Ristorante Avanti's focus on local, sustainable ingredients continues to shine at its new location
With its move a few blocks up Mission Street, Santa Cruz’s revered Ristorante Avanti gains 30 additional seats and a full bar. Even with the extra capacity, it still took three tries to get a coveted weeknight reservation. You can’t blame the place for being so popular.
All this may prove to be good for Cindy Geise, who owns the restaurant with her husband Paul. The duo welcomed us on our first outing in the new locale, and the restaurant staff, always in perpetual motion, was neatly attired in cocktail dresses or meticulously ironed dress shirts.
The new location, which Hawgs Seafood once occupied, boasted shards of stacked flagstone-form classic arches throughout the interior, and artistic bent wire frames supported bulbous lamp shades. Fresh flowers joined a pepper grinder at every table. Although the restaurant was bustling with activity, numerous tables, including ours, enjoyed a leisurely tour through numerous courses.
Crusty Italian bread was served with green and purple olives in a dish of olive oil. We enjoyed our cocktails ($9) while reading the typewritten menus. The refreshingly minty Mojito had just the right touch of effervescence. A gin-based Negroni with a swath of orange zest, was tinged red by Campari bitters, while the Italian muscat-based vermouth offered a hint of sweetness.
Our server Elliott committed our order to memory. A pair of Salmon Cakes ($12) was served on a bed of lightly dressed arugula and topped with diced caper aioli. Sweet onion and flavorful chunks of pink salmon were bound together with airy biscuit-like dough.
The Caesar Salad ($7) with crisp romaine lettuce ported a very mild dressing, and was topped with grated Parmesan. The night's special insalata ($12) was a wonderful blend of soft, red-tipped butter lettuce and radicchio with flowers and bulbs from a fennel plant in a light anchovy vinaigrette, and topped with thin slices of lightly pickled green tomato. A fat caper berry crowned the herbed minced chicken liver on crostini: although chunky, the pâté had a luscious velvety texture.
For the main course, Lamb Skewers ($22) were served with pan-fried potato wedges, and smoky, roasted halves of baby artichokes. Two patties of tastefully seasoned ground lamb, like miniature burgers, were skewered and topped with an Italian-inspired tomato salsa fresca.
The night's pasta special was Spaghetti al Carbonera ($16), mildly flavored, and with a unique execution. Perfectly cooked pasta in a thin sauce was tossed with scrambled egg, a bit of uncured Italian bacon, and a very nice Tuscan Pecorino cheese. During the meal, the pasta soaked up the sauce, remaining moist throughout.
Each of the house-made desserts was enticing, but the Pot de Crème ($8), in addition to its chocolaty allure, seemed to be the least filling. Topped with lightly sweetened whipped cream sprinkled with dark chocolate, it was less a pudding, and more like the soft ganache center of a truffle. Its bittersweet flavor, based on Belgian dark chocolate from Callebaut's sustainably farmed cacao, melted dreamily in my mouth.
Avanti's trademark thin butter cookies arrived with the check; this time cinnamon-sugar hearts.
At lunchtime, when servers were dressed a bit more casually, warm rays of sunshine and a cool breeze drifted through the semi-open air patio, and only half of the parking lot was full. There were no olives in the oil today, but it tasted exactly like a ripe green olive.
Salade Niçoise ($11), one of my favorite composed Mediterranean salads, was small, but hearty enough to be filling. Skinny blanched green beans, ruby-skinned potatoes and fennel joined two large pieces of house-cured albacore tuna which carried the essence of fresh basil. It was topped with salty slices of Niçoise olives, an anchovy fillet and half of a medium-boiled egg; its center still soft and golden.
Eggplant Parmigiana ($12) was one of my dad's specialties, but I admit I found Avanti's version exceptional. Instead of egging, breading and frying the eggplant before baking, three slices of the aubergine vegetable were stacked, with cheese and herbs between them, before baking. Topped with fresh, tart marinara and a chiffonade of basil, the flavors of its tender flesh and smoky skin came through marvelously. It was served with soft polenta, possibly a medium grind like I use at home, leaving it a bit rustic with an occasional larger, chewy grain.
On this visit, I chose a heftier dessert, the seasonal Galette ($8). The edges of a thin, circular, ultra-flaky dough were partially folded over a layer of fresh sweet peaches and blackberries and sprinkled with sugar before baking.
As for the old location, employees confirm Avanti plans a pizza restaurant after the new location is operating ideally, perhaps by the end of the year. In the meantime, we look forward to Avanti’s new evolution.
Ristorante Avanti, 1917 Mission St., Santa Cruz, 427-0135. Full bar. Serving lunch weekdays 11:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., and dinner Sunday through Thursday 5-9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays until 9:30 p.m. Visit ristoranteavanti.com.
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