Oak Tree Ristorante
Soif Wine Bar & Restaurant
Oak Tree Ristorante
Imaginative chef Sebastian Nobile takes inspiration from a world of flavors. He combines Tuscan bread, mascarpone cheese, and wasabi-infused tobiko to produce a unique bruschetta. Nobile created this appetizer after a good meal at a sushi restaurant inspired him to take a traditional Italian dish and try something new. During a recent lunch at Oak Tree Ristorante, where Nobile is chef and owner, the bruschetta was offered as a daily special. The smooth creamy mascarpone complements the texture of the thick layer of tobiko (flying fish roe). The wasabi flavor is strong but doesn’t overpower the dish; in fact, the last sensation you experience is the taste of well-grilled Italian bread.
Nobile is committed to continuously developing new culinary delights. “I don’t like doing things the same ways they’ve been done,” he says. “I want to create new flavors, new foods, new combinations.” For the pork ribs entrée at Oak Tree he took a traditional dish from Uruguay and put a Hawaiian spin on it, including pineapple barbecue sauce. It’s now one of the restaurant’s most popular selections.
Nobile culls from his international background to cross culinary boundaries. Born in Uruguay, his parents are both Uruguayan but his grandfather—who loved to cook—was Italian. Nobile grew up watching and learning from his grandfather. “That’s where I first learned the basics like the tomato sauce, the Bolognese. He wouldn’t really have recipes. He would add a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I feel cooking is really in your mind.”
The chef’s first restaurant job was in Spain in 1992, at Hostal del Cacador in Sobrestany. His later experience includes cooking at his brother’s restaurant in Uruguay. After moving to Felton he worked at Italian restaurant La Bruschetta, then of In Vino Veritas. When an opportunity arose to open his own restaurant for the first time at the former site of La Bruschetta, he seized it. He remodeled and restored the restaurant, transforming it into Oak Tree Ristorante which opened in July 2009.
At Oak Tree, Nobile frequently rotates specials based on different ideas and inspirations. These also depend on what’s fresh and seasonal. He strives to make customers happy, so even if you don’t hear a dish announced on the specials or see it on the menu, you can ask and he might make it for you. During my lunch visit, a customer requested a pizza that was not on the menu—and he made it. Nobile explains, “Because we make all our bread here, I have dough available so I was able to make a pizza. If I can, I do it. I think it makes a big difference.”
Nobile believes in using local suppliers and local ingredients whenever possible. He regularly shops at farmers markets in Felton and Santa Cruz. He uses produce from Dirty Girl Farms, and employs local mushroom foragers. The results of their labors can be tasted in Nobile’s Tre Funghi Gnocchi with local porcini, chanterelle, and black trumpet mushrooms. The dish, with rosemary cream sauce, is exquisitely earthy.
Nobile offers a chef tasting to sample a variety of dishes, and he clearly revels in creating these. “You can get a really nice picture of what we do here,” he notes. The five-course meal costs $49 for two people, or $59 for two with two glasses of wine. Customers can request an emphasis, like meat, seafood, or vegetarian—or a combination—or leave it up to Nobile. A specific dish can even be requested as one of the courses (otherwise, the meal may feature some menu selections or may feature nothing from the regular menu). For example, choose the menu’s Beet Salad as a course: the combination of organic roasted beets, boiled eggs, scallions, cucumber, and greens works perfectly. Of course, there are other dishes to consider: the most popular are meat-based (the aforementioned pork ribs, Spaghetti Bolognese with natural angus beef-sauce, Rack of lamb). The ravioli, handmade on site like all the pastas, are also well loved.
Of utmost importance to Nobile is that his customers leave satisfied. And at Oak Tree Ristorante, Nobile has the freedom to cook what he likes and cook what people are craving. “I like being a chef because it’s never the same. Some restaurants have the same menu all the time. Here, every time someone walks in, it’s going to be a different thing.” Customers appreciate Nobile’s enthusiasm and flexibility. They also are fans of the restaurant’s promotions; current “winter specials” (so popular they will continue at least partway through spring) include a complimentary bottle of wine with the purchase of two entrees on Tuesday nights. | Tara Fatemi Walker
Oak Tree Ristorante, 5447 Highway 9, Felton, 335-5551. Open Mon-Thurs 4-10pm, Fri-Sun 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Visit oaktreeristorante.com.
