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A Great Place to Be

Robert Scheer

Beauty and the Feast Dinner chef Kyle Smith, manager Shannon Kinberger and head chef Mimi McCluskey offer delectable fare in Cafe Emmanuelle's friendly, airy dining room.

Responding to the sheer pleasure of Cafe Emmanuelle's interior ambiance, patrons are giving the new dinner hour a cult following

By Christina Waters

Just what is the secret of this place, I often wonder when I visit the smart black-and-white rooms of Cafe Emmanuelle. Replete with time-honored bistro touches--antique sideboard laden with pastries at the front door, islands of intimacy created by the occasional palm--the improbable cafe in the midst of Water Street's industrial zone has found its clientele during the past year. Oh sure, the impeccable cakes and tarts are part of the charm, and the tendency toward organic produce adds luster. Service here is expert and winning in attitude. But that's not it.

From where we sat at a corner table enjoying a light breeze and sipping a newly released Viansa Dolcetto (bring your own wine for now--there's no corkage fee), the best new ingredient in Emmanuelle's arsenal might be the dinner menu finessed by talented Kyle Smith, most recently of Chaminade's Library. In the lingering light of summer evenings, Emmanuelle is a lovely venue for dinners, especially on Thursday and Saturday when Alain Desouches plays haunting flamenco guitar. There was fresh local halibut, grilled with an intriguing pesto that evening. Monterey Bay salmon with basil aioli looked tempting, as did jumbo prawns with artichoke hearts over jalapeño linguine.

Instead, we partnered our wine--which had expanded to reveal cranberry and spice tones--with a starter of Caesar salad ($6.95), split onto two oval platters and easily the best Caesar I've had outside my own home. Why make such a towering claim for Emmanuelle's version of the ubiquitous appetizer? Because this salad tasted alive. It not only involved that critical balance of anchovy, garlic and lemon that the classic Caesar requires. It went further by slathering all of this onto tears of crisp, organic romaine, laced with impeccable, light, virgin olive oil­bearing croutons and then punctuated the dish playfully with a few very ripe yellow and orange cherry tomatoes. Dustings of aged Parmesan topped the glorious creation.

Entrees continued the flavor intensity. Melody's country French marinated lamb ($16.95) had been baked in parchment, which was deftly removed tableside allowing a great, aromatic cloud of lamb and garlic to waft over us. The lamb emerged from its parchment well past the rare stage, but was bathed in juices saturated with rich chèvre, tomatoes, green olives and roasted garlic. Yellow new potatoes, roasted to addictive perfection, gathered nearby, along with green squash and sautéed yellow and green string beans. Someone at Emmanuelle's joins our best chefs in caring enough to choose only top-quality, locally grown, seasonal organic produce. Once you taste these flavors, you find yourself gravitating to restaurants that have formed alliances with the best growers. Everybody wins.

My plate contained the same vegetables, all of which hugged the crimson edges of the star attraction: pan-seared duck breast ($15.95), rare, as requested, bussed by a luscious sauce of fresh plums and brandy. Only an accompanying mound of wild rice pilaf needed something to jump-start its subtle impact.

But how about those fabuloso desserts that Cafe Emmanuelle is so famous for? Well, one order of silken crème caramel was utterly perfect, the creamy trapezoid of custard napped by a transparent pool of caramel sauce. That the pretty dish also bore an oversize dollop of barely sweetened whipped cream didn't hurt. Meanwhile, I was making forest-creature sounds over a slab of Italian almond cake that was at once dense and ethereal, richly moist and exquisitely subtle. Almonds on top, almonds throughout--there can never be too many almonds. And, yes, I inhaled a dollop of whipped cream the size of a baby's head. We partnered dessert ($4.25 each) with expertly made cappuccinos ($2.25 each).

As we left, the room was filled with the conversations of diners obviously very pleased that this appealing cafe is now open for dinner.

Cafe Emmanuelle

Address: 503 Water St., uptown Santa Cruz
Phone: 469-9514
Hours: Mon.­Fri. 8am­2:30pm; dinner Wed.­Sat. 5:30­9:30pm; closed Sun.
Cuisine: California bistro
Chef: Dinner chef Kyle Smith, head chef Mimi McCluskey
Ambiance: Cool bohemian cafe meets sophisticated tea room
Service: Warmly skillful
Price: Entrees $9.95­$16.95
Overal: *** Miles of charm, impeccable produce and inspired cafe fare

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

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From the July 25-31, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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