Clean Slate

dining_HoffmansHoffman’s hands reigns over to Food Network for an extreme makeover

There was suspense and drama, frustration and anticipation, showmanship and emotion. Like Roger Craig at Albertson’s, Lance Armstrong on Beach Street, and James Durbin at Loudon Nelson, this was a Santa Cruz moment. Food Network was in town.

When I read about the filming of Restaurant Impossible at Hoffman’s, I called for reservations along with every other self-professed foodie in town. Upwards of fifty redials and no luck. I felt like the Queen of Sheba on Monday when an associate said there was a seat for me.

The premise of the show is to give a failing restaurant a new menu and look in 48 hours with a $10,000 budget.

We arrived 20 minutes before our 6:35 seating to find a line that stretched past the adjacent Aqua Bleu. Hoffman’s windows were obscured by Visquine, and dust was flying from a whirring chop saw. They didn’t seem quite ready for us.

At 6:41 the show’s host, eagle-eyed ex-British Navy man Chef Robert Irvine emerged from the restaurant amid cheers. In a half or so, he said, we would experience the magic that had taken place inside. Tarps were then raised, cloaking the entire patio.

Fortunately, a cadre of youngsters, nimble enough to snake through the crowd and find peepholes through the curtain, provided regular updates. Vacuuming at 7:20, high fives at 7:59, tables wiped down at 8:18, and at 8:20 Irvine returned to share that June Hoffman was in tears worrying about her customers outside.

dining_Hoffmans2Finally, at 8:32, names from the reservation list were called to line up and we were third. The Hoffman family gathered in front of the still-obscured entry. Adult children Adam and Marie stood side by side behind their parents, June and Ed Hoffman, each steadying one with a hand on their shoulder. With eyes closed Irvine instructed them to take four steps forward, then another. As the doors shut behind them, they privately shared a first glimpse of their new restaurant with cameras rolling.

At precisely 9 p.m. Adam Hoffman yelled, “We are open, we are open for business!”

A faint smell of glue and paint lingered as we were seated. The seating layout was unchanged. Seatbacks had been upholstered in wild turquoise, sage, brown and white print fabric, whose designs were a combination of medieval shapes and 70’s flower power nostalgia. The original turquoise vinyl seats bore a stripe of the bright fabric. Futuristic patio chairs had taken the place of the standalones. Bulbs under black woven reed shades shed plenty of light.

The bakery display cases were gone, replaced by a long bar. Our server said they were still in the dark about whether there would be a patisserie at all.

It is a rare executive chef that would reinvent their entire menu in one fell swoop; one that called for new ingredients, prep stations, processes, cooking methods, and plating requirements. The previous menu’s Coconut Prawns gave way to a lengthy Tapas menu of Hoisin-glazed Beef Shortribs with kim chee ($9) and Salmon Latte ($10) with salmon mousse, foie gras glaze and crisp breads.

The Black bean Burger ($9) now had spicy siracha mayo and slaw, and there’s a West Coast Lobster Roll ($14) with spiced mayo and tomato relish.

Seafood Pasta and June’s Meatloaf had been replaced by challenging entrées such as Free-Range Chicken ($19) stuffed with avocado, bacon and yam puree, Mint Pesto-crusted Salmon ($21) with crème fraiche and couscous, and Braised Pork Bolognese sauce ($19) on pasta with fennel and parmesan.

For the Scallop Crudo appetizer ($9) a single raw, snow-white scallop was sliced thinly following its circumference to create a long strip. It lay in a yellow puddle of mango-horseradish purée and was decorated with flutes of pickled daikon, vinegared red onion and celery leaves.

dining_Hoffmans3Char-grilled Halibut Cheeks ($10) was more substantial. A couple of bites of flavorful, soft brie joined large pieces of white meat, almost crisp on the outside, which fell into shreds. I didn’t detect any heat from the colorful strawberry-wasabi purée.

We had a clear view of the pass-through from the kitchen where the Guest Chef from Robert’s Restaurant Group worked quality control on each plate. Irvine waited impatiently nearby, his face taut, and true to form, loudly admonished a server for not knowing the menu.

At 10:45, just as our meals arrived, it was time for closing remarks. Executive Producer Marc Summers called the troops together. Irving commended the guys and gals from local Surf City Painters for their expedient work. He assured us that there still would be pastries at Hoffman’s, just no bulky cases.

We enjoyed the finale over a New York Strip ($25) served with its thick pan juice reduction, puréed potatoes, and crisp, shaved asparagus.

The Tamarind Lacquered Pork Loin ($20) featured two thick, shiny steaks sitting atop deliciously sweet long grain Jasmine rice with mushrooms, and its own thick, translucent reduction.

This episode of Restaurant Impossible will be the season’s finale, likely airing in January.

Hoffman’s Bistro and Patisserrie hoffmanssantacruz.com, 1102 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, 420-0135. Beer and wine. Open Sunday through Thursday 8 a.m. until 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. Photos: Karen Petersen

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