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Here's the Beef

Costa Brava
Robert Scheer

Gold-Plated Special: Native Argentinian and Costa Brava owner Juan Valledor serves up South American-inspired food like ahi cauhuita--a sushi-grade grilled ahi with basil, mint, pineapple and tamarind sauce.

South American accents continue to inflect the cooking at Costa Brava, where bold flavors meet attractive ambiance

By Christina Waters

IN THE ONGOING QUEST to recapture lost ground, carnivores could do worse than start with a visit to Costa Brava, downtown Santa Cruz's South American-inspired restaurant, where steaks receive plenty of respect. As luck would have it, my dining companion Rosemary and I quickly located a Morgan pinot noir 1995 available in a split ($15) that would go quite nicely with a piece of rare beef. I've always loved the glowing terra cotta and ochre-toned wall treatment of this cavernous dining room.

Arriving early enough to watch the entire dining room fill up--lots of after-work groups find their way to the glamorous little bar area, and diners flock to line the far wall--we started things off with an order of guacamole and house-made flour chips ($1.75), as well as an order of the pan de Brazil ($6.25), which is essentially a pizzette topped with whatever the chef likes that day. Expecting to find chicken and vegetables--as promised by our server--we were only halfway satisfied by the mild-mannered little pizza topped with eggplant, carrots, zucchini and black olives. The overly thick and chewy crust clogged our culinary ardor.

The guacamole was nice, nothing remarkable, but the thick flour chips were tasteless and boring. So we went back to the house francese bread that was served along with olive oil and balsamic. I get the feeling that many Santa Cruz restaurants maximize their menu options out of sheer multicultural zeal. At Costa Brava, Italy and California join the eclectic blend of Cuba, Brazil, Argentina and Peru.

A fresh, seared ahi tuna special ($16.95) arrived sauced with what our server described as cilantro, basil and tamarind. Well, the emerald green sauce was a good as it had sounded--except it also contained a fiery kick from serrano chili peppers. We loved the cybernetic flavor loop that played between the charismatic and spicy sauce--which also had a top note of tangy vinegar--and the rich, plump tuna steak. My mother, however, would not have been so happy to find the sauce so hot--and might rightly have sent the dish back to the kitchen. Patrons should be told in advance when dishes contain hot and spicy ingredients.

My entrée was the Churrasco Brava, a rib-eye steak rubbed with pepper, cumin and coriander before being grilled over mesquite and applewood. Sliced thin like a bistro entrecôte and topped with a disk of cilantro butter, this gorgeously rare, juicy steak was the deal of the century at $12.95. On the side--as if this all wasn't rich enough--were terrific oven-roasted red potatoes and a dice of fresh zucchini. I traded Rosemary some bites of steak and potatoes for samples of the sensuous ahi and some of her excellent black bean side dish.

It turns out that Costa Brava also bakes some fine desserts--unbeknownst to our server, who had no idea where the chocolate cake I'd ordered had been made. The cake ($3.95)--a moist, dense wedge of raspberry-layered, dark chocolate ganache--was frosted sin. I also liked the house flan ($3.75)--plain, simple, barely sweet and hinting of brandy--though Rosemary thought it a bit thick in texture for her custard tastes. Ay carumba!

Costa Brava
Address: 1222 Pacific Ave., SC
Phone: 425-7871
Hours: 11:30am-9pm daily (open for cocktails until 1am Fri-Sat), lunch until 4:30pm daily
Price: Moderate
Ambiance: **1/2 Playful colors and sleek alcoves make this an attractive setting for drinks or meals
Service: * 1/2 Friendly but underinformed staffers bring a casual approach to service
Cuisine: ** Some nice entrées and delicious desserts fuel a nonthreatening menu
Overall: Costa Brava does great beef and might want to re-examine its appetizer selection.

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

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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