Santa Cruz Good Times

Nov 26th
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Lend Me a Hand

dining_GabriellaSaladGabriella Café blends incredible house-made pasta and charcuterie, local organic produce, sustainable fish and pasture-based beef

To mark our return home and the final day of vacation, my husband and I settled into a cozy table at Gabriella Café. It had been some time and a chef ago since our last visit.

We began the evening with a bottle of unfined and unfiltered Sangiovese from Healdsburg's Peterson winery ($34). Gabriella's famous focaccia that night was topped with green and sweet caramelized onions which took the edge off of our appetites.

We then enjoyed long paper-thin shavings of tender asparagus ($11) dressed with flowery Sevillano olive oil and topped with truffled pecorino sheep's milk cheese and bits of red kohlrabi.

The Mustard Greens salad ($10), a tangle of dark tendrils like a haunted forest but in no way foreboding, featured petite pink and deep purple beets, red onions, walnuts and thin, firm black ovals of blood sausage with a hint of spicy heat mixed with a wonderfully tart whole grain mustard vinaigrette. This plate showcased Gabriella's proud relationships with local entrepreneurs. The greens were from Lindencroft Farm, a CCOF-certified and sustainable farm in Ben Lomond, which not only generates their own power with photovoltaic cells, but also collects thousands of gallons of rainwater for their drip irrigation needs. The sausage was from El Salchichero whose proprietor Chris LaVeque, previously sous-chef at Gabriella and Bonny Doon's Cellar Door Café, uses Lindencroft's herbs as well as free-range and humanely raised pork in his line of charcuterie. LaVeque plans to open a westside butcher shop this summer in the Commons at Ingalls and Swift Street.

Both of our main courses were exceptional. The grass-fed beef plate ($25) featured tomato-braised short ribs over creamy, soft polenta. The tender meat fell into shreds from the wide bones. The chewy Bavette or flank steak, a less common cut that requires precise cooking and slicing, was grilled to perfection and served with smoky, al dente broccolini.

I was amazed by the total blackness of chapeau-like squid ink ravioli ($12 small/$18 large). Large circles of tender, house-made fresh pasta were stuffed with lemony nuggets of California halibut, oil-cured olives and sweet Dungeness crab and dressed with trendy brown butter sauce. Caper berries, which resemble green olives with thin, arching stems, added sour and salty notes.

For dessert, it was Semifreddo ($7). A slice of blood orange and chocolate mousse-like terrine was placed on a chocolate syrup-scored plate and topped with pieces of chopped chocolate and toasted hazelnuts.

Gabriella also serves lunch every weekday, and brunch on the weekends. On Monday nights dogs are invited to accompany their owners on the patio.

I enjoyed a quiet noontime nosh alone on the courtyard patio where the bright spring sun filtered through the corrugated fiberglass roof. The freshly made iced tea ($3) was strong and refreshing. My only disappointment, at both lunch and dinner, was that the servers could not fully answer questions about the chef's creations without a trip to the kitchen. But I again enjoyed the meal just the same.

I started with a salad of peppery baby arugula and sectioned citrus ($9) with almonds and finely sliced fennel bulb. The Satsuma fruit from Japan is similar in size and flavor to a Mandarin orange. The fresh salad was followed by a long white platter of cheese and house-made salumi ($15). The cheese was from Arcata, California, just north of Eureka, where Cypress Grove makes artisinal goat milk cheeses. I spread this earthy and luxurious Truffle Tremor ripened cheese on crisp crostini and red onion-topped focaccia. Sharing the plate were long white strips of cured fat called lardo. Paper-thin slices of smoked duck breast were reddish in color and almost translucent. Three columns of delicate slices of slender salami were a mosaic of peppery meat and large grains of flavorful fat. Another row of salami was finer in texture and also spiced with pepper. All were exceptionally flavorful – much different than mass-produced versions of this ancient art. The attention to detail in both taste and presentation remains in vogue at Gabriella Café.

Gabriella Café, 910 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, 457-1677. Beer and wine. Serving lunch weekdays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner nightly from 5:30 p.m.

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