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Tony's Con Brio

Robert Scheer

Artist's Touch: Tony's Cafe des Arts owner and chef Tony Bombin III hefts his treat-filled paella.

Vibrant, honest flavors provide the real artistic signature of a seasoned chef who cooks with earthy strokes

By Christina Waters

Some restaurants you visit for the ambiance. Tony's you visit for the food. Not that the snug little Tony's Café Des Arts restaurant tucked off the main drag of Capitola Village isn't visually interesting. Butcher paper and crayons on the tables make a bistro statement, while the pressed tin ceiling and wild assortment of abstract paintings blend vertiginously with a line of Tony's sweatshirts for sale above the central doorway.

Two TVs behind the bar adjoining the dining room compete with the prevailing easy-listening rock. Menus are creatively presented within the covers of classical music album jackets and flawless attention is paid by a server sporting a black bow tie. Somehow bizarre and welcoming all at once, Tony's is a warm establishment, filled with friendly vibes and some expertly made food.

From a short-but-sweet list that offered some local wines, I decided to try a zinfandel from the Sierra foothills, famed for old-vine zins. My glass of Sierra Vista Zinfandel El Dorado 1993 ($4.50) was a complex wonder of fruity depth, charming even my companion, who nonetheless stuck to his pint of Red Hook ESB draft ($3.50).

Bypassing usual suspects like escargot, stuffed mushrooms and shrimp cocktails, we started with a smoked duck appetizer ($6.95), green salad ($3.50) and asparagus bisque ($3.50).

Tasting like you'd imagine duck ham might taste, the smoked duck breast had been arranged in a pretty fan of slices, balanced by a row of alternating cucumber and tomato slabs and a handful of pungent Kalamata olives. Garnished with a sprig of lettuces, the richly flavored game was sauced with a thick orange vinaigrette laced with fresh mint. It was zesty, unusual and irresistible.

The house salad was a pretty affair of very fresh, very tasty mixed lettuces, distinguished further by a spectacular lemon-lime vinaigrette and more Kalamatas. Out-of-season tomatoes just aren't worth serving, but the greens and dressing more than satisfied.

The asparagus bisque proved to be mostly a delivery system for heavy cream, containing only the subtlest undertones of earth-flavored asparagus. It paled next to our other starters.

Well, it turns out that Tony Bombin III has been around the block, cooking-wise. He's powered the kitchens of the Courtyard, Santa Cruz Bar & Grille and, more recently, the Moss Landing Oyster Bar. So it should come as no surprise that our main dishes--a sumptuous Penne Antonyo ($10.95) and bubbling paella ($19.95)--showed off his way with big, bold seasonings.

My oversized plate of perfect al dente pasta glistened with olive oil and glowed with garlic. There was nothing precious or designer about the deft, old-world treatment of the penne, which had been tossed with rosemary, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh shiitake mushrooms, maybe a touch of butter, and then generously dusted with parsley. It was a magnificent plate of pasta, and cried out--successfully, I might add--for a second glass of that zinfandel. Across the table, my companion was busy wiping tears of contentment from his eyes.

Never mind that this was not the classic bone-dry paella. In a deep golden pool of seafood broth and rice floated fat prawns, moist mussels and baby clams in their shells. Lots of Dungeness crab legs gave forth their sweetness, making a nice flavor contrast with the savory broth. Plump nuggets of moist chicken breast joined slices of Andouille sausage.

With these accessible main dishes, Tony's broke the standard restaurant cliché that most entrees lack the panache of the appetizer course. The paella and pasta had a kind of flavor energy that has nothing to do with trendiness.

Happily stuffed, we asked for an order of the house tiramisu ($4) to take home, along with half of our entrees. The minute we walked in the house, we pounced on this soft succulent slab of decadence, oozy with Mascarpone creaminess, spiked with liqueur, dusted with cocoa and sautéed with fresh raspberry coulis. It was fine.

It's the chef who is the real artist at Tony's Café des Arts. Stop by and get close to some passionate cooking.

Tony's Café des Arts
Address: 316 Capitola Avenue, Capitola
Phone: 479-4393
Hours: 5:30-11:30pm daily.
Cuisine: Updated continental
Ambiance: Mixed metaphor
Service: Friendly expertise
Price: Moderate
Overall: *** Check out some of the chef's masterpieces

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

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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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