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Double Dip

Robert Scheer

Food for Thought: Chaminade's executive chef, Beverlie Hillis, offers diners a study in fine cuisine in The Library, open Friday and Saturday evenings all year round.

Lavishly casual buffets or intimate New American dining, Chaminade caters to finicky palates and floats above it all

By Christina Waters

Everybody's got a list of places to take their out-of-town guests. Mine includes Chaminade. The reasons are obvious. Location--high atop a forest-crowned hill overlooking the yacht harbor and shimmering bay. Terraces--long expanses of them, all offering that incomparable view. Attitude--casual elegance is Chaminade's stock in trade.

No one walks through those wide, shell-pink doors and feels simply ordinary. This is a world apart from whatever you've been up to all week long. Chaminade is drenched in enough attractive atmosphere to infuse every guest with some of that magic. Yeah, we just plain love it up here.

So for my sweetie's latest birthday, I treated him to a weekend up on the hill, where we hiked the scenic trails, swam in the pool, shot some baskets, lifted some weights and meditated in the steam baths at the fitness center. We also dined twice, once at the Friday Night Seafood Buffet ($24.95 per person), enjoyed on the main terrace, and once in The Library, overlooking the main terrace. Not only are these dining experiences completely different, but they both have real charm.

Chaminade's front lawn, which spills halfway down the hill before disappearing into a thicket of eucalyptus trees, is greener than any lawn has a right to be. It's so green that brides seek it out as their photographic background of choice, evidenced by the back-to-back wedding parties we watched traipsing happily all over the central compound during our weekend stay. Last Friday evening, that lawn practically glowed as we took our seat on the terrace, ordered a glass of Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon 1993 ($5) and a pint of Santa Cruz Brewing Company's Lighthouse Lager ($3) and basked for a moment in that top-of-the-world feeling.

Then we hit the Sunset Dining Room to check out the buffet spread.

Buffet's Bottom Line

A few observations about buffets in general. The buffet creates a fundamental conflict within its participant. All these riches--tiers of salads, cheeses and fresh vegetables, oceans of oysters and prawns, silver salvers of hot entrees--they're all yours. As often as you like. Instead of the abandon one might expect, however, we become paralyzed by sheer possibility. Restraint becomes the buffet-goer's modus operandi. How else will she ever survive to the dessert course?

So I paced myself as I picked out a few choice Buckley Bay oysters (sweet and sea-flavored), some primo seared sushi-quality ahi, a smattering of wildly addictive Japanese pickles, a helping of robust Caesar salad, and a handful of chilled prawns in their shells. Paired with the sensational house seed bread, this opening course disappeared quickly.

Next, I foraged among the silver steam trays. Here another law of the buffet surfaced. It's just not possible to keep hot foods in prime condition once they've had to sit for a while. Nobody's ever mastered acceptable steam-tray cookery, and Chaminade was no exception. But by avoiding the limp linguine and swollen corn on the cob, we procured some simply and freshly grilled salmon, done to order on the outdoor grill. We politely left our tri-tip steak, which needed much longer marinating, on our plates.

Finishing this array off with a few well-placed brownies and lemon bars--okay, and a goblet of creamy mango mousse--we strolled back to our room and instant sleep.

The Evening of Excellent Entrees

In weekends at Chaminade, The Library--a small, pretty dining room made prettier by bowers of vigorous green plants, soft white curtains and the magical glow of sunset--offers an a la carte menu, or your choice of a three-course ($24.95) or four-course ($29.95) prix fixe dinner. Partnered by the same excellent cabernet and lager we'd selected the night before, we ordered one four-course meal and a second a la carte entree to round out what would be plenty of food.

At the very outset, the kitchen had provided us with two excellent breads and olive oil laced with roast garlic, some pesto, goat cheese and black olives as a dip for the baked goods. My companion's seafood raviolis--plush with deftly seasoned Dungeness crab meat--were terrific, if undercooked. But the barely curried pumpkin broth in which they languished was watery and tasteless.

My endive salad was composed of a tangled thicket of curly endive, tasty but difficult to negotiate. Bathed in a sweet mustard dressing, the greens were joined by crisp pears, honey-coated walnuts and crunchy toasts that had been frosted with gorgonzola cheese.

Our entrees were excellent. My evening's special of breast of Muscovy duck ($18.95) was a generous portion of very succulent game served rare and glazed with an ingenious sauce of lavender-infused kumquats. It came with steamed tatsoi and baby carrots, but the duck was the star attraction.

My companion's medallions of beef could have been rarer, but they had been so richly finished with figs and shiitake mushrooms in a beef broth and Szechuan peppercorn glaze that neither of us cared. It was ravishing beef, serious beef, beef capable of staring down even the most politically correct vegetable, especially with the sinful wedge of scalloped potatoes nestling seductively on the side.

A dreamy dessert of perfect crème brûlée arrived, slices of fresh Bosc pears embedded in each toasty, creamy bite. Nice combination. Wonderful dinner. What a setting.

Address: One Chaminade Lane, Santa Cruz
Phone: 475-5600
Hours: The Library, 5-9pm Fri.-Sat.; buffet dining nightly from 5:30pm
Cuisine: California eclectic
Ambiance: Arguably the best in the county
Service: Uneven, ranging from expert to very forgetful
Price: Moderate, good quality for the money
Overall: *** Killer ambiance heightens the equation

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

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From the May 16-22, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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