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[whitespace] Brian Curry
Mixing It Up: New chef Brian Curry is skillfully reinventing Ristorante Avanti. Also, he has great taste in vases.

Advantage Avanti

Flavor continues its ascent at Avanti where a new chef amplifies the menu without damaging successful roots

By Christina Waters

ONE OF THE DANGERS of culinary success for a restaurant is that regular clientele tend to resist any change in a formula already perceived to be great. So it is daring for a perennial favorite, Ristorante Avanti, to continue to reinvent itself without sacrificing its basic structure.

With the entrance of chef Brian Curry (formerly of Sent Sovi and Bernardus Lodge), the kitchen has upped its sophistication, while maintaining robust trattoria consciousness and lavish use of handcrafted, local and organic ingredients. The results are wildly satisfying. A robust Italian barbera kept me company one dinner recently in which I was transported by an incandescent duck confit--rich, non-cloying and served on a bed of braised greens ($9.95). At the same meal, Jack downed an entree of baked meatballs in sensuous marinara with a side of spinach papardalle ($11.95). Every bit as good as it sounds.

Last week, a memorable meal began with a glass of complex Crozes-Hermitage ($6), while Jack chose an Alsatian Pinot Blanc from Martin Schaetzel ($6), crisp yet filled with violets. The house bread arrived along with a pottery plate filled with a variety of olives, each more meaty and vibrant than the next. While we usually like to eat at the bar, lately we've been enjoying the far table in the narrow front room. We can watch the action yet avoid the noise level of the main dining room.

Gimme a Double

Jack's starter of house-cured salmon carpaccio ($8.95) was stupendous. Plump, meaty salmon, thick as fresh gravlax, formed a generous platform for white anchovies, capers and fresh dill. An excellent olive oil bathed everything. "My idea of a great meal would be a double order of this salmon," Jack admitted without being asked. And it would. But as wonderful was the current version of melon and prosciutto, composed of intensely flavored jamon serrano draped over wedges of charlerais and honeydew melon from Happy Boy Farm ($7.95). The perfume of fresh mint scented each forkful. Service timing was set by the kitchen and we've noticed that in general appetizers arrive swiftly, while the newly intricate entrees take more time. That's why God invented wine.

A nightly special of wild roasted sturgeon--moist and buttery--was festooned with peas, red bell pepper and fennel ($19)--a country provençale dish served in a deep pottery bowl over a bed of Yukon gold potatoes. Every bite was Mediterranean poetry.

My entree of pan-seared day boat scallops ($18.95) was another triumph. The moist scallops dotted a landscape of potatoes smashed with garlic and onions, and encircled by garlicky, addictive green beans. All the new entrees here are bold and sensuous. In other words, they more than match the standard already set by the colossal chicken cacciatore. We've enjoyed recent desserts of dreamy panna cotta, but our favorite way to close a meal at Avanti is with the cheese tray ($7.95). A recent array by chef Curry began with a nutty sweet Lincolnshire cheddar and a complex Petit Basque.

In between bites of fresh walnuts and sips of wine, we moved to a sensuous Rocamadour goat cheese (served too chilled) before sampling a tart, creamy Azeitao from Portugal. Saving the most pungent for last, we tried a wonderful Valdeon blue cheese from Spain. The cheese plate is large enough to share and comes with sliced green apple, dried apricots and a pile of voluptuous walnuts. Espressos and those wonderful house hazelnut cookies wrapped up each of our two dinners at the hands of Avanti's new chef, to whom we send compliments and a personal plea for never-ending duck confit.

Ristorante Avanti
Address: 1711 Mission St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 831.427.0135
Hours: Open daily 8am-2pm, 5pm-9pm; till 9:30pm Fri and Sat
Ambience: *** Boisterous café and wine bar atmosphere; very welcoming though it can get quite loud during peak dining hours
Service: *** Warm, knowledgeable, attentive; reliably welcoming
Cuisine: *** 1/2 Enlightened California trattoria food, spun through the finest ingredients available. Kudos to the new chef, and owners Paul and Cindy Geise.
Overall: The cafe gem of the West Side. Period. Avanti continues to hold its place on everybody's short list of top area dining rooms.

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From the July 31-August 7, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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