Dining Reviews

Rendezvous at Rio

diningNew menu items and robust spirit invigorate Café Rio

Café Rio has always been one of my favorite places to dine. After moving to the Santa Cruz area and searching out good restaurants, Café Rio was mentioned as a fun place to eat, with sand dabs and swordfish highly recommended. And we can rest assured that these popular items will always be on the menu. When Jeanne Harrison took over the iconic restaurant as owner in 2011, she left the menu pretty much the same, but now feels that the time has come to improve the dining experience even more.

And new executive chef Jacob Wildman is just the man for the job. I had dinner at Café Rio recently and was more than impressed with some of Wildman’s culinary creations. The following new items on the menu reflect his innovative cuisine:

Stuffed eggs with ahi tuna are outrageously delicious; Burrata cheese served with tomato tartare, balsamic and garlic-rubbed grilled bread is superb; and two shellfish dishes come with the most delicious accompaniments—clams with calamari, beans and house-made chorizo; and mussels with saffron onion, basil, tomato butter and preserved lemon. Wildman’s other new menu items include Marinated Olives with garlic, orange and thyme; Charred Octopus with black olive oil, giardiniera (vegetables) and potato aioli; Roasted Garlic Hummus with warm bread, feta and roasted peppers; Grilled Marinated Artichoke with piquillo pepper pesto; Lamb Bolognese with pappardelle pasta; Oak Leaf Lettuce salad with feta, roasted beets, sweet onions, black olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette.

Wildman, who was raised in Watsonville, fell in love with cooking whilst studying for a business degree at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. So he followed his instincts and went to culinary school at Kapiolani Community College in Hawaii, where he finished top of his class. From Hawaii he went back to L.A. and worked at various well-known restaurants, including Wolfgang Puck’s prestigious Spago in Beverly Hills. Whilst working for Top Chef’s Govind Armstrong, he helped open up restaurants in Miami and New York before moving on to help design and open Tar & Roses in Santa Monica, which Wildman describes as “a very special place.” But he always wanted to return to his roots in Santa Cruz, and he’s happy to be back in familiar territory after gaining a wealth of cooking experience far and wide.

Wildman is thrilled with his new position as executive chef at Café Rio, and he’s very happy to work with Harrison to elevate the restaurant’s food. “I think the restaurant is ready for a little bit more,” he says, adding that he prefers to utilize an abundance of fresh produce, and believes that if you get quality vegetables and good ingredients, you don’t have to do too much to them.

“I like to cook very simply,” he says, “and to let fresh veggies shine. I treat them as gently as possible to bring out the best flavor. We are fortunate to have such wonderful produce in our area, and I’m happy to be working with local farms.”

Although Wildman is busy with helping his staff become accustomed to preparing the new menu items, and working on “a bunch of parties for Christmas,” he has some exciting plans for the future.

“I want to work with local wineries and brewers and do special dinners,” he says. “We want people to try things they haven’t tried before.”

Harrison is equally happy that Wildman has joined her restaurant’s staff. “I’m really elated about the whole situation,” she says. “Jacob is very talented and I’m super excited to have him on board with our team. He’s a culinary genius and I feel very fortunate to have found him – and for us to have found each other.  This restaurant wouldn’t be what it is if I didn’t have the staff that I have. It makes my job a lot easier.” 


Café Rio, 131 Esplanade, Rio Del Mar Beach, 688-8917, caferio.com.

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