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The Past Recaptured

[whitespace] Theo's
Robert Scheer

Theo's Immaculate Concepts: Chef Pete Dressen of Theo's shows off his prawns with parsley chips and prawn borth while owners Greta and Ethan Hamm look on.

A recent dinner at Theo's--an edible Enlightenment--refreshed the whole idea of contemporary American cooking

By Christina Waters

IT'S ALWAYS a pleasure to introduce a new person to one of my favorite restaurants, and a break in the recent storms last week provided just the occasion for Frank to meet Theo's. The stone fireplace blazed, the table linens glowed and proprietor Ethan Hamm was performing his impeccable host role as we chose a spacious table for what was to be one of the finest meals we'd had all year.

Rolls still drowsy and warm from the oven were brought in a napkin. Celebrating a night without rain, we chose a bottle of 1994 Ridge Zinfandel from the splendid Pagani Ranch vineyards ($44); Theo's has a thoughtful listing of locally made red wines. One sip reminded us why this is one of the best wines made in California--one that would go well with whatever followed.

Our first courses of house-smoked salmon ($8) and garden salad with Stilton cheese ($7) both arrived on enormous white plates, whose wide rims were strewn with a confetti of garnish. Frank's trio of salmon rosettes arrived on tender potato blinis frosted with crème frâiche.

The zest of lemon confetti provided more visual confusion than flavor contrast--a fat wedge of lemon or several transparent slices might have done as well. Frank dubbed the central nest of tasteless cucumber strips an "annoyance," but the salmon was divine--not overly smoked and very fresh and clean-tasting.

My salad was a deluxe garden of field lettuces, long on oak leaf, arugula and mâche and tossed in a subtle, perfectly balanced vinaigrette. Crumbles of ripe, pungent Stilton cheese--one of the great blues--infiltrated the greens and harmonized with walnuts that had been tossed all around the rim of the plate. I think we can dispense with this conceit of decorating every inch of plate--it's been done. And with food this good, it's superfluous.

The wine had opened into a new world symphony of spice and brambles when the entrees appeared. We were momentarily stunned. The plates were so beautiful. Frank had succumbed to the charred Angus filet mignon ($24), which arrived like Cleopatra's barge on a Nile of red wine reduction.

The thick, rare filet sat atop a crispy potato galette that was tender and moist inside, crunchy along the edges. Visually, it was an immaculate conception--a circular pool of deep red sauce, a slender sphere of potato beneath the oval of beef topped with a circle of greens. And it tasted even better than it looked.

My roast duck ($19) was one of the outstanding winter dishes I can recall. Slices of rare, pink duck breast fanned out on a bed of creamy-rich duck confit. This architecture of game had been studded with tiny root vegetables--infant carrots, thumbnail white turnips, slender scallions. The sweet tartness of kumquats, an inspired accent, suffused the entire dish. It was glorious, and utterly appropriate to the time and place.

The desserts ($6.50 each) looked and tasted like edible poetry. My warm and fragile chocolate cake was adorned with a filigree of Belgian chocolate and a side of homemade ginger ice cream. I began to understand what all the fuss about chocolate really was about. Frank's blood-orange tart, enhanced by a layer of crème Anglaise, was the perfect foil for his robust steak.

This was easily the finest meal I've ever eaten at Theo's; it made me a born-again fan of this terrific venue.

Address: 3101 N. Main, Soquel
Phone: 462-3657
Cuisine: New American
Price: Moderate to expensive
Chef: Pete Dressen
Hours: Tue.-Sat. from 5:30pm. Closed Sun.-Mon.
Ambiance: *** Intimate charm rules in this tasteful boutique restaurant.
Service: **** Discreet, sensitive and warm, the service is impeccable, with the proprietor attending in the background.
Cuisine: ***1/2 Distinguished by clarity and integrity of ingredients, the kitchen creates minimalist works of art and then stands back.
Overall: Theo's remains one of the consistent treasure houses of Central Coast gastronomy, where expertise threads through each course.
****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the March 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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