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A Bistro Revisited

Gabriella Cafe
Robert Scheer

Seasonal Caesar: Chef Jim Denevan finesses the focaccia and combs the countryside for the bistro bounty that has made Gabriella one of downtown Santa Cruz's top dining spots.

At Gabriella Cafe, ambiance creates an appealing landscape in which to sample the fresh seasonal ideas of an ever-changing menu

By Christina Waters

AN ARENA OF MAGIC REALISM, Gabriella specializes in the illusion that everyone knows everyone. Everything is in place to charm and persuade. The tiny rooms invite easy intimacy with friends, old and new. The menu romances the finest local organic produce and offers surprising depth in some of the best regional vintages--the finest partners for the cafe's guileless bistro fare. So romantic are the outdoor tables that lovers quickly stake them out. In short, the table at Gabriella is set for success.

On two recent evenings, we enjoyed a full range of Gabriella highlights, from the autumnal light burnishing the creamy interior with Tuscan daydreams to the vivacious flavors of imaginative salads and breathtaking polentas.

Like any small bistro, Gabriella has its hands full when the place is suddenly packed--as it was last week--with a full crowd of symphony-goers, all determined to dine well and still be in their seats by 8pm. Our young waiter, still smiling as he flew from kitchen to tables, brought out all our appetizers and entrees in one sudden onslaught, having mistakenly thought that we, too, were in a hurry to eat.

Appetizers can be delightful here, like a plate of grilled king oyster mushrooms on a tangle of marinated, paper-thin fennel and fresh thyme ($5). On the other hand, another appetizer involved a pile of tasteless fava beans topped with a mound of Molino Creek dry-farmed tomato wedges and no hint of the promised goat cheese vinaigrette ($6). Such sacred tomatoes deserve a less lackluster treatment. A spinach salad ($6) just missed its mark, sabotaged by a surplus of fresh mint. The crunch of toasted pecans and a dazzling pomegranate vinaigrette almost made up for slices of tasteless fresh peach methodically arranged around the plate's rim.

A bottle of Ridge Pagani Ranch Zinfandel 1993 ($38)--difficult to find and worth the quest-- helped make the most of every dish. The signature herbed focaccia bread, warm and aromatic, worked its usual sorcery.

Desserts at Gabriella can be sublime, like a late summer harvest of nectarines and blackberries gathered into a perfect pie ($5), or a fresh plum clafouti featuring not-too-sweet custard and ethereal crust ($5).

Our main problem lay with the entrees. A filet of Chilean seabass ($17)--exquisitely moist--was barely detectable under an avalanche of farmers market produce. "It looks like Carmen Miranda's hat fell into the plate," wailed my companion, who had to move mounds of yellow and red cherry tomatoes, diced cucumbers, arugula and corn in order to find the fish. A side of dreamy gorgonzola-spiked polenta almost redeemed this entree. Another plate of pan-roasted pork loin ($17) involved meat so thinly sliced and overcooked that it required industrial strength chewing. Here also, an accompanying dish of mashed potatoes laced with oregano was divine.

On another visit, Gabriella provided a performance worthy of its atmospheric foreplay. A special salad that evening was a late summer creation of crisp romaine and sliced yellow finn potatoes, with shaved fennel, pungent kalamata olives and Caesar dressing ($6). It was superb.

A shared order of a house pizzette ($12)--the crust almost transparent, the toppings of sweet Italian sausage, mushrooms and garlic so deeply flavored yet applied so lightly--made us laugh at the right of anything else to be called "pizza."

My order of grilled mahi mahi ($16)--perfectly cooked--arrived drizzled lightly with a lime-infused sauce that unfortunately tasted like key lime pie, just a bit too strident and sweet for my taste. The polenta it came with, however, could easily have been canonized.

I enjoyed a virtuoso sorbet of Meyer lemons perfumed with fresh basil ($5), and my dinner partner tried a slice of heirloom apple pie whose crust was overly chewy, but whose warm interior made sensuous contrast with a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($5).

With its big-league wine list and devotion to seasonal organic produce, Gabriella offers no dull moments to its legions of devoted fans. Changing with the seasons, it sparkles with moments of pure inspiration in a setting of pure charm.

Gabriella Cafe

Address: 910 Cedar St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 457-1677
Hours: Mon.­Thu. 11am­9pm, Fri. 11am­10pm, Sat. 9am­10pm, Sun. 9am­9pm
Price: Moderate
Chef: Jim Denevan
Ambiance: ***Intimate, lively
Service: **1/2 Attentive, helpful
Cuisine: **1/2 Occasionally overreaches its ambitious mark
Overall: Armed with an exciting seasonal menu and appealing setting, Gabriella earns its popularity--when everything clicks, it's terrific

****Outstanding ***Excellent **Good *Okay

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From the October 24-30, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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