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View From the Top

[whitespace] Casablanca
George Sakkestad

View Master: Breathtaking views and the wonderful cuisine of chef Scott Cater (left) and sous chef Aaron Cunningham make Casablanca a destination spot.

An evening at Casablanca gives new culinary luster to happy dining memories--and a magnificent view to boot

By Christina Waters

THE NIGHT GLOWED indigo--the way it does just before it fades to black--and the wharf lights danced on the water as we headed home from our dinner at Casablanca. In almost two decades of dining here I've never acquired an immunity to this most beautiful view of waves and sky, of stately palms grazing the sunset. If the sight of Santa Cruz's wharf and main beach--backlit by the hills of Monterey--doesn't enchant you, it's possible your eyes are still closed.

Jack's eyes were wide open and soaking up the matchless panorama that sweeps from the Cocoanut Grove all the way across to Lighthouse Point as we settled into our window seat. While it's true that Casablanca's romantic setting--lots of candlelight and white linens, wraparound view and gleaming brass appointments--predisposes diners toward enjoyment, it's also true that the food here has never been better. And the service was warm, helpful, skillfully timed--completely delightful from start to finish.

Jack's eyes telegraphed an unmistakable yes when the waiter told us of a special Manila clam appetizer in a Pernod and sun-dried tomato broth ($10.95). His eyes continued their agreement at the sound of the nightly special grilled swordfish with three salsas ($19.95). Yes and yes, he smiled, while I ordered a salad of mixed baby greens with Roquefort dressing ($5.95) and a grilled filet mignon with wild mushroom demi-glacé ($25.95).

We began with a glass of surprisingly crisp-yet-floral sparkling wine from Groet in Albuquerque, N.M. ($5.75) and another of an outstanding non-vintage Livermore Valley zinfandel from Ahlgren ($6.50), as the gunmetal gray horizon seemed to disappear into the bay. The wide bowl of tiny clams in their shells was fragrant with licoricey Pernod, and we dipped our slabs of tender cakelike bread into a seafood broth tinged lightly with the anise liqueur and sun-dried tomatoes. "Everything here is notable," Jack said admiringly; "even the bread is distinctive."

And so was my salad, a bold and vivacious creation of delicious lettuces and a confidently creamy Roquefort dressing. Crumbles of the ripe blue cheese lounged among the lettuces--every forkful was wild with flavor.

Having successfully guessed the high clam count of Jack's appetizer--18 of those little beauties--I rewarded myself (Jack, too) with a split of Renwood "Grandmere" Old Vine Zinfandel Amador 1995 ($24) that was a veritable spice island in a bottle. Our accommodating waiter, Walt, was only too happy to bring the large-bowled glasses for our main-course wine--all the better to capture the abundant nose and voluptuous finish.

The grilled swordfish was sumptuous, salty/sweet with the taste of the sea, and while the resident sauces--a classic fresca, another with mango and a third with fiery serranos--had flair, they were gratuitous. The fish was that good, and so was its bed of rice pilaf and tender braised red cabbage.

Showing off its ability to walk on all sides of the culinary street, Casablanca's kitchen pulled off a terrific grilled filet. It was cooked exactly as I like, just past rare, with a plush topping of earthy mushrooms and a luxurious demi-glacé saucing. It arrived with a side of young spring vegetables, simply steamed. Obviously the produce buyer knows where to find the best ingredients. Twin turbans of scalloped potatoes, each pierced by a pungent sprig of fresh rosemary, completed this utterly satisfying dish.

Fine housemade cheesecake arrived with a few splashes of fresh mango puree, and a bowl of first-of-the-season strawberries was simple and delicious in a pool of crème Anglaise (both $5).

Casablanca is still a restaurant that lives up to its poetic--and cinematic--reputation.

Casablanca Restaurant
Address: 101 Main St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 426-9063
Hours: Dinner nightly from 5pm
Chef: Scott Cater; sous chef Aaron Cunningham
Ambiance: **** The view, the ocean, the soft lights, the tasteful music--all the elements of romantic dining are in place
Service: ***1/2 Skillful, alert, friendly--often with a welcome blend of confidence and sense of humor--the service exactly matches the mood
Cuisine: ***1/2 Playful when it wants to be, gloriously direct and expertly executed, the menu lives up to its promise
Overall: Casablanca belongs on everyone's "must" dining list--the combination of coastal ambiance and lovely food is unforgettable.

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From the April 14-21, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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