Casablanca Bistro offers inviting fare and stunning views
Located on the site of the enormous turreted, Victorian Sea Beach Hotel, which burned to the ground in 1912, the historic Casablanca Inn and Bistro was once the secluded private residence of Marcel Cerf. From our window seat in the multi-level Casablanca Room we admired the fog bank hugging the horizon at the edge of the sapphire bay. On Main Beach below, volleyball players frolicked under the spring day's final hour of sun.
We were served focaccia bread with thick walnut pesto bearing a lovely, strong basil flavor. Presented in a luxurious, heavy cover, the focused menu began with a handful of small plates ($5 to $9), soup and salad ($7 to $12). The selection ranges from the nutritious simplicity of pimento-spiced almonds ($6) and mixed Mediterranean olives ($5) to the complexity of bacon-infused chowder with whole baby clams ($7/$9) and tri-tip salad ($12) with feta, kalamata olives and grape tomatoes.
The special appetizer of the day was an Ahi Martini ($12). Topped with iridescent strips of sesame oil-dressed seaweed and orange maguro fish roe, the cubes of raw, purplish tuna had both a mirin-like sweetness and a hint of dried chili heat. The spicy bottle of Napa's Hall Merlot ($32) was an enjoyable companion.
The dinner menu ($12 to $26) incorporates pasta, a steamed vegetable plate with garlic-saffron aioli, beef, chicken and fish. I enjoyed the Prosciutto-stuffed Chicken Breast ($18), served on a velvety plateau of rich mashed potatoes. Stuffed also with sharp goat cheese, it was covered lightly with a thick sauce, nicely spiced with Dijon mustard, and was served with three plump spears of asparagus, drizzled with sweet balsamic reduction.
A number of sides are also available ($5). I was disappointed by the night's Mac & Cheese. Fat ridged Italian pasta elbows were topped with a crisp bread crumb crust, but I found little flavor in the thin rich sauce at the bottom of the oval casserole.
The seafood served at Casablanca is ocean-friendly based on the definition of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and fresh salmon ($19) was one of the night's special entrées. The soft pink fish was served over a mound of nut-studded rice, and also plated with asparagus.
At the flagstone-fronted Bistro Bar downstairs you'll find lunch, weekday happy hours, and after-dinner beverages. A brisk breeze accompanied lunch which was comfortably offset by a windbreaker and the mid-day sun. My chair on the four-table patio afforded a front row seat to the parade of sun-lovers ushering in summer. A pile of sea lions barked loudly from a dock along the wharf. Numerous large groups gathered on the beach across the street, and sand-covered children squealed with glee in celebration of the end of the school year.
The lunch menu offers a couple of bites, three small plates including a half dozen Kumumoto oysters ($14), a few salads, wild-caught salmon chowder, and numerous sandwiches ($5 to $12) which are served with fries or a salad.
The basic grilled cheese ($5) or pulled pork and Cheesy Mac ($9) sandwiches can be embellished ($6) with spreads as far ranging as spicy harissa remoulade and fig jam, six varieties of cheese, vegetables including caramelized onions, and meats ($4) such as grilled steak or salmon.
I can foresee future visits, as I had trouble choosing between the sandwiches including oven-roasted turkey with cranberry ($9), a toasted croque monsieur ($11) with Niman Ranch ham, mornay sauce and Jarlsberg cheese, a BLT with house-smoked bacon ($8), house-ground sirloin burger, and hot pastrami ($9) with melted Swiss cheese.
I nibbled on an assortment of Mediterranean olives ($5) while anticipating the Chicken Salad Sandwich ($12). Marinated in olive oil, garlic and oregano, they ranged from very ripe kalamatas with a sharp, bitter tang, to firm green and meaty cousins, and were served with grape tomatoes, strips of onion and a piece of feta cheese.
In the sandwich was beautiful white meat and minced sweet onions, lightly dressed with mild garlic aioli, tomato and soft butter lettuce. The crusts of the potato bread were crisp, and the provolone cheese melted to bring out its smoky flavor. The nicely sized mixed baby greens salad with sliced grape tomatoes was delicately coated with a flavorful, fruity vinaigrette.
The Casablanca Inn & Bistro, 101 Main St., Santa Cruz, 426-9063. Full bar. Open Tuesday through Sunday with lunch from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. and dinner from 5 p.m. Happy hour Wednesday through Friday 3 to 6 p.m. Visit casablanca-santacruz.com.
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