s we creep deeper into fall, sunflowers mature, the last of tomatoes hang on the vines, squash ripens, and roots are harvested. There is something about autumn that alters my appetite. Something, I wonder, that might reside in my DNA.
Birds build nests without the benefit of parental instruction. Do they hear voices whispering, “Build it!” as did Noah, and Ray Kinsella?
It is perhaps this same phenomenon that creates a craving for vegetables at this time of year unlike that of any other. Perhaps it is my ancestors, who lived before the advent of supermarkets, reminding me that fresh produce will soon become scarce.
It was this calling that brought me to Oswald where Chef Damani Thomas is known for seasonal menus. A couple who had just finished lunch recommended the Corn Soufflé ($13). “Petite, but sweet,” I think he said.
The late lunch atmosphere was subdued as Ray Charles crooned softly in the background. The menu offered, among other items, a Caesar Salad ($9) with the addition of chicken or trout ($4), and sandwiches ($11) including Pork Tenderloin with fruit mustard, and White Beans with spinach, pickled zucchini and red pepper aioli.
The soufflé, topped with late-season cooked and herbed tomatoes, puffed over the top of its white ramekin. Its soft and airy interior held kernels of sweet corn. Bands of melted cheese followed every tender forkful. It was joined by bright, earthy chard sautéed with bits of garlic. The tart mineral tones of 2006 Monterey De Tierra Merlot ($9) paired perfectly.
When we arrived for dinner, a lively congregation gathered in the standing-room-only bar, celebrating Oswald's monthly Tuesday art opening. Dinner tables were filled with joviality.
The cocktail menu ($8) included a citrusy Moscow Mule made with vodka, lime, and gingery ginger ale. The special, a 'wow-spicy' Fresno Chili Margarita ($10) held muddled pieces of fresh red peppers.
The night's special appetizer, creamy Duck Liver ($15), served with crisp herb and olive oil-drizzled crostini, was topped with sweet nectarines. We hurried to finish the Sherry-steamed Mussels ($10) before the traditional garlicky aioli melted entirely into the broth, which we then drank from large spoons.
With autumn entrées on the way, we chose a bottle ($36) of the same earthy Merlot. Flaky, slow-roasted Salmon ($24), cooked medium rare, sat atop sweet roasted butternut squash and diced Jerusalem artichoke, the tuber of an indigenous sunflower plant with a mild artichoke flavor.
The Roasted Chicken ($22), a half-breast with attached drumette, was served with the most wonderful roasted vegetable medley I can remember. Zucchini and mushrooms were joined by meaty salsify, the tap root of a flowering plant whose Greek botanical name translates to goat's beard. Also a member of the sunflower family, it is called the oyster plant because of its similarity in flavor.
If you enjoy prix fixe dinners, you will find them at Oswald every Wednesday night.
Oswald, 121 Soquel Ave. at Front St., Santa Cruz, 423-7427. Full bar. Serving lunch Tuesday through Friday
11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and dinner Tuesday through Sunday at 5:30 p.m. Visit oswaldrestaurant.com.
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