Meat and bread marry amidst the flames in this Aptos haven
On Dec. 5, after 15 months of planning, remodeling, and testing, Aaron and Nancy Duncan posted a Facebook message announcing to fans that SmoQe would finally serve its first dinner that evening at 5 p.m. By 5:15, there was a line out the door to what has become a wildly popular Aptos eatery.
Aaron Duncan says his parents were great cooks. Raised in a multi-ethnic community, his mother learned to cook from scratch from her neighbors, and his dad barbecued everything.
As a young man, Duncan enjoyed making meals for himself, as well as friends, and decided to make some money catering on the side. Five years ago, he and a friend built a trailered wood-fired pizza oven.
“Humans are drawn to the hearth, and the flames and the warmth it creates,” Duncan says. “It’s something deep in our DNA.”
Considering his two favorite foods, wood-fired pizza and his dad’s barbecue, and their common denominator, wood, Duncan found the concept for a restaurant, so a few years ago he added barbecue to his catering repertoire.
Leaving his day job as Equipment Manager for Granite Construction, Duncan began to build SmoQe. The building, a restaurant for years, had never been permitted as such, and current county codes necessitated a complete interior makeover.
Duncan explained that barbecue is very particular to each region. SmoQe’s brisket, he says, is very old-school Texas; dry-rubbed with spices and a lot of pepper and smoked for up to 24 hours. The pulled pork is strictly Carolinian, except that he uses maple syrup and rice vinegar in the sauce. He uses non-traditional woods as well, local apple and live oak, believing it’s neither economically nor environmentally sound to ship from the East.
Duncan’s smoker is also unique, running on wood without the benefit of gas or electricity to maintain a constant temperature.
“We smoke meat here 24-hours a day,” Duncan says. “I was sleeping here, waking up every hour and a half to throw a couple sticks on the fire. It’s just a super labor-intensive kind of food we do here.”
A week after opening, Duncan hired Chef Jeff Shapiro from Gabriella’s, who noticed Duncan’s posting on Craigslist.
“I’ll prep, I’ll do whatever needs to be done,” Shapiro said. “I want something new. I was pretty much hired that night. He was just pulling crazy shifts all over the place. Now there’s two of us.”
“I’ll be honest,” Duncan adds, “it is way more challenging than I thought it would be. I’ve always been the guy cooking. Now I’m training people. That is a huge challenge, huge.”
Duncan designed the SmoQe brand carefully, hoping to open sister smoqers in the future. And true to his values, everything at SmoQe is made from scratch, including spice rubs and pizza dough. Every day 50 pounds of flour is used to make the latter. Duncan spent two years perfecting the weather-dependent combination of flour, water, salt and sugar.
Duncan is still visited by various food purveyors who try to sell premade products.
“Our food has some passion and love behind it,” Duncan beams. “As hard as it is for us to create that kind of food here, I still want to do it.” | Karen Petersen
SmoQe, 10110 Soquel Dr., Aptos, 662-2BBQ. Beer and wine. Open Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Takeout available. Closed Mondays.
Soif Wine Bar & Restaurant
Talk to Santos Majano about being the chef at Soif, and his face lights up with excitement. “I can change the menu every day if I choose, either an entire dish or an element of a dish,” he says. “I get the freedom of playing with the menu depending on what’s freshest at the Farmers Market. I also get to work with people that are passionate about food and wine, like Patrice and John.”
Majano is referring to owner Patrice Boyle and wine director John Locke. Most dishes on Soif’s seasonally focused menu have suggested wine pairings. Locke designs the continuously changing wine list based on Majano’s creations, and leads weekly mandatory wine classes for all staff. As Boyle says, “The classes lay a base for real knowledge about wine in general, how to speak about wines, what to look for, and how to pair them with foods. It makes it easier for our customers to try things because there’s a little bit of guidance.”
