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Gala Gabriella

[whitespace] Cafe Gabriella
George Sakkestad

Mediterranean Mood: Cynthia Martino shows off some of Cafe Gabriella's regional specialties.

Smiles of a summer night fill our celebration dinner at Cafe Gabriella

By Christina Waters

ALWAYS ONE OF THE smartest dining rooms in the area, Cafe Gabriella showed off its very best stuff last week. It was Noah's birthday, and he insisted that we see the latest Star Wars flick with him. Like all good Jedi-in-training, he'd already seen it four times, so he was bursting with cinematic opinions as we took a corner table adorned with one of those elegantly casual flower arrangements Gabriella does so well. The lowering sun turned the lemon-yellow walls to gold, and the menu listings looked as appealing as the patrons filling the rooms and spilling out into the shaded courtyard.

Everything's always so fresh and fragrant with the essence of summer at Gabriella, where the legendary wine list miraculously produced one of the last bottles of Ridge Pagani Ranch Zinfandel 1994 ($45) in captivity.

As patient as she was skilled, our waitress allowed us to finish deconstructing the movie--not for the last time that evening--before taking our orders. We said "yes" to a Caprese salad of heirloom beets ($6) and agreed to a shared platter of Dungeness crab cakes ($10), which proved to be ethereally light and spiked crunchily with fresh corn kernels. A baby arugula salad seemed the perfect third appetizer ($7), and we toasted Noah's birthday with big goblets of what is arguably the world's finest zinfandel. Light from a window streamed through a bottle of olive oil and turned the red snapdragons to deep crimson. Mediterranean ambiance permeates every rounded cove and corner of this cafe.

The shreds of salty pecorino cheese and toasted almonds mingled nicely with the peppery arugula leaves. The discussion moved from the mythic issues of bringing balance to the Force to an appreciation for the sprightly oceanscapes decorating the walls that evening. Entrees at Cafe Gabriella always feel as freshly conceived as they are presented, and this night's dinner did nothing to spoil our expectations.

My pan-roasted pork loin entree was so aromatically spiced--smothered with tomatoes, pancetta, oregano and olives, sided with rosemary potatoes and garlicky broccoli--that Jack reached across the table and speared a forkful. Noah, whose palate is becoming quite sophisticated, did likewise. We all smiled in unison.

Noah's order of salmon rotalini ($14) was sumptuous. Rolls of fresh pasta lightly filled with ricotta, fresh salmon, garlic and roasted red bell peppers, topped with a splash of lemon and fresh cream (!), nestled together in a round serving casserole, like cells of some fabulous extraterrestrial entity.

Jack's grilled halibut ($17)--again fresh and local--arrived on a bed of black "beluga" lentils and was topped with an intriguing, noncloying slaw of mango and chayote. Every dish had perfect pitch--Noah is now officially spoiled. Too bad every restaurant he'll visit in the course of his dining life can't be this good.

Our savvy waitress brought out our order of chocolate decadence--a huge warm brownie on a plate with crème Anglaise and caramel sauce--topped with a candle ($6). We applauded, and Noah blew out the single flame with the flair of a Jedi knight.

A wedge of rustic raspberry cheesecake with a finely textured cookie crust was similarly to die for ($6). Perhaps the Force was with us that evening, but we left feeling nothing short of smug to have a Cafe Gabriella within walking distance.

In a perfect world, there would be a Cafe Gabriella within walking distance of everyone. Lovely food served in one of the coziest bistros in Central California--Gabriella has enough star power to shine in any Lucas film.

Cabriella Cafe
Address: 910 Cedar St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 457-1677
Hours: Lunch weekdays; dinner nightly from 5:30pm
Ambiance: *** Eclectic charm and unpretentious prettiness distinguish this graceful space
Service: *** 1/2 Warm and attentive, the staff are adroit at sensing patron needs
Cuisine: *** 1/2 Never better, the freshly stocked and freshly conceived seasonal dishes are beautiful and delicious
Overall: A jewel box of a dining room, Gabriella maintains its fine reputation for creative cuisine

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From the June 23-30, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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