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Orchestra of Flavors

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Robert Scheer

Theophilists : Theo's chef William Collier and owner Etan Hamm contemplate the virtues of a smoked wild-salmon carpaccio in the restaurant's lush garden.

With chef William Collier calling the tunes, Theo's sings

By Christina Waters

One of the prime directives, or at least delicious excuses, for eating out is to partake of an experience you just can't get at home. Be it flavor complexity, atmosphere or the chance to be momentarily swept away, what we seek is the un-ordinary. At Theo's--where you cannot even think about starting your meal without taking Etan Hamm's breathy, and breathtaking, tour of the restaurant's luxurious organic gardens--you definitely dwell beyond the mundane.

With the dining public growing increasingly savvy about the importance of freshness and organically grown flavor intensity, owner Hamm has done the smart thing and turned the land behind his restaurant into a true kitchen garden potager. And bussed by the summer solstice, the raised beds of waist-high herbs, towering vegetables and full-blown roses are at their most seductive. "Nice to know where your vegetables are coming from," my dinner partner Rosemary observed as we strolled back through the French doors into the restaurant.

Even better to find out what chef William Collier (from New York's Tavern on the Green) has planned for all this natural abundance. Working the front edges of current food thinking, Collier seems intrigued by a renaissance of nouvelle eye appeal--nothing clunky or "hearty" about this New American cuisine. He also fearlessly arranges interesting, and often rewarding, marriages between the fruit and vegetable kingdoms. The evening we visited, he was improvising with berries and sculptural food design.

Armed with a deeply rewarding Renwood 1993 Zinfandel ($32) from the 125-year-old Grandpère vines of Amador County, we moved through a series of dishes that were rarely less than fascinating.

Not everything transported us. An appetizer of plump morels and asparagus ($9) tasted of minerals and butter sauce (there was no butter anywhere else in the meal); another opening course--disarmingly gorgeous--proved too sweet to open a meal. (It would have made a dazzling dessert.) Served in a deep bowl, a baked apple had been stuffed with seared foie gras and arrived in a broth of apple and berry juices ($14). Two spears of grilled French bread lay at rakish angles against the plump apple. Encircling the perky centerpiece was a necklace of fresh ripe berries--alternating gems of salmonberry, raspberry, red currant, blackberry, loganberry, olallieberry and strawberry.

Another appetizer came close to providing religion. Fresh peas and pea-sized cubes of avocado, asparagus and smoked salmon festooned a construction of barely seared Japanese yellowtail slices (a bit too gamy for perfection) and a fist-sized nest of cucumber "noodles" ($8). Adding to the gorgeous flavors was a moat of alternating ponzo and miso-aioli sauces. With sashimi-grade yellowtail, this dish could have taken a place in James Beard's private salon.

Collier doesn't just dress up the stars of his menu runway, he's got a way of throwing his talent around. The evening's soup, for example, was both daring and memorable. Tiny honshimeji mushrooms danced among emerald knots of Chinese long beans and ribbons of tomato. A single slice of lotus root and a transparent float of pasta topped the creation ($5). But best was the broth itself, an inspired alliance of pineapple and tamarind juices merged with duck stock.

Of two entrees, one shimmered, the other underwhelmed. Filets of local amberjack--one of my favorite rich seafoods--had been organized into a miniature temple with pillars of braised potato and side altars of zucchini flowers, fresh peas, entire infant carrots and a dice of sassy pink beet. Heightening the amberjack was a broth of tangerine and basil, and the whole had been dusted with micro-zest of fresh basil ($15).

My companion's baby spring lamb fared less well. Two rare nicely braised chops lay against a brown mound of overdone roast lamb, which in turn was supported by a pasture of onions and roasted red peppers ($19.50). Flecked with various herbs, dotted with squares of ricotta and accompanied by envelopes of socca garbanzo crêpe, it was a confusing assault on the senses. Less would have been much, much more and this dish needs to either be rethought or dropped from the menu.

The dessert possibilities at Theo's are worth a visit themselves. But at this point, all we could manage was a shared order of lemongrass crème brûlée--in which the classic dessert had been very delicately infused by the haunting citrusy herb and strewn simply with more of the enchanting fraises des bois ($6).

The garden is blooming at Theo's, but chef Collier is the one with growth potential.


Address: 3101 N. Main, Soquel
Phone: 462-3657
Hours: From 5:30pm Tue.­Sun.
Cuisine: New American
Chef: William Collier
Ambiance: Cozy and intimate
Service: Very skilled
Price: Moderately expensive
Overall: *** Flashes of brilliance

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

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From the June 27-July 3, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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