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Stockton Bridge Grille 2.0

The Esplanade fixture returns with a revamped look and a new international menu

By Steve Billings

Five years is an eternity to wait to reopen your business. Yet that's exactly what Lee and Tamera Walters of the Stockton Bridge Grille had to bear, beginning in 1999, as a simple upgrade turned into a major structural overhaul once it was discovered that the building's structural integrity was at risk. That long process brings us to the present day. The restaurant's doors are open once again, and when you dine there, you'll realize that the Walters were wise to hold their point position on the Esplanade adjacent to Stockton Bridge above Soquel Creek.

Formerly offering a seafood-based menu, the Walters have set upon providing their diners with an entirely different experience. Now a diverse menu of primarily Mediterranean-inspired small plates liberates diners from standard courses and encourages whimsical choices and improvisations.

Bring a hungry quartet. Make music.

The menu too is improvisational; the fare (prepared by Mr. Walters), is neither explicitly regional nor traditional, but draws on different international cuisines to present a kind of small-plate world fusion that is actively searching for its spiritual center. It's not tapas, nor is it dim sum. Maybe we have a new format coalescing in the bay fog: a small-plate world bistro that allows for individuated gustatory travel within the same group dining experience.

As for specific menu offerings, there are many, too many to sample in one evening. There is a significant nod to China in dishes such as Szechuan beef salad with pommes frites and the same style of ribs topped with Asian slaw. Cajun cooking gets a few hits with a chicken salad over balsamic-tossed mixed greens ($9.50) and prawns served with vegetable stir fry ($10.50).

On the Mediterranean side, you could begin your evening with a meze-style Mediterranean plate ($6) including feta, grilled portobellos, olives and roasted red pepper; the grilled eggplant tapenade with sun-dried tomato, roasted red bell pepper and goat cheese purée ($5); or the grilled vegetable salad with a balsamic vinaigrette ($9).

For me, charting a course through the menu wasn't easy.

Intriguing choices and competing flavors conspired against selecting a single glass of wine that could carry me through the entire meal, so I had two, beginning with a bright crisp sauvignon blanc from New Zealand taken with the grilled vegetable salad and the curry chicken apple quesadilla served with tropical fruit coulis ($7). The quesadilla, filled with soft, shredded curried chicken held a pleasing lingering spice that married well with the primary mango flavors of the fruit coulis.

From here, the meal turned decidedly carnal. Moroccan spiced lamb chops with a curry yogurt sauce and a special mixed plate of the fried scallops with chile beurre blanc and the Szechuan baby back ribs. Of them all, the scallops stood out as a well-executed exercise in texture, with their crisp, battered shells giving way to a supple, steaming scallop, all of this then accentuated by the citrus chile notes from the topping sauce.

The newly remodeled and expanded space offers a warmly candlelit, ocean-toned dining room with quiet corners, fresh flowers at every table, killer bay views and a superior bar. So many atmospheric details have been considered and thoughtfully rendered that all that's really needed to make the ambience complete is a change in the music. Though not a great concern for everyone, disagreeable music detracts from the dining experience; it becomes a focal point and a topic whereas it should deepen and enhance the impact of the food.

In general, playfulness and experimentation should be your guiding principles when dining at SBG. Sheer choice should provide enough reason to make repeat dining here an interesting option especially for a lunchtime crowd that will be able to enjoy light fare served on their beautiful outdoor deck overlooking the bay.

The Stockton Bridge Grille is located at 231 Esplanade, Capitola, and is open daily for lunch and dinner; 831.464.1933.

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From the October 27-November 3, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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