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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Stairway to Heaven: Aaron Dornstriech (left), Aaron Cunningham and Scott Cater stand in front of landmark Casablanca.

Night at the Casablanca

A Santa Cruz landmark dining room retains all of its romance while showcasing the skills of Chef Scott Cater and company

By Christina Waters

HOW RARE IT IS to return to a very familiar dining spot and find it as satisfying as ever. Such was our experience last week at Casablanca with Simone and J.P. A light fog was beginning to explore the palm trees just outside our window. Glasses of tart Gruet Blanc de Blanc bubbly ($6 each) added just the right touch. Casablanca always feels like a grownup restaurant and, as the menu was about to prove, lives up to its long-standing reputation.

J.P. loves oysters but didn't mind sharing one or two of the sweet little morsels--they were luxurious dipped into a ginger-inflected mignonette dressing ($8.95). Simone and Jack were suitably impressed with their tall martini goblets filled with enormous sea scallops swimming in a spicy salsa fresca ($14.75).

As pricey as their perishable contents dictated, these appetizers won us completely. Suspended in their brothy salsa and joined by ripe avocados, the gin-marinated scallops blew away the cliché of a shrimp cocktail. Our knowledgeable waitress smiled. She had steered us toward the scallop dish, and we were obviously grateful for the tip.

Four forks tested the updated Casablanca house salad ($6.95). In the "old days," this salad was always a simple bouquet of butter lettuce bathed in a Dijon vinaigrette and dusted with grated hard-boiled egg. This evening's version involved a mix of baby lettuces, a more generous portion of egg and a dressing easily as good as I'd remembered.

A brief pause ensued during which we dissected art and politics--the usual dinner conversation with our new best friends--and admired the peppery bouquet of a wonderful Rhône Saint Joseph 1996, Tardieu Laurent ($42). Each glass bloomed with minerals and spice. And each sip went brilliantly with our entrees, impeccably presented all at once.

Simone's venison special arrived fanned like sheets of garnet in a robust blueberry reduction ($27.95). With it came a nondescript risotto cake, infused with cheese and topped with a large sprig of rosemary.

Jack's filet mignon looked, well, classic ($24.95). Grilled to rare-medium rare perfection, it was buttery and opulent in its demi-glace of forest mushrooms. Accompanying were sinfully rich scalloped potatoes and deep emerald broccoli.

But J.P. and I felt we'd scored even better on our side of the table. Seafood always rules at Casablanca, and my grilled salmon with citrus and white wine sauce was a tour-de-force dish ($18.95). The generous, thick-cut slice was creamy-moist in the center. I'd requested it medium-rare, and again our skilled server approved. She admitted being pleased when customers respected the delicacy of fresh seafood.

The robust presentation enhanced the salmon. It rode on thick waves of mashed potatoes and fresh spinach--both outstanding--and was playfully topped with a tall crown of long chives and toasted pasta, rising vertically from the filet.

Simone and Jack both agreed that the salmon dish was possibly the star of the meal, but J.P. wasn't so sure. His bold entree involved layers of grilled ahi steaks on a bed of couscous, ringed with a complex, shocking-pink dried-cherry mole and topped with a magenta gratin of pickled daikon ($21.95). Not to love this dish would have been nothing short of bad faith.

While the dessert list at Casablanca still retains some retro ideas--surely the sundae would never be missed--our server wisely suggested a fresh pumpkin cheesecake served in a pool of gossamer nutmeg crème Anglaise ($8.95). It was tender, barely sweet and irresistible. A wedge of warm, walnut-studded chocolate tart, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, tasted like an X-rated brownie ($6.50). Casablanca's legend is deliciously intact.

Casablanca Restaurant
Address: 101 Main St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 831.426.9063
Exec. Chef: Scott Cater
Sous Chef: Aaron Cunningham
Hours: Dinner nightly from 5:30pm
Ambience: *** Cozy glamour occupying a glittering seaside perch
Service: ***1/2 Skillful, smart and willing to be flexible
Cuisine: ***1/2 Retaining and updating favorites, the kitchen inflects specials with seasonal interest; some items are pricey
Overall: Casablanca continues to charm with beautifully presented foods, expert service and a matchless view

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From the November 8-15, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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