as of a French country bistro. And these ideas--hospitality, handmade brews and vintages, and affordable, unpretentious food--are indeed as old as the hills.

Cool or foggy weather only seems to enhance the appeal of Balzac, where more than a dozen moderately priced wines are available by the glass and plenty more wait in bottles. (Balzac is annually honored by Wine Spectator and Metro Santa Cruz readers for its extensive wine selection.) On a recent stormy night, we sat at the front window looking down on the umbrellas of Capitola Avenue--my companion sipping his draft of amber Märzen from Gordon Biersch ($3.25), while I savored the youthful vigor of a 1994 Ravenswood Zinfandel ($4.50).

Like all serious bistros, Balzac serves up plenty of chewy French bread with garlic-infused olive oil and terrific salads. A Caesar salad tasted like our favorites--crispy, crunchy and huge with garlic and anchovy ($4.95). An appetizer of country-style duck pâté came topped with port-soaked currants and a side of melba toast--an exact fit with the hearty zin. We simply disregarded the excessive garnish of cucumbers, winter tomatoes, lemons and diced Bermuda.

The evening's special of osso bucco ($12.95), however, proved only partially warm and undercooked--sticky rather than tender. The richly sauced veal joints were nicely garnished with a yellow squash and red bell pepper combination, and roasted, undercooked red potatoes. My companion's thin, charbroiled New York steak had been overcooked, but came pleasantly sauced with mushrooms and red wine ($12.95).

We finished up with a wonderful slice of almond torte frosted with raspberry glaze, heightened by a nutty Madeira with the enchanting name "Miles Finest Rainwater" ($3) and a velvety 1977 Grahams port ($9).

A week later, I returned with my bistro aficionado Rosemary and we began with a bottle of Dry Creek Vineyards "Old Vine" Sonoma County 1993 Zinfandel ($21), a happy companion to another terrific salad--this one of hearts of romaine in a fine vinaigrette laced with nuggets of blue cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and lots of roasted walnuts ($5.50). A ceramic bowl of onion soup offered the classic excess of salty/sweet bouillon, toasted croutons and gooey melted Gruyère cheese ($3.95). Our main dishes were delicious standards of the cafe culture--a baked marriage of Gulf prawns, garlic, white wine and butter that proved to be a winning variation of scampi ($14.95) and an evening special of beef stroganoff ($14.95).

It has been a long time since I've seen beef stroganoff on a menu. Maybe too long, I thought, savoring the freshly seared rare beef and voluptuous crimini mushrooms caressing an encircling ring of flavorful rice pilaf. As I remembered my mother's version of this continental classic, it thrived on the alchemy of beef, butter and sour cream. In the Balzac Bistro variation, those deliciously forbidden substances were represented--with crème fraîche standing in for the sour cream--but in moderation.

I couldn't stop eating it. And when I offered Rosemary a bite, she couldn't stop eating it. Essentially, two forks worked that plate until it was absolutely nude. I could have returned the next night, ordered the stroganoff again and consumed every bit of it all by myself.

Balzac Bistro has another house secret weapon, in addition to a warm, hardworking staff and an inviting wine list: dessert--more specifically, the house version of Italian bread pudding ($3.95), or budino, that is designed to derail the staunchest curmudgeon. You know the image of bread pudding you have in your mind's eye? Warm, exceptionally moist, buttery rich, very soft to the fork and tongue, and absolutely swimming in a liquor-fortified sauce? Well, this is it. Balzac Bistro's budino should be required eating for anyone who's been in denial too long. It's everything you, in your deepest heart of hearts, want a bread pudding to be. A tart-sweet raspberry sauce has been laced into the hot whisky sauce and a generous dollop of barely sweetened whipped cream slides around on top of everything. Our budino didn't last long. Coffee goes well with it. Port goes great with it.

Balzac Bistro
Address: 112 Capitola Ave., Capitola
Phone: 476-5035
Hours: 4:30-11pm
Cuisine: Bistro
Ambiance: Wine bar on ground floor with cafe upstairs
Service: On target, friendly
Price: Entrees average $12
Overall: ** Good value, honest delivery, inconsistent kitchen

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

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From the March 28-April 3, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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