Majano joined Soif in August 2008. Before Soif, he was at two-Michelin-star restaurant Cyrus in Healdsburg. He began cooking in 1997 at age 17, when he moved to Monterey from El Salvador. He worked at Taste Café in Pacific Grove, Café Rustica in Carmel Valley, and other venues before joining Cyrus. Taste Café first provoked Majano’s passion for cooking. “I discovered I really love being in the kitchen. From then on, it’s grown.” Today, Majano receives the most joy when customers love his food. “It’s the feeling a chef dreams of. When I hear people are happy, that makes me want to do even more interesting things.” Inspiration also comes from weekly farmers markets, and Majano incorporates produce from local farms such as Windmill Farm and fish from vendors including Stagnaro Bros. and Royal Hawaiian Seafood. All seafood that Majano prepares meets the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program’s sustainability requirements.
When Soif opened in 2002, the menu focus was on appetizers and entrees, with a limited selection of small plates. More small plates have appeared as the restaurant has evolved. These lend themselves well to tasting different wines with different foods. “About two years after we opened, we added a lot of small plates,” Boyle says. “Now one page is filled with small plates plus a cheese selection, and one features appetizers and entrees.”
The food and wine pairings are a partnership between Majano and Locke. Majano decides the dishes, and Locke follows. The food comes first, not the other way around. “It’s easier for us to match to what he’s doing,” Locke says. It would be more difficult if there were five or six red wines, five or six whites. But with 20-25 whites, and the same reds, on the list at one time, there’s enough diversity for whatever Santos creates. We can find something that goes perfectly together.” The international list includes many European selections. Soif’s retail wine area adjacent to the restaurant offers 400-plus choices. “That’s a great advantage, having the wine shop; it’s easy to find something that goes with each dish,” Majano adds.
“There’s a slight seasonality to the wine list,” Locke says. “In February there were a lot of rich, cool-weather reds on the list. And lamb shanks, things like that on the menu.” During a February dinner, a farro soup appetizer featured braised lamb and cumin crème fraiche. It is simultaneously hearty and light, the lightness due to the broth base. The soup features tender, thin meat and savory broth suffused with the ingredients’ flavors harmonizing beautifully. A crème fraiche dollop in the center is a successful complement.
Majano adeptly constructs a global menu. At any given time, one may find dishes with influences ranging from Europe to Japan to South America. A recent menu included scallops with Moroccan accents, and spinach gnocchi with fresh ricotta. Soif’s broad wine selection enhances Majano’s creations. The result is an opportunity for customers to taste new flavors together, and Majano relishes this. “For me, Soif is very special. I like being in a unique place where they really care about food, wine, service, and the whole experience.”
| Tara Fatemi Walker
Soif Wine Bar & Restaurant, 105 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz. Call 423-2020 for reservations. Open Mon-Thurs 5-10pm, Fri-Sat 5-11pm, Sun 4-10pm. http://soifwine.com.
Cava is one of those wine-tasting places where it’s hard not to have a good time. As serious as owner Cliff Livingston (pictured) is about wine, he wants his customers to have fun whilst they’re imbibing.
Cava started up four years ago when Livingston and his then-partner Zach Worthington shared their dream of opening up a wine bar after meeting whilst working at Zuni Café in San Francisco. These days, Livingston is solely at the helm as Worthington decided to pursue a further degree and has left the business.
Especially entertaining are Tuesday nights, when Meet Your Maker takes place at 7 p.m., followed by a pub quiz at 9 p.m.
On one particular Tuesday, award-winning winemaker Adam LaZarre poured four of his absolutely gorgeous wines, two under his own LaZarre label and two of Villa San-Juliette Winery, where he’s the winemaker in Paso Robles. He and Livingston share a genuine passion for wine and both are having a great time pouring and chatting to customers as the wine bar gradually fills up. Livingston’s wife Felice arrives to help out, and by the time the pub quiz starts, there isn’t a seat left in the house. “Who played the role of the Lone Ranger* in the TV series,” Livingston yells out, obviously relishing his role in the 20-question quiz—the prize for the winner being a bottle or two of wine.
