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The SC Fish Story

[whitespace] Casablanca
Robert Scheer

Seaing Is Believing: Casablanca chef Scott Cater understands fish--he pairs a sesame-seared mahi mahi with goma wakame (seaweed salad), pickled ginger and his favorite, a Soquel Vineyard merlot.

While almost every eatery in town serves seafood, some restaurants clearly excel in culinary catches of the day

By Christina Waters

IN ONE OF THE MORE COLORFUL episodes of his ministry, Jesus was said to have sized up the crowd at one of his sermons and worried about catering. No problem, it turned out, since the miracle worker was able to turn a few fish into enough to feed the multitude. History fails to record just exactly what kind of fish were thus multiplied, nor does it tantalize our taste buds with hints as to culinary preparation. Possibly grilling over some wild herbs. Whatever the case, even the New Testament shows its concern with where to get the best fish in town--and what follows is our informal list of top seafood spots outside the Holy Land.

Aldo's Cafe
841 Almar, SC (429-9982).
From the moment it opened, this sleek cafe has been impressing Westside neighbors with ambiance and great seafood dishes. Visitors from all over the world have pronounced the terrific starter dish of prawns wrapped in pancetta as magnifico. While the emphasis may be on pastas, the real strength of this kitchen is fine fish, especially the fresh salmon served with garlic mashed potatoes. When local halibut is happening, don't miss Aldo's action--a current dreamy dish is the halibut on grilled polenta with wild mushroom sauce. Reliably excellent.

Bittersweet Bistro
787 Rio Del Mar Blvd., Rio del Mar (662-9799).
Housed in the spacious Deer Park Tavern landmark, Bittersweet doesn't bill itself as a seafood restaurant, yet most patrons will defend this kitchen's fish magic against all competitors. Roasted California sea bass encrusted with sesame seeds and kissed with a ginger sauce is spectacular here, and the roasted mahi mahi dusted with the intense forest flavors of dried porcini mushrooms is luxurious. But this is the place to indulge your craving for Monterey Bay Petrale sole, simply presented with classic saucing of white wine, lemon and capers. Oh, and the grilled yellowtail tuna with two sauces of Roquefort crème frâiche and a red wine demi-glacé is to die for. We are devoted to Bittersweet's house-cured salmon pastrami--a brilliant way to satisfy seafood desires with something a bit different.

Casablanca Restaurant
101 Main St., SC (426-9063).
Living up to its incomparable location overlooking the wharf and Boardwalk, Casablanca definitely offers fine seafood dishes, gorgeously presented. Dress nicely and go see what chef Scott Cater has on the menu. We recently fell in love with a fat slab of buttery Chilean sea bass that had been ever so lightly cocooned in an angelic egg batter and presented with a few infant vegetables. Gorgeous. As is the house salmon. This is where you want to aim when you need seaside ambiance with a menu to match.

Chez Renee
9051 Soquel Drive, Aptos (688-5566).
Chef Jack Chyle is a genius with seafoods. Though this charming restaurant is scarcely a fish house, it offers fine seafood specials and something even more wonderful--the house-smoked salmon. Aficionados of this luxury appetizer will find the Holy Grail on Chez Renee's gorgeous morning glory-patterned dishes. Satiny layers of very lightly smoked salmon manage to taste like the day the oceans were born, yet sexier. The dill-laced crème frâiche and bits of lemon just add to the joy. Here's a seafood specialty that cries out for a flute of festive champagne.

Robert Scheer

Scale Away: The Monterey Bay is home to a slew of fresh fish--like this sampling at Stagnaro's on the wharf--and most Santa Cruz restaurants know how to prepare it with care, skill and style.

The Dolphin
SC Municipal Wharf (426-5830).
When Marie and Don Waters come back to visit their old hometown, they always take a leisurely stroll down the wharf to see what's happening. By the time they get past Stagnaro's visually delicious open-air fish market, they're ravenous. Over the past few years, they've discovered that one of the best places for a nicely sautéed piece of fresh fish--snapper, sole or salmon--is the Dolphin, that landmark fixture holding down the very tip of the wharf, along with those fat, lovable sea lions and a few diehard fisherfolk. Lots of locals agree with the Waterses--who are extremely picky when it comes to seafood.

