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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Speed of Bite: Waiter Vincente Valdez stands and delivers at Cafe Marcella.

Mediterranean Mix

Café Marcella combines Southern European flavors with California cuisine to create distinct culinary experience

By Christina Waters

WAINSCOTING, WHITE walls and a few vibrant artworks are all that's needed to set the stage for exciting dining at Café Marcella. Long a cozy fixture on Los Gatos' abundant restaurant scene, this splendid café anticipates trends once again. When Phyllis and I dined here a few years ago, the menu was dominated by the flavors of the Mediterranean. Last week, the wine bar was still buzzing and the two adjoining dining rooms filling up briskly. But the menu announced a newer mood more closely aligned with the café's California surroundings.

Pasta and pizza turn up in tantalizing raiment, but appetizers such as sautéed abalone, scallops with roasted garlic and house-made salmon gravlax play to a broader range of appetites. I immediately spied a pan-roasted filet of beef among the night's specials ($25.95), as well as a fresh Dungeness crab risotto ($16.95) that my companion and I both coveted. One of each would do nicely, we agreed, along with a calamari salad ($7.95) and a freshly made cauliflower soup ($5.95). A distinctive and perhaps even daring choice, the cauliflower soup--wonderful on a winter night--was to prove as complex and delightful as our other dishes.

Swaddled in a soft napkin, crusty bread soon joined unsalted butter provided in pretty slabs. We toasted the New Year with glasses of plush Lake Sonoma Old Vine Zinfandel 1997 ($6.75) and a luscious Burgundian Chardonnay from St. Veran 1998 ($7).

I could race to the finish right now and reveal that the crab risotto was the runaway star, one of the most creative and appealing ways to enhance this sumptuous shellfish we'd ever tasted. But I'll get to that in a minute.

Of the many charming waiters turned out in smart ties and white shirtsleeves, we happened into the territory of one who appeared in a continual hurry. "It's my pleasure" was his ubiquitous recitation, murmured without a trace of a smile. Still, he couldn't hurt our appetizers.

The calamari vinaigrette, liberally flecked with feta, kalamata olives and shaved fennel, tumbled prettily from a radicchio cornucopia. With a bolder vinaigrette it would have been a knockout dish. Still, its flavors worked well with the brilliant cauliflower soup, whose complex broth was based on chicken stock and amplified by a strong note of celery seed and herbs. It was delicious and filling. A smaller portion would have been plenty to stimulate appetites and announce the meal to come.

Our entrees arrived brimming with confidence. My filet had been perfectly sauteed just between rare and medium rare. The thick, juicy portion of beef was sided by Yukon gold mashed potatoes and one of the finest ratatouilles on the planet. So sensuous were the tender eggplant, sweet onion and heady peppers of this intensely flavored Provençal dish that I could have feasted on them alone. Across the table, Phyllis found paradise in her steaming dish of risotto. There was more Dungeness crab meat--huge segments, succulent and moist--than we could believe. Mounded into a creamy pyramid surrounded by tiny lobster claws, the risotto was highlighted by the intensity of lemon. Roasted lemon peel appeared throughout the soft Arborio rice, and plenty of lemon juice and zest laced each bite. Leeks. spinach, slender carrots and long yellow beans added to the vivacious creation, in which the chef had miraculously elevated the already sublime lemon to new stature as a tart vegetable. Let me speak plainly--this was a dish to kill for, one of those once-in-a-lifetime recipes that works in every possible way.

Desserts were crowned by my order of elegant banana bread pudding ($6), a turban of richness, barely sweetened and studded with bits of semi-sweet chocolate. Unsweetened whipped cream on top and crème Anglaise around the circumference made the orchestration both unpretentious and aristocratic at once. Another dessert of warm apple tart ($6) was served with a scoop of excellent vanilla gelato. Save for the overly busy and distracting patterns on the dessert plates, both dishes collaborated on a fine finish to the best meal ever at Café Marcella.

Café Marcella
Cuisine: Mediterranean with California accent
Entrees: $16.95-$25.95
Hours: Lunch Tue-Sat. 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner Tue.-Thu. 5-9:30pm, Fri.-Sat. 5-10pm, Sun. 5-9pm
Address: 368 Village Lane, Los Gatos
Phone: 408/354-8006

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From the January 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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