Situated just three strides from the ocean in the heart of Capitola village, Cava is in an ideal spot. The wine bar’s neighbor is Caruso’s Italian restaurant—and food can easily be sent over if Cava’s appetizers are not enough. Livingston likes to serve up quality food—some Grano Padano Italian cheese, Lucques olives from Provence, white anchovies and some peppery Olio Nuovo dipping oil from California are all available that particular Tuesday, with menu changes to suit the season.
Although there are plenty of local wines on Cava’s shelves, Livingston likes to offer a wide range of other selections from all over the world—a Cabernet from Australia, a Chardonnay from France or Argentina, a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, and many more— by the flight or by the bottle.
As well as quiz night on Tuesdays, Wednesdays feature a live jazz band—with a 30 percent discount on bottles—and Fridays offer the melodious sounds of classical guitar.
Livingston’s sense of humor shows in the names of his wine flights—Syrastafarian, Raizin’ Arizona, Chardo-name-that-tune—all with the featured wines listed—and Three Blind Mice—for a blind tasting that’s up to the wine bar what you’ll get. You really can’t fail to have fun at Cava. | Josie Cowden
Cava, 115 San Jose Ave., Capitola, 476-2282. cavacapitola.com. *Clayton Moore played the role of the Lone Ranger.
Soif Wine Bar & Restaurant
Soif (French for “thirst”) is not simply a wine bar but an upscale restaurant as well. Thanks to executive chef Santos Majano and sous chef Kirk Lowe, the pleasure of trying the many different wines that Soif has to offer is enhanced by gourmet food as well.
Owner Patrice Boyle has garnered years of knowledge in the wine business; and John Locke, marketing director, wine buyer and wine guru extraordinaire, goes the extra mile to make sure that Soif carries quality, interesting wines. He also does a weekly staff training to keep employees up to speed with any new wines on the list.
The Wine: Soif prides itself on its eclectic variety of wines from California and all over the world. As well as featuring the well-known wine countries of Spain, Italy, France and Germany, there are also wines from Australia, New Zealand, Austria and Portugal. There is even one from an area that most people don’t think of particularly as a wine region—the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
The Food: Soif offers an interesting array of choice appetizers. Especially good are the pan-seared scallops with potato risotto and black trumpet mushrooms, and the pan-fried local sardines served with lacinato kale from Route One Farms in Santa Cruz. Entrees include spinach gnocchi, stuffed quail and braised lamb shank – each and every dish paired with a suggested wine, and all of it fresh, local and organic. And if you’re a dessert lover, then a warm chocolate cake paired with a Ferreira 20-year Tawny Port is your ticket to paradise.
The Service: Server John Weishaar offers the kind of professional service that is rarely found – attentive, informed, polite and unobtrusive. All staff members go out of their way to make you feel like a very special guest. There has been a conscious effort to raise the level of service that Soif brings to its customers, and it shows that it has met its goal.
The Beer: If wine doesn’t fit the bill, Soif offers a dozen different beers—with brews from Mexico, Bavaria, Belgium, Japan and England.
The Events: Soif has a series of events coming up. In addition to Wine 101 on March 11 and 18, there is also a Pinot Noir class scheduled for April 1, and a BioDyamic, Organic and Sustainable class on April 21. Classes run from 6-7:30 p.m. and are limited to 14 people. Soif also now features Oyster Night on Mondays—paired with the toe-tapping sounds of Hot Club Pacific, a gypsy-jazz trio. Oysters are featured all night and music begins at 7 p.m. | Josie Cowden
Soif Wine Bar & Restaurant, 105 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz, 423-2020. soifwine.com.
A favorite spot frequented by locals and visitors is Vino Prima. It’s easy to see why when you visit their tasting room in what has to be one of the most stunning spots in the area—right at the end of the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. It’s in this marvelous setting where you can enjoy not only a lovely glass of wine, but also watch sea lions, pelicans, gulls, and other amazing marine life, frolic in the briny.
What could be nicer as you sip on your Silver Mountain Syrah, a Quinta Cruz Graciano, or a Burrell School Zinfandel, all good local wines, than to enjoy the panoramic view of the Monterey Bay through the windows of Vino Prima’s cozy tasting room. With well over 100 different wines to choose from, there’s certainly something to please everyone—from an Odonata Cellars Grenache to a Poetic Cellars Viognier to a Salamandre Pinot Blanc—it’s all right there for the tasting.
