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David Heller

What Becomes a Legend Most: After more than half a century, diners still come to the Shadowbrook for special-occasion dining.

Landmark Status

Lovelier than ever, the Shadowbrook Restaurant rests on its landmark laurels in terms of ambiance and presentation

By Christina Waters

NOT TO LOVE the Shadowbrook is to be challenged as a living, breathing Californian. Graced with more than its fair share of verdant coastal atmosphere, this slice of local history has hosted countless memorable experiences. My parents invariably meet their friends here when visiting their childhood home, and like most locals I've enjoyed fine dining at the hillside attraction. The recent expansion of the vintage lounge is opulent, allowing the hillside greenery to be seen through a glass ceiling adjoining open-beamed woodwork. Its fresh approach to the multilevel space is in contrast with the dark warren of older dining rooms through which we descended last week for dinner.

The greenhouse room, whose windows allow a soothing view of Soquel Creek, feels as crowded with tables as does the upstairs dining area. Jammed in with barely room to move our chairs, we could have reached out and broken bread from the folks across the aisle with ease.

Service is always absolutely top-notch at Shadowbrook, and last week was no exception. After ordering a bottle of excellent, flinty, dry Chalk Hill Sauvignon Blanc 1997 ($37.50), we opened our basket of bread to discover doughy rolls of the tasteless, brown 'n' serve variety. Jan chuckled that we could easily have walked over to Gayle's for a loaf of excellent sourdough, and we wondered why a restaurant of this caliber chooses to skimp on its staff of life.

The beautiful salad of baby greens, poached pears, walnuts and Stilton cheese ($6), which we all split, was delicious. The sensuous texture of the pears contrasted well with an intriguing apple-cider vinaigrette. A cup of the "famous" house artichoke soup ($3.50), however, proved mediocre. Too much salt and too little flavor.

As our main courses arrived, we began to suspect that the management has spent too much money and attention on the gorgeous lounge update, and not enough on details like decor and tableware (as evidenced by the thick, institutional china). Granted, entree prices are quite reasonable for the high quality. But visual appeal is important, especially given that special-
occasion dining is Shadowbrook's bread and butter.

An evening special of fresh swordfish ($18.95) provided a bounty of beautiful, moist filet served on a bed of standard rice pilaf with a few perfectly cooked spears of asparagus. A sauté of tomatoes and fennel topped the excellent fish, and two crisp crostini smeared with a rich, earthy tapenade were vibrant. Why, then, just pile the food haphazardly on such ugly china?

The same proved true of another special--impeccable cookery, amateurish presentation. Dianne's meal involved a generous portion of very large, very succulent Eastern sea scallops ($18.95) that arrived expertly sauteed and dusted with almonds. A mound of mashed potatoes sat next to the scallops, and onion rings topped the shellfish. Save for a tasty sherry-mushroom sauce, it was a vision of white on dull white.

My rather chewy sirloin of lamb ($18.95), deliciously sauced with roasted garlic and wine, came with another mound of mashed potatoes on one side and a mound of sauteed zucchini on the other. There was no attempt to lend any visual excitement--the three food groups just sat there as if dished up in the family kitchen.

The Shadowbrook's kitchen has plenty of talent. But one suspects that the sheer volume of dinners served here prevents the attention to presentation that the fine flavors deserve.

Desserts proved lackluster. A crème brûlée ($5.75) was uncreamy and the burnt-sugar topping so thick as to prove hazardous to our gums. A Napoleon of strawberries and lemon curd ($5.50) involved tough pastry rounds, airy whipped cream and few traces of lemon curd. It was, let's just say, disappointing. Di liked her nontraditional tiramisu ($6.50), however. Layered high like a torte, with a prettily scrolled puree of chocolate and espresso around the edges, it was gooey and sweet.

The fine dining possibilities here continue to beckon, so close and yet not quite embraced by management's priorities. With some reevaluation, these can be easily overcome. A landmark deserves nothing less.

Shadowbrook Restaurant
Address: 1750 Wharf Road, Capitola
Phone: 831.475.1511
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 5:30-9:30pm; Fri. 5-10pm; Sat. 4-10:30pm; Sun. 4-9pm.
Ambiance: *** Terrific landscaping, lovely view and an astonishing new bar area put the lower dining rooms to shame.
Service: ***1/2 Among the very best service staffs in the state.
Cuisine: **1/2 Compromised by the setting and careless presentation, the flavors and kitchen expertise deserve much more.
Overall: It's the Shadowbrook, and it remains a landmark. But polish is needed in serving ware and presentation of culinary ideas.

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From the April 26-May 3, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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