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Critic’s Picks

dining_centerstreetNo matter your mood, there’s a local restaurant to thrill you

I’m often asked to name my favorite local restaurant, which is an impossible task because it depends on what I need. Is it spice, greens, romance, comfort, or camaraderie? I love the pizza at five places, and if I crave a fast food burger, does that make it the best in town?

So I’ve looked back at the 100-plus restaurants I’ve written about this year, and come up with my most memorable culinary experiences.

I love to try new foods, and this year we welcomed back Vasili Karagiannopoulos at his The Greek in downtown Santa Cruz. Imam Bayaldi, a baked eggplant dish stuffed with tomatoes, pine nuts and feta, was one of the most flavorful vegetarian dishes I have experienced.

Mid-year, Limoncello on Water Street in Santa Cruz, introduced breakfast. Go ahead and order the crisp waffle with fresh fruit, but I adore Mama’s Eggs, oven-poached in bright marinara with home made bread, or spaghetti frittata with fresh basil and the same home-made sauce.

The large breakfast menu at Sunrise Café has all your favorites, but the cheesy Sunny Scramble with mushrooms, served in a casserole with piquant Spanish sauce, creamy avocados and fluffy biscuits truly brightened my day.I was thrilled by Jia Tella’s Cambodian catfish and spiced eggs, baked in a banana leaf bag. Kaffir lime imparted an exotic aroma, while the texture was as smooth as custard.

A restaurant’s staff can make or break the experience. At Scott’s Valley’s Sandabs I encountered refined service at lunch while enjoying crisp noodle-wrapped shrimp cakes and a mini cherry cheesecake for dessert. Later at the wine bar, we snacked on fish cheeks while chatting with the master sommelier.

The feel is different at Harbor Café, but just as effective. Neighbors shared laughs between tables, as energetic surf-wear-clad servers bounced from table to table keeping everyone happy.

Of the many restaurant atmospheres, the one I enjoy most is one that matches my mood. At Center Street Grill, I enjoyed breakfast by a sunny window and lunch on the secluded patio surrounded by the sound of waterfalls. Adding a fresh, bright salad, and thin crust pizza, I felt centered and satisfied.

And then there are times, where everything just comes together. The article almost writes itself, as if cosmic culinary forces permeated my soul. When visiting Lillian’s you feel part of the Moreno family. Their unique call-ahead waiting list and new copper propane sidewalk heaters make the downtime tolerable. I’ve enjoyed everything on the menu, but especially Sunday Gravy, Lil’s Kitchen Special, Pasta e Fagioli soup (Pasta Fazool), and any of the Friday fresh fish specials.

At the Esplanade’s Paradise Beach Grill in Capitola, we were greeted by a charming hostess on a stormy afternoon. While huddled around the glowing fireplace, we were served by a skilled and yet jovial bartender. We nibbled on seafood cakes with wasabi and chipotle sauces, luxuriated in the creamy, herbed chowder, and were mesmerized by a Louisiana Skirt Steak salad.

With numerous new restaurant reviews on the horizon, I foresee another year of enchanting gastronomical experiences.

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