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Youthful Patriarch

Chef Chad Fields
Robert Scheer

At Play With the Fields of the Lord: Chad Fields, chef to the Westside's Popa's Restaurant, creates culinary delicacies like this bread pudding with creme Anglaise and vanilla bean ice cream.

Softening some of its culinary edges, the bistro that is Popa's fine-tunes its menu, its style and its sense of the delicious

By Christina Waters

THE RESTAURANT ON Mission Street with the oddly spelled name is chef Chad Fields' homage to his grandfather. Faithful to childhood memories, he spelled the word just as he had in his youth--Popa's, even though it's pronounced "Papa's." If the name is problematic, the food isn't. Instant accessibility is the appealing point of the newest restaurant occupying the space that was Cafe Bittersweet, and before that, Zanzibar.

My friend Rosemary's upcoming trip to Rome was all the excuse we needed to get together for a dinner of travel tips and some very satisfying flavors. Like lots of Popa's regulars, we decided to begin our meal with one of Fields' signature appetizer dishes--grilled prawns with black bean salsa ($6.95).

Eye-catching and atmospheric, artist Dan Stolpe's coyote prints line the walls above the tapestry banquettes. That playful edge was repeated in the zippy pepper-infused olive oil and balsamic waiting for us the minute we sat down. We dipped our francese into the salsa of black beans, roasted corn, onions and micro-minced tomatoes, all moistened by cilantro-infused crême fraische. The prawns were impeccably succulent and lightly spiced with Cajun seasonings.

Each of the wines by the glass we'd chosen--Morgan Zinfandel 1994 and Storrs Santa Cruz Mountain Chardonnay 1995 (both $5.75)--perfectly matched the prawns.

Next came the beautiful salads that accompanied our entrée orders--we couldn't resist the two evening specials of grilled sea bass with avocado vinaigrette, and roasted pork loin with fresh blackberry sauce (both $16.75).

Mixed organic greens felt practically alive in their light coat of vinaigrette. Rosemary especially liked hers accentuated with a creamy blue cheese dressing. Both salads were laced with honey-toasted pecans and carrot slivers. I realized that the haunting, secret ingredient in my vinaigrette was lavender. I smiled. Nice Provençal touch.

On huge oversized white plates--deep enough to almost be called bowls--Rosemary's slab of snow-white sea bass perched on a hill of white basmati rice. A brilliant chartreuse topping of what tasted like an avocado hollandaise coated the excellent fish, with handfuls of barely steamed julienned carrots bristling here and there like miniature orange forests. The plate was also squiggled with red bell pepper sauce, adding one too many ideas to the full conceptual dance card.

My wonderful pork loin was similarly Baroque. The thick, diagonally cut meat was outstanding--moist, flavorful, lightly sauced with a blackberry and pan juice reduction, punctuated with ripe blackberries. It was gorgeous in every way. But then the plate was similarly amplified by all those carrots. Plus there was a very salty, peppery disk of polenta on top of a layer of scalloped potatoes at the center of the plate. Too much action here. The pork and berry sauce, perhaps with just the potatoes, would have been stunning enough.

Along with coffee, we sampled a house cheesecake with strawberry purée ($4). A side of fresh fruit chutney infused with basil was lovely, but we both found the cheesecake quite dry. After we mentioned it to our waitress, it was graciously omitted from our bill. An outstanding bread pudding arrived, warm and flagrantly moist ($4). Crème Anglaise was poured over it at the table, the pitcher of remaining sauce left for us to apply as we liked. A side scoop of vanilla bean ice cream was ungodly rich and creamy, and the buttery pudding itself was easily the best--the best--in the county.


Popa's

Address: 2332 Mission St., SC
Phone: 425-5420
Cuisine: Californian and new American
Chef: Chad Fields
Hours: Lunch 11:30am­2:30pm Tue.­Fri., dinner 5­9pm Tue.­Sat.
Ambiance: **1/2 A small and cozy space, it preserves its bistro roots with little pretension and plenty of comfort
Service: ** 1/2 Helpful and warm, the service can run toward the casual and tends toward languor without occasional reminders from patrons
Cuisine: *** Some dishes are simple and charming, others tend to take a good idea and amplify it into busyness. With fewer garnishings and concepts at work, many ideas would flower more brightly.

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


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From the Sept. 4-10, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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