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Fantasy Meal

Casablanca Restaurant
Robert Scheer

Well-Catered View: This was the year that Scott Cater returned to the chef's helm at Casablanca Restaurant, with delicious results for everything from salads to seafoods.

It was grand, it was action-packed, it was 365 days long--1996 yielded its fair share of great dining experiences, and here they all are

By Christina Waters

NINETEEN NINETY SIX WAS AN oral blitz for your restless restaurant correspondent, who enjoyed meals in fine dining capitals like New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Santa Fe. In San Francisco, I sampled the sensuous Native American foods of Loretta Barrett Oden, whose Choctaw Creole stew shimmered like a star. At Le Bernardin, I was seduced by scallops frosted with foie gras and black truffles. At the Kentucky Club in Juarez, Mexico--where Marilyn Monroe had celebrated her divorce from Arthur Miller--I sat at the bar and sipped the definitive Margarita.

On the other hand, I had plenty of underwhelming encounters, too, like the fussy, overpriced meal at Patina on Melrose, a silly parsley salad at Cafe Pasqual in Santa Fe and the worse menudo on the planet in El Paso, Texas.

Our fair region, as usual, delivered great gastronomic grazing throughout the year, starting with some better-than-sex venison at a Chez Renee wine dinner, and ending up with gnocchi to kill for at Ristorante Avanti. In between, like so many other potential fatties, I worked out.

Let us pause here for a moment and get gravely serious. It's time for tiramisu to move on. Way on. Back to the encyclopedia of culinary fads. Back into our memories. The welcome has been worn out. I'd like to see tiramisu relegated to the same food footlocker as Ranch-style dressing, beef Wellington and lasagna. Even garlic mashed potatoes are getting tiresome.

And as long as we're wishing, I'd like to see 1997 be an all-organic produce year, in which chefs and restaurateurs stop pretending that commercially produced vegetables have flavor, that tomatoes in January could possibly be ripe, and instead use locally grown, in-season, organic fruit and vegetables from now until the end of time. Make it so!

On to my composite fantasy meal of 1996, in which I revisit favorite food groups and dining moments of the past year.

The meal would begin with that sexiest of appetizers--red oil dumplings from O'mei, slippery soft wonton pillows filled with minced pork and drenched in fiery red oil. And, if I could sneak one more starter from this Westside icon--though I could add dozens--it would be a "little dish" of incendiary shredded carrots ablaze with chiles and vinegar. Another appetizer that stands out in retrospect, was the intensely flavored, pepper-cured salmon pastrami created at Bittersweet Bistro. Seated on a bed of greens, topped with a few gossamer potato chips and mustard-spiked crème fraîche, this was a dazzling opening act. The gooey, gorgeous scamorza from Papa's Church--broiled mozzarella topped with tomatoes, pine-nuts, a splash of ouzo and a sprinkle of oregano--would also be required.

For outstanding soups, I would kneel at the shrine of Theo's and recall a fabulous duck elixir laced with earthy honshumeji mushrooms, Chinese long beans and a slice of lotus root. The glimmers of tamarind and citrus in the elegant broth made for a lasting impression. And I would also need to add one other soup, the timeless, deeply comforting nabeyaki udon from Sukeroku, in which an iron cauldron provides the softness of fat noodles, a rich chicken stock, bits of vegetables and a topping of crisp tempura.

Pearl Alley Bistro
Pouring It On: Mark Curtis (left) and Marc Westburg continue to gild their golden Pearl Alley Bistro with fine cafe fare, an ever-surprising wine list and the addition of a full bar.

Photo by Robert Scheer

A trio of salads would join my annual hall of fame. The clock would stop at a moment of early summer, when Oswald composed on a bed of delicate purslane, bruschetta topped with lemon-enhanced white bean purée and shavings of pungent Locatelli pecorino. Though it's difficult to choose among the many salads of the moment created by Charlie Deal, this will have to stand in for their collective charms. I absolutely couldn't do without the incomparable dinner salad for two at Pearl Alley Bistro. Sometimes the bowl of baby greens, all slathered in an exceptional vinaigrette, arrives at the table for you to attack at will. Along with some new wine by the glass from the always pace-setting house list, and one of those killer round loaves of salted bread warm from the oven, the salad forms the heart of many a thinking woman's dinner. Finally, I'd need to include the Caesar salad from Ristorante Avanti. There's really no trick here, it's just that the salad simply hits the spot every single time. The organic romaine, liberal garlic, extra anchovies on the side, freshly grated aged Reggiano Parmesan--pretty much archetypal and among my top food memories of the year.

