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Wizards Of Oswald

[whitespace] Eric Lau and Damani Thomas
Robert Scheer

Air of Anticipation: Owner Eric Lau (left) and chef Damani Thomas show off one of Oswald's elegant main courses--beef carpaccio with capers, olive oil and Reggiano.

With its smart interior and polished ambiance, Oswald continues to offer downtowners sophisticated meals

By Christina Waters

SEATED IN THE TINY mezzanine, we could gaze down on the action in the main dining room while feeling cozy enough for conversation. Oswald invariably evokes an air of anticipation--I've had some of my finest Santa Cruz meals here.

Splashy artwork and an artistic clientele do most of the work of creating a mood of excitement. And without getting in the way, the food does the rest. With former sous chef Damani Thomas now at the helm, the menu continues its emphasis on seasonal crops, a few pastas and a bevy of bold meat dishes.

Warming up with big glasses of Gundlach-Bundschu Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 ($8) and Flint Pinot Noir 1995 ($6.50), we happily attacked the basket of Kelly's breads--especially an impeccable francese--and enjoyed the view of the crowd below.

My companion and I ordered two appetizer dishes that felt exactly like the winter that was busy turning into spring: a Napoleon of roasted beets and herbed goat cheese ($6.75) and a bowl of the evening's ravioli ($8). Both were aromatic--for deliciously different reasons.

The first dish was elegantly choreographed, a tiny layered torte of pink and white, surrounded with a froth of frisée and splashes of balsamic vinaigrette. The other order was hearty and comforting, consisting of plump house-made raviolis dusted with Italian parsley and filled with what amounted to a minced beef stew with onions. Simple, uncomplicated, even a bit unexciting in an earthy sort of way.

The layered creation was rich, filled with pink and red beets interspersed with tangy goat cheese. I would have liked to have seen even more of the greens and the wonderful dressing, so that the dish could have expanded into a genuine salad. As it was, we ate every trace, even wiping up final splashes of balsamic with bits of pain de compagne.

Both wines opened into memorable sipping. The pinot was graceful, loaded with plummy perfume. The huge, velvety cab made the perfect partner for my entree of rack of lamb ($18). Three thick little chops--bright crimson, exactly as ordered--topped a wedge of translucent scalloped potatoes inflected with butternut squash. A green cloud of fresh peas accompanied the main attractions. It all smelled luxurious.

Across the table my partner beamed at his evening's special of pan-roasted yellowtail ($18), a thick wedge of meaty white fish resting on a hash of black chanterelles, portobellos and sweet potatoes--a bold, successful concept. The fish had been splashed with white truffle oil before serving, producing a haunting musky edge to each bite. Save for a bit of overenthusiasm with the oil, this inspired dish, in which every element enhanced every other, was the star of the meal.

The lamb was delicious, every bite moist and tender. The potato gratin, compromised by its layers of squash, failed to deliver. A straightforward scalloped potato would have looked more appetizing and tasted less confusing. As it was, each bite promised richness that never materialized. We both agreed that every other pea was sweet and tender, with toughness invading the rest.

As usual, service at Oswald was on target--restrained yet helpful, always superbly timed--and we succumbed rather easily to the idea of dessert.

Bypassing the warm chocolate soufflé, we chose a seasonal trio of sorbets flavored with blood orange, Meyer lemon and mandarin. I also ordered the cinnamon bread pudding to share (both $5). The choices were brilliant.

Topped with a yellow nasturtium blossom, the large plate of icy sorbets was gorgeous to the eye. Each finely textured bite exploded with tartness. My companion adored the Meyer lemon; I was mad for the blood orange, a flavor popping up on fashionable menus everywhere right now. We both sighed over the pampering pudding, with a foundation of crème Anglaise that helped give it the feel and taste of world-class French toast.

While no single item threatened to change our lives--except those amazing sorbets--the meal was expertly turned out. Exactly what I've come to expect from Oswald.

Address: 1547 Pacific Ave., SC
Phone: 423-7427
Hours: Dinner nightly from 5:30pm (reservations taken until 10pm)
Chef: Damani Thomas
Ambiance: *** Smart, urban bistro with no pretensions
Service: *** On-target, attentive and helpful in making menu decisions Cuisine: *** Fine seasonal ingredients served with eye appeal and a sense of culinary style
Overall: Oswald continues to deliver fine value, with some exceptional dishes, in a gratifyingly stylish setting.
****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the March 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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