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Beauty of the Bistro

[whitespace] Bittersweet Bistro
George Sakkestad

The Sweetest Thing: Elizabeth and Tom Vinolus' Bittersweet Bistro gives Rio Del Mar a distinctively elegant dining experience.

A big beautiful bistro continues to draw crowds, thanks to its dynamic setting and opulent approach to cuisine

By Christina Waters

MY, HOW BITTERSWEET Bistro has grown, I noticed all over again last week while seated at the bistro's magnificent bar sipping a glass of outstanding 1996 Old Vine Zinfandel from Kenwood ($6). Memories of the small, cozy bistro once housed in a tiny space on Mission Street definitively have been erased by the bustling dining rooms, and replaced with the banquet facilities of the lavish Bittersweet Bistro in its Rio Del Mar location. The ripe berries and intensely concentrated earth tones of the excellent wine were opening just as our friends joined us and we took our seats in the central dining room.

The moment we sat down, water filled our glasses and pours of olive oil and a complex balsamic vinegar filled saucers next to a selection of breads. Service at Bittersweet is always swift, though this night it was also a bit shrill. Our server very rapidly recited the litany of specials as if auditioning for a Saturday Night Live skit and kept using the verb "enjoy" in place of "like," e.g., "What would you enjoy to drink tonight?" or "Would you enjoy pepper on your salad?"

Well, what we enjoyed was an evening special appetizer of seafood cakes ($12), two moist patties filled not only with fresh crab but with rock shrimp and salmon served with a rich and lemony tartar sauce. This dish was a clear hit, as was a straightforward order of fire-roasted artichoke served with a light dill mayonnaise ($6.50). Less satisfying, alas, was an order of the once-glorious salmon pastrami, which was so incredibly salty and pepper-encrusted as to erase even a hint of the sea--it was a ringer for beef pastrami. My roasted asparagus salad was beautiful ($10). A delicate forest of baby organic greens emerged through a heavy blanket of shaved locatelli cheese. The forest almost hid the few asparagus spears this pricey dish contained. The hazelnut vinaigrette was lovely, however, and went nicely with the soft, pliant francese.

The entrees proved uneven. My order of veal medallions--generously portioned, topped with brandied mushrooms and served with richer-than-God au gratin potatoes--tasted luxuriously European, the meat flavorful and treated with a light hand ($21). Jennie's order of grilled skirt steak ($19) was classic, the beef rare and tasty in its maple-soy marinade. But Jack's pepper-crusted halibut was inedible in its thick straitjacket of crushed pepper ($21). We sent it back--much to the obvious displeasure of our waitperson--and a lovely, edible version returned, naturally by the time the rest of us were ready for dessert.

Roy's grilled ahi tuna ($21) was fine but redundantly sauced with an unappetizing pool of Roquefort crème fraiche and a red wine demi-glacé, as though the kitchen felt the need to fuss for the sake of fussing. The two sauces conflicted to the point of canceling each other out.

Anxious to close our meal with some of chef Vinolus' justly renowned pastry creations, we joined our coffee with an order of chocolate mousse ($8.75) and my favorite lemon raspberry Napoleon ($7.50). Since these are pricey desserts, the kitchen chose to expand the portions. But the increase in size--and heavy-handed additions of bits of fruit--defeated the delicacy, the joie de vivre that was both possible and expected. The Napoleon was dauntingly glutted with delicious lemon pastry crème. There was an endless avalanche of the lemon filling--so much so that in order to hold the verticality of the layers together the kitchen had stabilized the dish with flame grapes. Flame grapes don't have anything to do with raspberry sauce or tangy lemon. Similarly thick slivers of kiwi fruit studded the quivering mound of pudding-like chocolate mousse. Great flavor, but an overly liquid texture. Why kiwi?

Hopefully, some fine-tuning and quality control can help freshen up some of Bittersweet Bistro's presentation, so that the culinary effects can continue to match the attractive setting.

Bittersweet Bistro
Address: 787 Rio Del Mar Blvd., Rio Del Mar
Phone: 662-9799
Chef: Thomas Vinolus
Service: ** 1/2 Can be expert, can be shrill and perfunctory
Ambiance: *** Very attractive setting, which gets loud when the house is filled; lounge is especially welcoming
Cuisine: *** Well-prepared, uses local and organic produce when possible, often fussy and overwrought presentation; smaller portions and lower prices would create a more balanced and satisfying experience
Overall: While no longer the intimate little bistro of yore, what Bittersweet has sacrificed in personal attention it has made up for in setting and volume

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From the March 17-24, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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