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Pearls Before Wine

[whitespace] Pearl Alley Bistro
George Sakkestad

Marc of the Bistro: Pearl Alley Bistro's head chef Marc Westburg smooths international influences onto the restaurant's bistro fare.

Downtown Santa Cruz's most enduring bistro continues to do its artistic best

By Christina Waters

IF THE APOSTLES had selected a stylish "upper room" for that famous last supper, they could have done worse than to choose Pearl Alley Bistro. Here, the appealing decor is in constant transition, the burnished woodwork increases in warmth, and the wine list goes on forever.

Things seem especially vivacious when the two Marks are in residence--Marc Westburg at the kitchen helm adding some sexy seasoning twists to his bistro creations and Mark Curtis heading up the bar. There's always some new bevy of wines available by the glass--hard-to-get Rhône reds when Westburg devotes himself to Provençal recipes, or Australian chardonnays when the chef's mood goes "down under."

On our most recent visit, we took our favorite corner table under one of the beautiful leaded-glass windows and selected a jammy St. Clement Napa Merlot 1995 ($6.75) and a Limerick Lane Russian River Zinfandel 1996 ($6). I always love sampling new red wines at Pearl Alley, though we could have done a tasting of Oregon sakes--yes, sake from Oregon--since last month was Asian-fusion month at the bistro.

Westburg loves to experiment with ethnically influenced specials each month, and this time he gave a French/Japanese spin to dishes like fresh mozzarella and tomato salad, substituting lemongrass for basil in this Italian classic. The famous tricolored vegetable flan was still there, as were oysters Rockefeller and Caesar salad. But most of the menu offered headliners intriguingly seasoned with hoisin sauce, star anise, wasabi and ginger.

Nobody mixes culinary metaphors like Westburg. In his hands, the traditional caprese became a sparkling new creation. Tiny mozzarella balls--the same size as the salad's voluptuously ripe cherry tomatoes--arrived on a bed of radish sprouts ($6.75). All the elements were dusted with grated aged Parmesan and black sesame seeds and drenched in a wonderful lemongrass dressing.

"I love this version," gushed my companion, who orders salad caprese every time he sees it on a menu.

I, meanwhile, loved my half-portion of the house salad ($3) with baby greens, lightly garlicked croutons and plenty of fine balsamic vinaigrette.

Our next appetizer showed off Westburg's Asian artistry. It involved a bamboo basket containing a brace of spun daikon, shaved carrots and a half-dozen steamed dumplings filled with a luscious pork and ginger mixture ($6.75). A dipping sauce--extraordinary--of cilantro pesto and sweet Thai nam plah made an exactly on-target companion.

By the time our main courses arrived, our wine had opened up nicely. Jack's order of free-range chicken was an Asian spin on the roast-chicken bistro classic. A sweet nectarine glaze punctuated the moist flesh, and the generous portion was arranged on a bed of braised baby bok choy and asparagus ($16.50).

My braised beef short ribs received a thoroughly Mediterranean treatment ($14.75). Fat wedges of succulent rib had been liberally doused in a complex stew of red wine, black olives and rich, pliant white beans. Had the beef been braised just a bit longer, it would have been the quintessential bistro dish. The rosemary-scented Tuscan beans were wonderful interspersed with sips of merlot and bits of braised greens.

For dessert, we sipped the incomparable Bonny Doon vin de glaciere and split a "pizza" of sliced nectarines and a too-liquidy crème Anglaise. More nectarines would have been better, but nothing could have improved the spell cast by this bistro.

Pearl Alley Bistro
Address: 110 Pearl Alley, Santa Cruz
Phone: 831/429-8070
Hours: Daily, lunch 11am-5pm; dinner 5-11pm (Fri.-Sat. till 11:30pm).
Chef: Marc Westburg
Ambiance: *** 1/2 Hard to beat this palace of upscale bohemianism
Service: ** Can be great, can be a bit overly casual
Cuisine: *** Westburg has major chops, especially with bistro fare and often inspired ethnic variations
Overall: Easily one of the top dining environments in the area, with sparkle aplenty and a creative approach to both food and drink

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From the September 10-16, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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