A feast of chefs, vintners and 10 wild dishes that just make you want to grab a fork.
Charlie Parker, Cellar Door Café
Chef Charlie Parker cares about cooking, and cares about making people happy with food. This is evident when you taste his creations at Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Cellar Door Café. Whether it’s a small plate or a selection from the three-course prix fixe menu, each dish is memorable with its wonderful seasonings and thoughtful presentation.
“I love different flavors and how things taste together,” Parker says. “It’s what drives me.” His passion is apparent and his journey is interesting to chronicle.
Parker, who admits that he is very close to his family and relishes memories from his youth, grew up “always having family dinners—it was very nice to be the chef.” He started watching cooking shows at age 9 and went straight to the kitchen after each show to practice what he’d learned. “It just progressed. I started cooking more and more and then I was cooking for my family. I still do, it’s fun and brings everyone together.” His family lives in Menlo Park, where he grew up, and he now lives in Santa Cruz.
When Parker was 17, he got his first restaurant job and soon went onto San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy. After graduating in 2004, he worked at Los Gatos-based Manresa—the innovative Michelin-starred restaurant that’s gotten big buzz—for three years. In 2007 he joined former Manresa colleague Jeremy Fox to open the acclaimed vegetarian Napa restaurant Ubuntu. Then, this year, Parker did a three-month internship at the renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma. But it was clear that Manresa’s chef/owner David Kinch, and Kinch’s staff, had a tremendous influence on Parker.
“I was so blown away by how much knowledge they had of everything that was going on in the restaurant world, and also how much respect they had for ingredients,” he says. “They were artists.”
Kinch led Parker to his current Cellar Door position, where locals now admire Parker’s own artistry. Owner Randall Grahm brought Kinch in as consultant to re-do the restaurant, and Kinch recommended Parker for head chef. Parker came on board in April. Kinch says he viewed the Cellar Door “as a great opportunity to pass on some talent to Randall. We gave Charlie a stage to really spread his wings for the first time. He’s really knocking it out of the park.”
The restaurant is open Wednesday through Sunday, and small plate selections change weekly. Menu development is an organic process. “The seasons dictate our menu,” Parker notes. Generally, he flips through cookbooks on Mondays and Tuesdays and plays with flavor ideas and dishes. On Wednesdays, he brainstorms with his sous chef before heading to the downtown Farmer’s Market to purchase what looks best. He returns and starts creating.
“On Wednesday we start with a base,” he says. “And then the small plates just kind of progress and progress until Sunday.” Some dishes stay on the menu longer than others based on customer feedback and seasonality. Parker really enjoys living and working here.
The prix fixe menus show suggested Bonny Doon wine pairings for each course. If ordering small plates, customers are encouraged to ask servers for recommendations. As dishes change, Parker shares tips with staff, and he enjoys picking wines out. “I’ve tasted enough of this wine now, that when I’m coming up with a dish I know exactly what will go with it.”
To create new menu ideas and refine existing items, Parker works collaboratively with his staff. “At the end of the night I like to sit down with all my cooks, get everyone’s input, have people bounce ideas off each other,” Parker notes. “It keeps a happy environment, one where people can learn more. And if people are happy with what they’re doing, the food is going to taste better.”
While it’s easy to see how Parker is an artist with his culinary creations, it’s interesting to note that, like cooking, those artistic roots stem back from childhood. He grew up always drawing and “being really good in art classes.” Now, he says, “it’s like drawing with food, making different purees and other things.”
It’s wonderful to watch Parker at work in his open kitchen, using his utensil to spread parsnip puree as a foundation for the rest of his creation, like a master with a paintbrush on a canvas. Atop the puree, he carefully places smoked fingerlings, braised fennel, and a gorgeous roasted black cod. He is focused, yet uses a delicate touch.
Parker believes in supporting his community, too. During a one-week period in October, he was involved in three events: two in Santa Cruz and one in San Francisco. First, he participated in a Slow Food dinner. Then he prepared hundreds of Italian pork sandwiches for a local “dinner market”—selected proceeds went to Save Our Shores. Lastly, he cooked for a Homeless Garden Project benefit.
