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Friday, February 4, 2011

Cellar Door Cafe's Star Is Gone, but the Glow Remains

Posted By on Fri, Feb 4, 2011 at 3:05 PM

click to enlarge Cellar Door Cafe's pizza of Crescenza cheese, veal, a farm egg, and herb pesto, $18. - JESSE HIRSCH
  • Jesse Hirsch
  • Cellar Door Cafe's pizza of Crescenza cheese, veal, a farm egg, and herb pesto, $18.

I was tasked with finding a good restaurant in Santa Cruz last weekend, and the stakes were high. It was for an anniversary, and I had blown it before. After one uniquely scarring experience using Yelp to choose a romantic dinner, I'd vowed that never again would a setting for one of life's special occasions be Internet-sourced.

For what would be my first experience in Santa Cruz, I asked colleagues and friends for tips. But despite casting the net wide, I got only Jonathan Kauffman's note of caution about Cellar Door Café, whose whiz-kid chef, Charlie Parker, had recently headed north to Plum.

Despite the implied warning, I wasn't ready to dismiss Cellar Door. For one thing, there were few alternatives (several food writers told me Santa Cruz is a dining desert). And I wanted to believe a restaurant could soldier on without its star chef, especially since Parker's sous chef, Jarod Ottley, had stepped up to fill the vacancy.

Anyway, if your idle moments are filled with online foodie chatter, you're familiar with the (non-)debate about whether restaurants have the same quality level without their executive chefs on-site. And Parker had been gone for just a few months, so I was hopeful his imprint would remain. Still, after my Yelpgate debacle last year, my confidence had been shaken. I told my ladyfriend to plan for the worst: "If things go awry, I'm sure we can find something deep-fried in this town."

click to enlarge Smoked fingerlings with citrus-tinged aїoli, $5. - JESSE HIRSCH
  • Jesse Hirsch
  • Smoked fingerlings with citrus-tinged aїoli, $5.

We weren't initially wowed. Housed in the Boony Doon Vineyard space, the restaurant has the square footage and ceiling height of an airplane hangar. Cozy seemed out of the question in a room this cavernous, though the restaurant had done its best to warm things up with low lights, an open kitchen, and a flame-filled brick oven (my girlfriend equated it with the faux-warmth of restaurant chain Così).

It didn't help that slightly hammered tourists kept wandering through the dining area, empty wineglasses in hand, apparently separated from their tasting tours. The overall feel was one of transience, like eating at a large and bustling truck stop. Luckily, the food made us forget all about the space.

The opener, smoked fingerling potatoes ($5), was presented like a wink from the kitchen. It was like a spiky little football resting on a plush bed of aїoli, with smoky, lightly oiled potato wedges marrying perfectly with the citrus-tinged mayonnaise. We soon abandoned our flatware to expedite things.

Our next dish was similarly addictive, a garden pizza topped with gooey Crescenza, spicy bits of veal, farm egg, and a "French pesto" of tarragon, parsley, and mint ($18). I had an embarrassing moment later, when I looked at my girlfriend and pictured Cellar Door's pizza (à la the Looney Tunes castaways).

Our final plate, a warm salad of cabbage, pork belly/lardon, and fried egg ($15), was a mite imbalanced, a light, mustardy slaw easily overpowered by the proteins. Make no mistake: The overall dish was excellent, a rich and heady pork-delivery vehicle. The cabbage was but a minor imperfection.

As the Cellar Door's top chef, Parker was known for attention to detail and the deceptive simplicity of his complex dishes. Thankfully for the restaurant, his kitchen progeny under Jarod Ottley seem to have been apt pupils. Thankfully for me, I'll live to choose another date spot.

Cellar Door Café at Bonny Doon Vineyard: 328 Ingalls (at Fair), Santa Cruz, 831-425-6771.

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Jesse Hirsch

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