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Field Poll: Gabriella Cafe chef Jim Denevan's 'Outstanding in the Field' event in September was one of the top meals of the year.

The Greatest Bites of 2003

In which we savor the past year of indelible flavors and just plain great cooking

By Christina Waters

Who knows exactly why some meals make a lasting statement? Sure, great execution is part of the joy of dining out--I think of the unbelievable craft of each and every miracle made by David Kinch at Manresa in Los Gatos. Often it can be a single dish--a lemon tart topped with unsweetened whipped cream, split with my friend Simone on a warm summer afternoon at Gabriella.

It can also be not so much about the food as about the sheer gusto of the occasion. I shared a wild Valentine's dinner in London at a south Indian restaurant, Malabar Junction, eating dish after dish of exquisite curries surrounded by silly heart-shaped balloons and very loud '60s bubblegum pop. Priceless.

Out-of-town favorites in 2003 have got to include a lunch of consummate low-key glamour at Washington Park, on Fifth Avenue in the Village. It was all perfect, but my wide bowl of heirloom cranberry beans and escarole topped with a fan of rare Catskill duck breast was definitive. The flute of Billecart-Salmon rosé bubbly didn't hurt one bit. Lunch with my mom at a new place in La Jolla called (unwisely) Fresh yielded a fabulous seared scallop and Tuscan bean encounter. At a recent meal in Campbell at a tiny gem called (also unwisely) Restaurant O (formerly Buca), chef Justin Perez dazzled my taste buds with cinnamon-rubbed quail as tender as an angel's thigh. Equally wonderful was a plump elk chop napped with a stupendous mole-style sauce involving blueberries and a hint of chocolate.

Closer to home, I have never met a small plate at Soif that didn't turn me on. Michael Knowles has an uncanny and light touch with every sexy item. Even fixtures like ahi tartare are reborn here, especially topped with those miniature fingerling potato chips. One of my favorite Soif meals combined a platter of very ripe, handmade cheeses--including a buttery Cantalet and complex Spanish blue Valdeon--with a glass of suitably tannic rioja. Cheese could be the finest legal substance on the planet.

And then there was a pitch-perfect plate of wild local salmon filet topped with Meyer lemon relish at Oswald. In a field of fine meals at Avanti, two stand out. My plate was an earthy confit of Sonoma Liberty duck presented in a cloud of organic greens, and Jack's was the incredible house specialty--baked meatballs with homemade pappardelle pasta. Another evening, I surrendered willingly to chef Brian Curry's unforgettable salmon on a bed of new fingerling potatoes, topped by house-made crème fraîche laced with sorrel and English peas. Oh my God.

Sukeroku continues to reward me with fine sushi and a welcoming hearth. A recent dinner entered my 2003 hall of fame, consisting of a complex hamachi tartare, a salad of transparent wakame seaweed, and crimson maguro starring in a flawless nigiri presentation, as well as beautifully-made gemlike nuggets of tekka maki with shiso leaf. Listening to Isao humming along with the rock & roll is part of the charm.

Last summer's alfresco wine dinner at Sand Rock Farm Inn provided a chance to visit with local legends Val and Dexter Ahlgren, and to sip the mighty 1999 Ahlgren Cabernet Sauvignon Bates Ranch. But the supple cab was even more wonderful paired with a plate of rare Kobé tri-tip on a bed of Yukon gold potatoes infused with black olives and smoked bacon. Kudos to chef Lynn Sheehan.

On a simpler note, one lazy lunch remains firmly in mind. It was one of those brilliant, crisp autumn days on the North Coast. We ordered plates of nopalitos tacos at La Cabaña and sat outside drinking in the view of the blue water just outside Davenport's front door. The tangy soft cactus, infused with salsa fresca and soft, warm corn tortillas--joined by a tamarind Penafiel--remains one of my best moments of 2003. I'm looking forward to some great dining in the new year--small plates, more Asian accents and local, seasonal and organic everything. Feliz Año Nuevo!

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From the December 31, 2003-January 7, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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