.Locally Foraged Mushrooms at Ristorante Avanti

The preferred Westside lunch spot where I meet Rita for serious conversational catch-up, Ristorante Avanti, has always satisfied. But lately it seems to be gaining some newly delicious ground in terms of both seasonal specials and popular standards. Over the past two months, I’ve found myself leaving one of the cozy booths lining the main dining room much happier than when I arrived.

Lately, the reason involves fresh wild mushrooms, something of a specialty of the house for lo these many years. It always seems that Avanti owner and host Paul Geise is the first on his block to offer the myco-fruit of the rainy season translated into any number of outstanding preparations. Last week, we inhaled a polenta torta laced with fat candy cap mushrooms and another order of plump scallops with chanterelle-laced risotto. Oh god, these were deeply satisfying dishes, and even more so given the gray rainy weather. Let me return to those scallops for a minute: on the plate were fat, glistening sea scallops sauteed and sauced with a very light pomegranate glaze. Nestling nearby was a thick cloud of creamy arborio rice dense with chewy bits of chanterelle. A beautiful mini-salad distinguished by frisée and shaved fennel added fresh sparkle as well as texture contrast. A dreamy dish.

Several weeks back, Rita chose her trusty confit of Liberty duck with creamy polenta and sauteed veggies ($15), and I have to admit that this duck is so earthy and compelling that it’s almost impossible to have lunch here and not order it. But I had scored my own lunch triumph in a plate of fresh linguine, again jumpstarted by the enchantment of chanterelles, along with hefty shreds of kale and lots of Parmigiano-Reggiano ($16). And garlic. A healthy, robust infrastructure of garlic. Everything glistened in a haze of extra virgin olive oil, and had it not been mid-day I would have washed down every forkful with a big-shouldered red wine. Winter is with us for a while longer yet, so celebrate its own inner pleasures with some memorable mushroom creations at Avanti. ristoranteavanti.com.

Wine of the Week

Need an excuse to add red wine to your dinner? How about cold weather? Now think a plate of pasta with meatballs, or a thin-cut pork chop and yam. Add a glass of Claret from the cleverer-than-thou house of Bonny Doon Vineyard and the entire meal will come together. I like A Proper Claret 2014 for many reasons. The $16 price tag (or $11.99 at Shopper’s) is one of them. The skillfully crafted blend of Bordeaux grapes, long on Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, amplified by Tannat, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and even a splash of Syrah, creates a pleasing and balanced flavor synergy. I found a pink peppercorn nose that plunged playfully into a confident, but not elite, glide of licorice and cassis. An amiable wine, and a drinkable revival of the very old concept of French wine made for English tastes. The flavors are ripe but not flabby, and essentially it’s made for drinking, not thinking about. On a rainy evening, that’s all good. Thank you, Randall Grahm (again), for a proper Claret that can be found almost anywhere. Merci!

Make Mine Mole

Melissa’s Mexican Made Easy will teach a workshop on Molé Poblano from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 12 at New Leaf Market at 1101 Fair Ave., Santa Cruz. Mole, rice, Mexican lime pie, and hibiscus punch, all for $55. Anyone who loves authentic Mexican food knows that the fabled chocolate and chile mole sauce is one of the most spectacular flavors of Mexico. Lunch, recipe packet and all supplies included. Space limited. melissasmexicanmadeeasy.com.


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