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Westside Story

[whitespace]  Jane Moynihan of Popa's
George Sakkestad

Top of the Popa's: Popa's waitress Jane Moynihan shows off a plate of prawn linguine with basil.

Popa's shows that it knows how to do lunch and a killer bread pudding

By Christina Waters

LAURIE REMEMBERED the dining room and its many delicious incarnations as fondly as I did. Formerly Zanzibar and then Cafe Bittersweet, the banquette-lined restaurant is now Popa's, where a small menu of seasonally fresh California cuisine ideas keeps regulars fed and happy at the very edge of Santa Cruz's Westside.

Dan Stolpe's exuberant colored prints line the walls in a visual echo of the chef's vivacious cooking style. Laurie and I were doing lunch, surrounded by relaxed escapees from university faculty meetings, so we were eyeing the chicken picatta, the grilled veggie sandwich and a luxurious-sounding fettuccine special with baby Manila clams ($7.95). Definitely the fettuccine, I thought, knowing that nothing pampers me like pasta in the middle of the day.

Laurie, cozily framed by the tapestried banquette, decided on a spinach salad entree ($8.95), but to begin with we split one of my house favorites, the barbecued prawns that come with black bean salsa and a sensuous drizzle of cilantro lime crème fraîche ($6.95).

We made friends with a basket of outstanding francese as we dipped the bread into a light, garlicky olive oil/balsamic blend. But, ah, the prawns. Moist and lightly grilled to the medium-rare point, each prawn preserved the kiss of mesquite. The black bean salsa was so good we consumed every trace and mopped up the last of the cilantro cream with bits of bread. This dish makes complete sense, conceptually as well as in balance of flavors. Alone, with bread and perhaps a small salad, it's an entire meal.

A small cup of wonderful potato soup, spiked with tarragon and a touch of cream, came next. We both found it delicious, but I selfishly ate the garlic crouton topping myself. And I felt little guilt about doing so. Popa's always makes nice soups--not many restaurants do, for reasons I have yet to fathom to my complete satisfaction--and this one was among the best.

A lavish salad of spinach, sliced green apples, feta, walnuts and grilled mushrooms arrived in front of Laurie. We had to move our plates aside to receive the dish, however, since the first ones had been neglected by our waitperson. This variation on the reigning salad craze--greens enhanced by bits of cheese, fruit and nuts--was a good one, and the walnut vinaigrette that coated each and every spinach leaf--tart and slightly sweet--was particularly confident.

My pasta special was lovely, everything pale yellow, thanks to plenty of lemon, olive oil, garlic and a generous flotilla of tiny, golden-hued Manila clams on top. The seafood was delicate, sweet and sautéed just to the point of tenderness, though as usual with pasta entrees, I became a bit bored with the fettuccine halfway through. I adore pasta, but why can't more restaurants offer appetizer portions of this filling dish?

Popa's desserts displayed the kitchen's devotion to the sweet side of dining. My chocolate tart of the day was a dense elegy on the theme of moist chocolate cake filled with nuts and a hint of raspberry glaze, almost like a cross between a brownie and a fruit cake. It arrived with a pretty crème anglaise decorated with raspberry puree hearts and a rich walnut crust.

But Laurie's amazing bread pudding dessert was the knockout ($5.95). Served warm, with a topping of crème anglaise and three tiny scoops of vanilla bean ice cream, it offered seductive flavor and temperature contrasts.

"I'd come back just for this dessert," Laurie confessed, as we both pretty much demolished all traces of its comforting bready goodness. A tour de force finish--prettily crisscrossed with chocolate and caramel sauces--it testified to the home-cooked warmth of Popa's.

Address: 2332 Mission St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 425-5420
Entrees: Inexpensive to moderate
Hours: Lunch Tue-Fri 11:30am-2pm; dinner Tue-Sat 5:30-9pm;
brunch Sun 10:30am-2pm.
Ambiance: ** Bistro coziness and unpretentious charm
Service: * 1/2 Friendly but often quite casual
Cuisine: ** Fine specials and a few solid house favorites; fine desserts
Overall: A nice neighbor for Westside foodies, offering good value for the money

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From the May 19-26, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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