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California Dreaming

[whitespace] California Cafe
Christopher Gardner

Shellfish Motifs: California Cafe chef John Caputo shows off an impressive seafood platter.

A culinary original--California Cafe--reinvents itself with a gorgeous interior, a smart menu and a visionary chef

By Christina Waters

PROVING THAT it really is possible to refresh an already delicious idea, the newly restored California Cafe in Los Gatos' Old Town absolutely blazes with style. The sophisticated interior--all low angles, copper detailing and cinnamon-hued architecture--recalls a glamorous '50s nightclub. A combo was busy filling the cozy lounge and dining rooms with cool jazz last Saturday night when we joined a vivacious full house for a remarkable meal.

From the intensely flavored potstickers served on black marble tables in the bar right down to individual iron pots of herb tea with dessert, our California Cafe dinner did much to justify executive chef John Caputo's sparkling Bay Area reputation.

Packed with chicken, basil and crunchy pine nuts, the expertly prepared potstickers ($6.95) were moist and chewy, luxuriating in squiggles of sesame-intensive hoisin and wasabi sauces and accompanied by a "noodle" salad of marinated carrot and cucumber strands cradled in a broad shiso leaf. Paired with glasses of pinot noir, one from Moshin's Russian River vineyard 1996 ($8) and another from King Estates 1995 ($7), the updated Asian appetizer jump-started our palates.

A quick move into one of the dining room banquettes with a view of the exhibition kitchen and we were presented with a basket of focaccia, thick wheat bread, plus the now-clichéd pour of olive oil and balsamic. Can't we move on, or perhaps back, to something fresher? Unsalted butter curls, perhaps. And while the crusty, olive-studded pain de compagne was welcome, I'd like to suggest that focaccia's day is done.

A good-looking salad of organic greens ($5.50) from Stone Free Farms, utterly tender and vibrant, was overwhelmed by a too-sweet Napa mustard vinaigrette. Such flawless greens deserve a lighter hand in dressing.

The new California Cafe entree choices tested our resolve--I easily could have been happy with any of the luxurious seafood or grilled meat choices. Though a roast rack of lamb with housemade tamale and pumpkin seed mole sauce almost seduced me, I was delighted when my order of pan-seared divers scallops ($22.50) arrived, along with a glass of spicy Shenandoah Zinfandel 1997 ($7) from the Cafe's strong and lengthy listing of California wines. Napped with a pungent tangerine sauce, the rotund shellfish were arranged into a mini Stonehenge topped with a spiral crown of potato galette. Two sensuous slices of foie gras topped everything. I combined the rich foie gras and moist scallops in each bite. Life can be very good.

Life was also good across the table, where Jack was transported by what was easily the finest ahi tuna ($21.50) either of us had tasted. I sample lots of ahi; this praise does not come lightly. Quickly grilled to preserve the crimson interior of each rectangular shape, the beautiful slices lay in a pool of pungent shiso beurre blanc, along with a neon-orange pillow of tobiko, a mound of fiery wasabi and a brilliant side dish of tekka maki sushi that had been tempura fried. What a fine creation, gorgeously presented like a cluster of edible jewels on a handsome square white plate. Each entree was the exact right size, and save for the too-sweet puree of celery root accompanying my scallops, the main dishes were flawless.

Dessert of a gingery apple tart topped with a tiny scoop of vanilla ice cream went halfway to a great finish ($6.50). The pastry would have prospered with warming and a lot more pastry cream inside. The iron pots of herb tea made the perfect ending to our meal.

Forget your old expectations: California Cafe in Los Gatos transcends them. Both California cuisine and New American cookery receive some updating here, and the ace service matches the smart setting. It is high time for a visit--and it will definitely not be your last.

California Cafe
Address: 50 University Ave., Los Gatos
Phone: 408/354-8118
Entrees: $12-$23
Chef: John Caputo
Cuisine: Classic California
Hours: Lunch daily 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner daily 5-9:30pm (Fri.-Sat. until 10pm)

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From the January 28-February 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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