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Alfresco Ambiance

[whitespace] Chaminade Sunset Dining Room
George Sakkestad

Room with a View: Beverlie Hillis, Chaminade's executive chef, masterminds the restaurant's culinary delights.

Every table offers a dramatic view of the Monterey Bay up at the welcoming hilltop sanctuary that is Chaminade

By Christina Waters

IT'S NEVER BEEN A CHORE for me to visit Chaminade, the forested getaway that hosts corporate retreats and moonlights as a delightful place to while away the cocktail hour. Like many fans of the former Catholic prep school turned enlightened conference facility, I've attended seminars here, toasted the opening of the symphony season and hiked the mountaintop trails before plunging into Chaminade's inviting swimming pool. It's a few minutes' drive from Capitola and Santa Cruz, but for all the sense of luxurious isolation, it might as well be a million miles away.

Our most recent excuse to check out the Friday evening Seafood Buffet ($26.95) was an invitation from our good friend Paolo, a cabaret crooner turned systems analyst who wanted to wrap up his three-day team-building gig at Chaminade with an alfresco dinner.

A wedding was unfolding on the far lawn as we took our seats under the pink umbrellas and sank into the spell of the patio. A peach-toned sunset crept softly over the lawn--a lawn that begins at the patio and just keeps rolling all the way down into Chaminade's stately eucalyptus groves. We caught the occasional whiff of mesquite, fired up and busily grilling salmon and the evening's special trout filets. A bottle of Frog's Leap Merlot 1995 ($42) would do nicely, we all agreed. And so did our skillful server, whose confident style added enormously to our enjoyment of the meal.

But from where I sat, inhaling the soft summer twilight, it would have been impossible for anything to hamper our enjoyment. We sat and sipped, gazed down at the lights twinkling at the Yacht Harbor and felt completely lulled into contentment.

Starting on the first of several courses, we began by adding salads, then cold seafood appetizers and finally sushi rolls to our plates. Trading notes, we all agreed that the Caesar salad was way better than it had to be for buffet fare. I loved mashing bits of gorgonzola from the cheese tray into some poached salmon, sliced from the whole fish displayed near an impressive swordfish ice sculpture.

Frank scooped up the scallop ceviche, while Paolo and I munched away on the zesty prawns, steamed in barbecue spices and served in their shells. We dipped the delicious sushi rolls in wasabi and soy, added pickled ginger and feasted.

Plates whisked away, we went back for our next foray. The guys ordered the special trout, served butterflied and topped with a creative pineapple-papaya chutney. The flavors harmonized nicely, and the fish was deliciously moist. "Excellent" was their joint opinion. I perversely had a slice of rare roast beef custom cut for me from a beautiful roast the size of a Coupe DeVille--not an official part of the seafood buffet, perhaps, but still wonderful. There was also grilled salmon that was enhanced by flecks of fennel, and the rosemary roast potatoes were almost as tasty as the grilled eggplant and squash mélange.

Taking your time, pacing yourself, deciding on exactly what you'd like to sample next--all are part of the charm of this upscale buffet.

Paolo reminded us that he'd been sampling Chaminade's buffets over the course of several days while attending meetings, and that he'd enjoyed everything--"especially the desserts."

Paolo was right on about the desserts, prettily displayed in rank upon rank of goblets, bowls and silver trays. I actually dug into my frothy passionfruit mousse before I even got it back to the table--tangy and sweet, it tasted like the ultimate comfort dessert. The carrot cake was classic, but even better was a slab of warm raspberry bread pudding. Tiny confection bars, some chocolaty, others lemony, also proved excellent. And of course there were cheesecakes and tortes--which we were simply too full to sample.

The moon rose over the bay as we sipped decaf from tall white mugs. The atmosphere at Chaminade is matchless for unwinding over a nice meal with good friends.

Chaminade Sunset Dining Room
Address: One Chaminade Lane, Santa Cruz
Phone: 831/475-5600
Hours: Nightly buffet 5:30-9:30pm; breakfast buffet daily 7am-9:30am; Champagne brunch Sun 10am-2pm; lunch buffet Mon-Sat 11:30am-2pm.
Ambiance: **** Seating outdoors on the patio is sheer serendipity--and the indoor dining room has charm to spare
Service: *** Excellent staff-- knowledgeable, swift and pleasant
Cuisine: **1/2 Fine buffet fare, freshly grilled items and generous array of choices
Overall: Idyllic Chaminade gives buffet dining a good name.

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From the September 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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