If I were required to make a bread call with these salads, I'd choose the herb-scented focaccias baked daily by Jim Denevan at Gabriella Cafe. And I'd also need several slices of Santa Cruz' Bread of the Year, Alfaro's ciabatta--dipped into some green-gold, newly pressed extra-virgin olive oil that had been flown in the night before from Tuscany (it's my fantasy, and I can have what I want!).

The most perfect fish entrée I encountered last year was a dish of fresh grilled mahi mahi prepared by Scott Cater at Casablanca. Perched on a bed of flawless sautéed vegetables--fingerling carrots and sweet roasted yellow bell peppers--the fish had been lightly sauced with a textbook sesame beurre blanc. It tasted every bit as good as the restaurant's oceanfront view looked. My fantasy would also include the sizzling platter of tender calamari, prawns and asparagus--all infused with copious quantities of fresh basil and chiles--from Thai House, home of many other pyrotechnic dining adventures. With the mahi mahi and calamari dishes, I'd be drinking a Storrs chardonnay--any Storrs chardonnay--and loving the way the fruit and oak worked its way around the foods.

One strictly-for-fussy-carnivores entrée I adored was a ravishing presentation of medallions of beef served at Chaminade's Library, along with a soothing view of the Yacht Harbor way off in the distance. Sliced rare, sauced with wine and Szechuan peppercorns and adorned with figs and shiitake mushrooms, it was blatantly sinful. Even the side dishes of scalloped potatoes and baby steamed tatsoi were sublime. This was the single finest presentation of beef I enjoyed in the county in 1996. With this entrée, I'd have a glass of old vine zinfandel--either the Renwood 1994 or the mighty Ridge Pagani Ranch 1993. I would sigh with pleasure.

When no one was looking, I would for sure want to sneak in a side dish of French fries from Seabright Brewery--but only if I could knock them back while sitting out on the patio, at sunset, while sipping an amber and arguing philosophy with my buddy Ben. These crisp, hot, fragrant, tasty fries are the ultimate fingerfood. They'd even be great with the Chaminade beef and the huge, plumy zin.

Finishing off this multi-course extravagance, I would have to fortify myself with a Café Bene espresso and a glass of Bonny Doon Vineyard's dessert garnacha fortified with grenache brandy.

Then I would have to begin the sweet task of seeking closure, wouldn't I?

Elizabeth & Tom Vinolus
Robert Scheer

Bitter Is Better: Elizabeth and Tom Vinolus expanded their culinary horizons in 1996, moving south in the newly renovated Deer Park landmark in Aptos and packing it full of big flavors.

One singular sensation I'd re-create would be an edible Eden of late-harvest nectarines and blackberries, all baked into a dreamy pie with tender, flaky crust by Gabriella Cafe. Since, in my fantasy dining, I am capable of consuming multiple desserts, I would continue by working my way through a slice of that incredibly dense, moist Italian almond cake served with a giant dollop of whipped cream at the late, great Cafe Emmanuelle. And I'd need to re-explore fresh Babcock peaches poached in basil-laced zinfandel from Oswald--served in a tall goblet, like a slow Mediterranean kiss. I'd finish myself off--so to speak--with a dessert that shone in 1996 as brightly as it had in 1995, the lemon raspberry Napoleon from the magic hand of Bittersweet's Tom Vinolus. Not much beats the exciting tension of sweet and tart that results from raspberry coulis kissing thick lemon custard, while layered between crisp squares of puff pastry and topped with unsweetened whipped cream.


And finally, I'll toast these and all the great flavors of 1996 with a tall flute of sparkling Veuve Clicquot, served by the fire in the shellpink Chez Renee dining room, where it always feels like New Year's Eve.

Salut, y prospero año nuevo!

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From the Dec. 26, 1996 to Jan. 1, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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