You can see the difference before you even enter the restaurant, as windows on the sidewalk look into the open kitchen. What was known as Gilbert's on the Wharf is now Gilbert's Firefish Grill, alluding to the new mesquite grill, which brings a unique technique to the Municipal Wharf's culinary repertoire.
You'll still find fried calamari, lightly breaded sand dabs, and Fisherman's Pasta, but the fresh catch can now be grilled. How's that for healthy?
The Mesquite-Grilled Chicken Sandwich ($10.95) caught my eye. On a huge, lightly garlic-buttered and toasted soft roll sat a whole butterflied breast with lettuce, tomato and red onion. It was grill-marked and as smoky as I had hoped. An order of Fish and Chips ($9.95) included three puffy herb-flecked pieces of seafood in an Anchor Steam beer batter. The fish was perfectly cooked, but the inside of the crust seemed underdone. The generous serving of soft, light-colored fries was well-seasoned. The coleslaw with green and purple cabbage and carrots was dressed lightly and nicely sweetened.
Adjoining Firefish, the Gilbert family's casual Woodies Cafe has also opened. The walls are decorated with posters from past Woodies on the Wharf events, as well as historic photographs, such as waves crashing against the long-gone Seabright castle. Orders placed at the counter can be taken to go, or enjoyed in the small restaurant. The kiddies' menu ($4.95) includes corn dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches. Entrée specials include Snapper Florentine ($11.95) with spinach and mushrooms. And there are plenty of familiar foods from the fryer ($7.95 to $12.95) including popcorn shrimp and scallops.
Sixties music from the likes of Three Dog Night and Gary Lewis played softly. Despite a large order ahead of me, lunch was ready before ten minutes were up. A sauce with large shrimp, mushrooms, crab, fresh garlic, and cream was poured over a slice of grilled sourdough bread in the Hot Crab Bake ($12.95), and topped with melted Monterey Jack cheese. On that day, this half sandwich was part of the daily special ($9.95) which included New England clam chowder. The cup was filled with lusciously thick soup flecked with herbs, and filled with potatoes, minced vegetables, and clams.
On another visit to Woodies I immensely enjoyed the Lobster Ravioli ($12.95). Steeped in a thin sauce, which bore the robust flavor of tomato soup enriched with cream and herbs, were scalloped, house-made rectangles of pasta, stuffed with sweet puréed lobster. It was served with a day's supply of perfectly al dente, unblemished vegetables.
Gilbert's Firefish Grill and Woodies Cafe, 25 Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, 423-5200. Full bar. Open daily from 11 a.m. to about 10 p.m. ★★★
On Sunday, Aug. 15, outrigger canoes will take to the waves for the 18th annual Aloha Races. The races are especially designed for new and novice paddlers. Come out to learn more about the Pu Pu O'Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Club, and enjoy the Polynesian Festival with shaved ice, Maori face painting, dance performances and flower leis. Admission is free. Aloha Celebrity Races and Polynesian Festival, Sunday Aug. 15 at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. Races begin at 9 a.m., festival at 11 a.m. For more information call 831-420-5273.
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