Jack O’Neill Restaurant is the smart new name for the ocean-view restaurant of the retro Dream Inn, and the new menu sparkles almost as much as the sun on the waves of Steamer Lane right outside the dining room. Menu items, too, announce a tighter link to the local region and purveyors: Mavericks Meatballs, Lighthouse Salad, Corralitos Sausage Sampler. Branding does a lot to set a tone in the inviting room with wraparound views of the beach, Boardwalk and atmospheric surfers.
The new menu is cleverly organized into land, sea and earth (for meatless dishes). Half of the entrees are gluten-free, many are vegetarian, and organic eggs are used throughout the menu—like the colorful fried egg that arrived atop the crisp garlic fries that came with my order of grilled hangar (sp) steak. Slathered with a wicked cilantro-serrano chimichurri sauce, the beef was wonderful. Dipping the thin fries into the oozing egg yolk multiplied the flavor richness. Plus it’s fun dipping anything into anything.
Our meal started with wine from Jack O’Neill’s all-regional wine list. For me, an excellent Santa Cruz Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($13) and for Katya a light, dry Sauvignon Blanc 2017 from Paso Robles’ Justin Winery ($9). Very accessibly priced wines, I have to say.
Next came a real treat. When was the last time house-made, non-generic bread arrived with dinner? Well, perhaps this is a sign of bread’s rebirth. A server came around to pour our sparkling water, and also produced a wicker basket lined with a cloth napkin, containing two rolls—one sourdough, the other a dark wheat molasses. Both wonderful! With the breads came a pretty, rectangular plate of two butters, one topped with a dark pink salt, the other a sphere infused with garlic and parsley. Great to look at, even better spread generously on the rolls. Wine, water, rolls, and the sun beginning to turn the waves gold. It’s good to be in Santa Cruz, we agreed, and toasted the dining room’s stunning location.
After a shared Lighthouse Salad ($10)—very visual, with chopped treviso and romaine sprinkled with marconas and blueberries (though not enough pomegranate dressing)—our entrées arrived. A bit too quickly, perhaps, but that can be smoothed out as the staff fine tunes.
Katya’s seafood trio ($35), served on a beautiful sea-green platter, was the size of the beach itself. A beautiful presentation of seafoods—succulent mahi mahi, a few jumbo gulf shrimp, and a nicely grilled Skuna Bay salmon filet—the dish was distinguished by a bed of outstanding pureed edamame and cauliflower that lay under the seafood. It was a welcome alternative to mashed potatoes or other root veggies. Crisp ribbons of squash and red peppers added color and crunch. A trio of beurre blancs proved nice but unnecessary.
Somehow, we managed room for dessert. Of course we chose Jack’s Molten ($11), a splendid homage consisting of a warm dark chocolate torte, filled with sea-salt caramel and topped with Marianne’s vanilla bean ice cream. Even better than it sounds, the dessert was irresistible, and included a tiny adornment of whipped cream and two fat olallieberries. The view got lovelier by the minute. Kudos to the kitchen and the smart recipe design of Jack O’Neill Restaurant.
Jack O’Neill Restaurant at the Dream Inn, 175 W Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. 866-205-4152, jackoneillrestaurant.com.