El Palomar
1336 Pacific Ave., SC (425-7575).
Famous for sensuous homemade corn tortillas--and, of course, those world-class margaritas--El Palomar also makes some serious seafood dishes, like the prawns in 100-watt guajillo sauce and fresh salmon done with spicy accents. But one of the absolutely most satisfying seafood fixes you can find is in the adjoining taco bar, where prawns and scallops find their way into the most wonderful tacos in town. You can get a great seafood fix along with salsa fresca, soft tortillas, bits of avocado and some sour cream--all in a single bite.

2316 Mission St., SC (425-8458).
Getting our personal nod for consistently delicious, brilliantly conceived seafood dishes, O'Mei is an ongoing miracle. Chef Karl Cook just plain can't cook badly. And to prove it, we suggest you sample any of the house sea-bass dishes, especially the amazing Chengdu sea bass served with soft tofu, or the sumptuous crisp Taiwan-style sea bass sauced--as if by the hand of the Buddha--with chiles, ginger, garlic and Taiwanese black vinegar. This dish is easily among the top seafood dishes available anywhere. But the menu really is loaded with fine fish specialties.

1547 Pacific Ave., SC (423-7427).
Smart and sexy, Oswald always does something first-rate with fresh seafood. Mussels in classic garlic and wine sauce, fresh local salmon accompanied by thoughtful vegetables and unexpected herbs--the classics are given care here. But so are not-so-classics, like opa--a rich reef fish I recently consumed at Oswald that had been sautéed into quivering gold and served with chanterelles and tiny nuggets of sweet potato. One great fish dish or another is always on this energetic menu, usually joined by the finest seasonal produce chef Charlie Deal can forage.

Pearl Alley Bistro
110 Pearl Alley, SC (429-8070).
When chef Marc-o is on the mark-o, Pearl Alley can seduce even the most jaded taste bud. And we've all had memorable seafood dishes at this evolving upstairs bistro. Even though the menu changes with dizzying regularity, seafood invariably gets a spotlight, like the current bouillabaisse that is jam-packed with assorted fish and shellfish in a spicy and garlicky broth. Pearl Alley does a stellar sea bass and is nice enough to offer several oyster options for those who like to get intimate with shellfish. The house-cured salmon is also quite excellent.

Phil's Fish Market & Restaurant
Moss Landing (633-2152).
If you really crave a full-service seafood experience, you can make the scenic drive to Moss Landing, take the tiny one-lane bridge over to Phil's and examine an enormous tableful of the freshest of the fresh. Take an ice chest so that you can pick out some seafood to take home. But whatever you do, don't miss the chance to enjoy a hearty Italian-style lunch showcasing fresh-caught delicacies like sand dabs, rock cod and the celestial Monterey spot prawns. This is one of the finest seafood experiences--no frills, just extremely tasty--you'll find on the entire Monterey Bay.

Ristorante Avanti
1711 Mission St., SC (427-0135).
More than just a 10-year-old landmark, Avanti specializes in at least two of our favorite fish dishes--as well as sensational Caesar salads and expert pastas. The local grilled halibut specials are invariably amazing. Whenever you go, you can count on finding some deluxe grilled fish--fresh, vibrant, honest--done simply with herbs or green peppercorns and maybe a splash of wine or cream. Avanti respects its impeccable ingredients. But another amazing seafood dish that never fails to impress and satisfy is the grilled salmon salad, a straightforward presentation of organic greens topped with a perfectly grilled filet of salmon.

1750 Wharf Road, Capitola (475-1511).
Stop thinking of this as a legendary special-occasion palace and start paying closer attention to the continuously updated menu. Chef Tom Grego and sous chef David Halley can cook their way through amazing seafoods, like the sweet and spicy grilled prawns that come with salsas of fresh fruit and peppers. I've had sublime fresh salmon here, and some provocative dishes of fat sea scallops rubbed with exotic spices and grilled just to that succulent medium-rare stage. If you're in need of great seafood, you've found it.

And of course we could also mention Stockton Bridge Grille, a charmer that always makes patrons happy with freshly conceived seafood dishes. And Rosa's Rosticceria is another happy home of free-style and exuberant fresh seafood specials, always inexpensive, always sauced to put your taste buds in a party mode.

The rest is up to you. Go fish.

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From the December 24-31, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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