Vino Prima features boutique California wines by the flight or by the glass. Owners Larry Jackson and Stacey Rennert greet their customers like old friends, and they’re happy to make suggestions on the variety of flights they offer each day. When asked about wine trends, Rennert says, “Sometimes people want all Cabs, another time it’s all Zin. But Chardonnay flights are the most popular as the weather gets warmer.” Vino Prima carries quite a few wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains. “We love to support local,” adds Rennert.
Admiring the underwater photography around the walls, Rennert gestures toward a man seated at the bar. He happens to be the photographer, Jim Kirklin. His impressive display is from trips to the Solomon Islands, Philippines and various other places.
A plate of cheese and crackers is available at Vino Prima, but more substantial fare can be ordered and sent over from Olitas Bar & Grill or Carniglia’s—the wine bar’s next-door neighbors on the wharf. And if you dine in these restaurants, the corkage fee is waived if you buy your wine from Vino Prima.
As well as a Monday through Friday Happy Hour from 3-6 p.m. Vino Prima has a series of wine education classes coming up—planned for Sundays from 2-4 p.m. And a new fun event is a blind tasting from 6:30-8 p.m. on Tuesdays—when the wharf gives you two hours of free parking with validation. This is your chance to see how good your taste buds are and rate five bottles of different wine for $15. And UnWINEd Wednesday features a different wine each week—from 6-9 p.m.
There’s always something happening at Vino Prima, and, as the wine bar quite rightly declares, “It’s not just a wine bar—it’s a destination.” | Josie Cowden
If you’re looking for good local wine, then your best bet is Vinocruz. Wineries belonging to the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation appreciate this upscale wine shop—as Vinocruz carries close to 70 different labels of locally made wine and about 150 varieties. Occasionally, owners J-P Correa and Jeffrey Kongslie carry something made elsewhere, but their whole raison d’être is to showcase the wineries of this area.
Located in Abbott Square in downtown Santa Cruz, Vinocruz is a happening spot. On any given day, J-P has a few bottles open for customers to taste, and wine tastings featuring a designated winery are regular events. This gives the public the opportunity to get to know the wines without driving all over the mountains to out-of-the-way locations.
Wine Club: “Our wine club is growing really well,” says J-P. “One of the things our club members really appreciate is that with every shipment they’re getting different wines from different wineries. If you belong to a winery it’s the same wine every time, so with Vinocruz you get a lot more versatility.” Typically, three bottles are shipped out every quarter. Wine club members get brand new releases and sometimes pre-releases—all at a discount of 10 percent. “We work very closely with the wineries to get really exclusive products,” he adds. “We have a pick-up party when members can come in, eat some food and pick up their wine. And if they can’t make the party, they get two free tastings.”
New Trends: “Customers love Rhone blends, Sangiovese blends and Cab blends—those are doing very well across the board,” says J-P. He mentions a couple of white blends—a Bonny Doon Cigare Blanc and a Sones Cellars Calcion del mar—that are in demand, and one of his of top sellers is the Generosa Tuscan Wedding, a blend of Syrah, Sangiovese and Cabernet. “People are becoming much more adventuresome with varietals they’ve never heard of, like Viognier, Verdelho, Malbec and Grenache. I love it when somebody tastes wine they’ve never tasted before. It’s always wonderful to see somebody try something for the first time.”
Special Events: Vinocruz holds many special tastings with wineries that are not usually open to the public—such as Kathryn Kennedy, an internationally recognized winery. The Kathryn Kennedy Winery tasting is an upcoming event, and others on the books are Ridge Vineyards, Sonnet Wine Cellars and La Rusticana d’Orsa.
New Wineries: “One of the things this last year that’s been so rewarding for us is supporting young winemakers who’ve just started out,” says J-P. “We were the first store to sell wines such as Odonata Cellars and Le P’tit Paysan—made by winemakers in their thirties. We’re now seeing this whole new phase of our business—the up and coming young winemakers. It’s just wonderful to show somebody a wine that they’ve never heard of.” | Josie Cowden
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