There’s enough fun, flavor and festive food at 515 Kitchen & Cocktails to keep you engaged for hours
Oh, these are crispy balls of ginger goodness.” Now, I was certain somebody at the dinner table uttered that statement. I just could not recall which one of us did. There were three of us at a recent visit to 515 Kitchen and Cocktails and you see, it’s the latter part of the moniker of the popular Santa Cruz restaurant that must have gotten us all into some (good) trouble.
Well, in this case it was a bottle of 2008 Byron Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley, estate bottled and loads of fun for the palate—an embraceable treat with hints of anise, black cherries and Asian spices. Did we imagine the smoky vanilla?
Back to the crispy balls. Well, that’s where things ended so let’s just start at the beginning, where the three of us began enjoying the Byron, allowed it to have its way with our senses and so easily got us chatting up a storm about a number of topics: launching one-man shows, pondering the depth of Spalding Gray, newfound loves that actually last and how excursions to Esalen can really purge the soul—and so beautifully fill it right back up again, all in one delicious swoop.
515 is a fine portal for such discussions. The sister to Santa Cruz’s crimson haven, The Red, it continues to be a handsome den of surprises. It’s low-key yet can be surprisingly sophisticated. The setting is very lounge-ish-accommodating, with tables set for fine dining on both the first and second floors and a variety of sofas and loveseats (on the second). A large outdoor patio overlooks Cedar Street. The upstairs bar has a wonderful feng-shui’d flow to it, too, even though it seems tucked away in a corner. Sit there. Feel the vibe.
While one of my cohorts expounded upon some of the travesties she found in the publishing world, we nibbled on several appetizers that included a bountiful cheese plate experience with offerings of Friscalini cheddar, St. Simeon Brie and Morbier cheese, all neighbors of apple and pear slices, and the more than handful of hazelnuts and pecans served ($15). Water crackers and toast were close at hand too. The mini-feast was a workable companion to our plate of grilled vegetables (red bell peppers, asparagus, mushrooms, braised fennel and cipollini onions; $9). Best surprise? The mushrooms. Fresh, and not overly chewy. (It’s hard to find that.) We also took turns grabbing bites of a crazy-good Frisee Salad with crispy pork belly squares. Two of us there are not really meat eaters, but the sexy beast who is, totally seduced me—for one evening anyway. Mouthwatering and perfectly cooked to amazing tenderness, that pork belly truly did melt in your mouth.
The conversation went on …
One of us shared what life was like on the road for a time (inspiring in even its routine-ness), another divulged how a certain “literary” diva made a lousy first impression on her back east. Meanwhile, diving deep into psychological waters, I talked about the “swing” and how it “moods” and, of course, my worry that I may, indeed, have 11 different personality types, each vying for attention all at once.
I looked up just in time to spot our server. “We’d like another bottle of wine please!”
The main course. The Pan-roasted Salmon ($18) with lemon capers and vegetables delivered a terrific blending of flavors—salmon was roasted nicely and not traumatized by too much heat. The Crispy Chicken Leg ($14) was a lovely entrée. Resting on polenta and topped with fresh marinara sauce, you’d think it would be a bit overpowered by Italian seasonings, but no. (Notice the garlic in the chicken dish when you order it and how it arrives at just the right temperature. You may also catch the hint of cinnamon or nutmeg or maybe even star anise—we couldn’t decide but damn, the entire dish was flavorful.) And then, the butch entrée at the table: An Herb-Rubbed New York Steak and Sauteed Greens ($22)—two juicy muscular portions of meat, in fact, and mounting a healthy bed of pumpkin risotto.
It’s hard to know where to begin with that one because it truly is an attention-grabber. Personally, risotto for me is hit and miss. So, to my surprise, I welcomed that the steak’s partner was not overpowering, and that it seemed as if there were “traces” of pumpkin and not more than that. Wonderfully cooked, medium rare and reminiscent of the meals you’d find back in the Midwest, of the kind where your mother wasn’t afraid to feed you healthy portions.
Afterward, we mused about 515’s upcoming “beer vs. wine” event—it’s a beer and wine pairing dinner on Feb. 8—as well as the upcoming benefit (with DJ AD) on Feb. 5 for Haiti in the aftermath of its devastating earthquake. (See 515’s website below for more information.)
“Oh, these are crispy balls of ginger goodness!”
Ah ha—there they are. But the name of that dessert will have to remain a mystery. At least for now. (Go in and discover it.) In the meantime, there was one more toast to make before Byron left us for good for the night: well-deserved kudos to chef Caleb Hanscom and his crew for knowing A) how to invent great meals and B) how to make them so darn memorable, too. Salud!
Experience it yourself at 515 Kitchen & Cocktails, 515 Cedar Street Santa Cruz, (831) 425-5051. Visit 515kitchenandcocktails.com. This article is part of a monthly Editor’s dinner, which is intended to fuel the art of conversation through local dining. Dig in.