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Sophisticated Debut

Robert Scheer

Sweetening the Deal: Bittersweet Bistro owners Marge, Elizabeth and Thomas Vinolus have given the old Deer Park Tavern new culinary life and have upped the ante with their famed desserts.

Proving that you can pour new wine into old bottles, Bittersweet Bistro re-invents Deer Park Tavern with style and restraint

By Christina Waters

With so much advance hype and word-of-mouth commendation, Bittersweet Bistro--the new and hugely expanded enterprise of Tom and Elizabeth Vinolus--had some big shoes to fill. The very landmark, Deer Park Tavern, chosen by the entrepreneurs of Cafe Bittersweet indicated substantial ambition. As much to revisit one of our favorite dining rooms as to see what the talented pastry artist/chef had wrought, we paid our respects last week. The place was packed, and it was a special pleasure to see former Deer Park restaurateur Bob Castagnola and his mom among the crowd.

Gleaming with mirrors and polished wood, the glamorous bar greets patrons once they've entered through the original 50-year-old redwood doors. The walls are deftly treated to a spacious kiss of Tuscan gold, and pin spotlights pick up the gleam of white linens and richly tapestried banquettes that seem to undulate through three large dining rooms. Seated in the far chamber, where the stone fireplace cries out for a cold, foggy night, we were soothed, yet puzzled by the sheer bareness of the walls. Perhaps it's a Zen statement--or the refusal to settle for anything less than the perfect artwork. It did seem a bit, well, austere.

The service, however, was anything but, and our talented waitperson worked smoothly to make sure our meal was presented to our complete satisfaction.

I'd love to think this was a trend--Bittersweet joins a growing cluster of restaurants in offering half bottles of quite a few varietals. So while my companion nursed his draft of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale ($3), I was able to indulge my passion for sumptuous zin with a split of Ridge Geyserville 1993 ($16), a supple layering of zinfandel with generous dashes of carignan and petite sirah.

Starters immediately caught our attention, as we grazed on some excellent francese bread. Very soon came a platter of salmon pastrami salad ($7.50) and another of skewered shrimp with garlic white beans ($6). Not only was the very idea of salmon pastrami--an intense pepper-cured anointing of the rich seafood--a great one, the execution was equally on target. A few gossamer potato chips topped a central earthwork of impeccable baby greens, while a trio of cornichons and a pool of whole grain mustard­spiked crème fraîche clustered around slabs of salmon. Some capers, minced Bermuda onions and niçoise olives added sass, but the star here was the seafood, cured to an almost masculine sheen of authority.

The herbed and grilled prawns fared nicely, warming and wilting their bed of lettuces, radicchio and frisée into compliance. The side of garlicky, sage-intensive white beans made it almost the perfect bistro meal on a single plate. The zinfandel sang a refined C&W accompaniment.

Entrees, as they so often do, seemed to recede a bit into ordinariness compared with these sexy opening dishes, but we both enjoyed the chef's light hand with the delicate, fresh sand dabs ($16), finished with just a bit of wine and lemon, and served with the house scalloped potatoes and a nicely executed (if unexciting) ménage of mixed carrots, green beans, zucchini and cauliflower. My rustic veal medallions ($16.75) were plentiful, a bit overcooked, and slathered with an earthy brandy sauté of plump shiitakes and portobello mushrooms.

Given Vinolus' reputation as a pastry artist, there was no way we could leave without sampling dessert. Joined by a shared glass of Bonny Doon Vineyard's Muscat Canelli ($5), we began the holy ritual of lemon raspberry Napoleon and warm bread pudding (both $6). The lemon custard interspersed with square leaves of ethereal pastry was tart and creamy. A raspberry coulis, stained the hue of midsummer, burst with intense flavor. The plate, dusted with powdered sugar, was as wonderful to the eye as to the tongue. A small sample of chocolate ice cream, laced with Jack Daniel's, showed off Vinolus' expert cocoaphilia. As my companion happily enjoyed his rather tame "yuppie" bread pudding--which was distinguished by the presence of truly ripe berries and fruit--I broke my own rule and finished every trace of the Napoleon.

Bittersweet Bistro

Address: 787 Rio Del Mar Blvd., Rio Del Mar
Phone: 662-9799
Hours: Tue.­Thu., Sun. 5:30­9pm; Fri.­Sat. 5:30­10pm; closed Mon.
Cuisine: California continental
Chef: Tom Vinolus
Ambiance: Big-shouldered lodge with bistro instincts
Service: Excellent
Price: Moderate--entrees average $16
Overall: *** With hints of more to come

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

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From the July 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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