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Second Comings

Hillary Schalit

Window of Opportunity : Oswald chef Charlie Deal takes what the seasons give him and turns the offerings into spectacular culinary surprises that are the talk of the town.

Re-examining Oswald as it wraps up its stunning first year

By Christina Waters

WE ALL KNOW WHAT it's like to have out-of-town guests. We always want to showcase the best our area has to offer. So, when my friend Vivian arrived from L.A. last week and wanted to try a new restaurant, I just grinned and made a reservation at Oswald, knowing full well that chef Charlie Deal could interpret the flavors of summer with the best of them.

With almost a year under its belt--and famed for a briskly changing menu fueled by our best organic growers and Deal's inventive instincts--Oswald was ripe for fresh sampling. I'll give away the ending by revealing that my dinner companion, who regularly checks in at Chinois on Main, was dazzled. So was I.

As I've learned over the past year of dining at Oswald, part of the fun here is seeing what the chef is up to on any given day. The minute a new crop is out of the ground, he starts tinkering with it. Last month, Deal ran asparagus, English peas and fava beans in a dizzying array of variations. Then he moved on.

Where some chefs might have offered risotto, Deal invented an arborio custard to serve with his pan-roasted salmon. Heirloom lettuce fueled one salad, while purslane, white bean bruschetta and shaved Locatelli cheese composed another. See what I mean? Pork loin wrapped in grape leaves with Fontina pudding. Just reading the menu gives the taste buds an Olympic workout. It's almost an act of conceptual foreplay.

From the brief but inventive wine listing, we chose a Storrs 1994 San Ysidro Merlot ($33) that's taken multiple golds on the recent competition circuit. Great choice, too. Elegant, big and spicy--this was a wine worth spending an entire meal with. Soon after we'd sampled two of the three breads (from Kelly's, right across the cobblestone courtyard), our salads arrived.

I'd succumbed to the bruschetta and purslane salad, which arrived all gorgeous and glistening with dressing, dustings of toasted paprika flecked here and there along the perimeter ($6.50). My companion had chosen a hearts of romaine salad, strewn with tiny shards of crisp pancetta, in a creamy, tangy herb dressing ($7.50). The master stroke involved slices of roast nectarines, the first of the new harvest. Their warm sweetness tempted maximum intrigue from the crisp, tart greens.

My crisp francese toasts--perched high atop a verdant nest of delicious, mild-flavored purslane greens--were "frosted" with a creamy purée of white beans and lemon. The purée was astonishingly good, far more comforting than mashed potatoes, yet just as earthy. Flecked with huge curls of the sharp cheese and the toasty counterpoint of paprika, this dish wrote a whole new chapter in the book of salads. We probably could have lingered at this point indefinitely, toasting the appetizers with that big, beautiful wine.

Then we saw our entrees.

My dinner partner was presented with a gorgeous slice of wild salmon filet cooked to that rare and creamy state, draped across an alabaster bayou of arborio rice pudding--exactly as it sounds--interwoven with fresh spinach ($14). Beautiful to look at--all that rich coral, white and deep green--the dish was breathtakingly successful. Vivian's fork worked swiftly to uncover the choicest little nuggets of salmon and match them with the tumescent pearls of rice.

I, meanwhile, was in my own private realm of the senses, thanks to a seafood special of grilled grouper ($16.50). Deftly cooked to retain maximum moisture, the succulent fish was served with one of those warm vegetable salads Deal loves to do as accompaniment. Tiny fingerling carrots and infant pink beets joined a few slender green beans, some fat green peas and a tangle of lettuces, all glistening in pan juices. A dice of green garlic adorned the top of the moist, sea bass-like fish. It was a superb dish. Even the merlot rose to the occasion and opened into a complexity that usually eludes this friendly, unassuming varietal.

The ultimate coup of this meal was a dessert so understated, so radically simple, that it summed up what Oswald is all about. Instead of chocolate or cream, we split a tall goblet filled with fresh Babcock peaches that had been poached in basil-laced zinfandel ($5). A hint of the Mediterranean herb lightly inflected each bite of tart fruit to disarming effect. Crisp lace cookies provided sweet contrast.

One thing was made abundantly clear last week. After a year, Oswald no longer matches its sterling debut standards. It surpasses them.


Address: 1547 E. Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz
Phone: 423-7427
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm, dinner Mon.-Sat. 5:30-10pm
Cuisine: New American
Chef: Charlie Deal
Ambiance: Intimate bistro
Service: Skilled
Price: Moderate
Overall: **** Great seasonal ingredients treated with care and panache by a gifted young chef

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

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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