“I think that restaurants should definitely give back to the community,” Parker says. “On Wednesday and Thursday we have a very local crowd, which is nice. Lots of people walk or ride their bikes here. Wednesdays we also do a half-price wine bottle night. I think you should take care of the people around you.”
It’s exciting to ponder what future menu items Parker will create around here; his passion for discovery guarantees they will be interesting. “I love the fact that in food, you’re constantly learning,” he muses. “There are always new ingredients, new ways of cooking, and learning from other chefs.” | Tara Fatemi Walker
Cellar Door, 328 Ingalls Street (Swift Street Courtyard), Santa Cruz. Call 425-6771 or visit bonnydoonvineyard.com/cellar_door_cafe/.
Open 5:30-9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, with additional noon–4 p.m. hours on Saturday and Sunday.
-ated, Chef Anthony Kresge
Napa Valley has long been considered a cradle of fresh, elaborate, cutting-edge cuisine. Chef Anthony Kresge, of Motiv in Downtown Santa Cruz, was raised there in the bucolic town of St. Helena, home to the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus. Recently he studied in Italy, and received a Master of Italian Cuisine.
Kresge spent summers in Santa Cruz with his grandparents and loved it so much he wanted to make it his home. After cooking school, he returned to help launch Capitola’s Lido Café, and worked with Jozseph Schultz at India Joze.
“I was trained under some of the best master chefs in California,” Kresge says, “then I took a break to go into the wine industry, managing Burrell School Vineyards.” He helped grow the business there for seven years, started the food programs and a Dinner in the Vineyard series, but it was cooking that he really missed.
“When somebody comes to eat dinner with me, and I have given them an experience that is a highlight of their life, and they walk out of here feeling it, showing it, living it, it drives me to continue to do what I do,” he says. “That excites me. It’s the smile on your face that you walk out the door with and say ‘that is the best meal I’ve ever had,’ and that’s what I’m going for.
“I get excited about people’s passions about food and wine,” he adds, “and I make it a reality for them to be able to experience something of that haute-level cuisine.”
Kresge is now is at the culinary helm of Motiv. He describes it as an upscale lounge and wine bar and notes that he practices 100 percent organic and sustainable. He also values artisan cooking and is deeply involved in the wine selection.
“Taking both Napa and Italy as my background, I’ve brought together this Cal-Mediterranean bistro cuisine,” he explains. “It’s funny because the community knows me as a behind-the-scenes wine guy and private chef, so they were really shocked about how good the food was.”
Little did they know that he was trained in Napa Valley and had a master’s from Italy. Taking local ingredients that he’s worked with over the last 20 years and very traditional Italian recipes, he’s been able to put together very unique and delicious dishes whether they be appetizers or entrées.
Recent menu changes at the lounge include fantastic sliders, hand-made pizzas that are grilled and then baked, farmer’s market pasta, and grilled chicken or steak sandwiches. Happy hour discounts apply to some really top-notch food. There are also occasional oyster and wine nights, and tapas events with featured wines that are announced on the chef’s website.
Motiv has also begun hosting monthly wine dinners. Although the kitchen is closed for kitchen remodeling, these events give diners an opportunity to return to the 100-year-old restaurant upstairs. (Fans can expect a new, reinvented Pearl Alley Bistro to launch in the coming months.) The next dinner is at 6:30 p.m Nov. 4. For $65, experience a starter, three appetizers and a three-course meal with vintages from Napa’s Whitehall Lane Winery.
“I’m thinking of a turkey, cranberry and walnut sausage made in-house, with spiced pumpkin risotto,” Kresge says. “It will be holiday-festive, but nothing like anybody’s ever had before.”
Motiv now offers catering, so hold your holiday party in the lounge with music, or enjoy an intimate tapas and wine party upstairs. They can accommodate groups of up to 250 people in-house, and also have an off-site liquor license to cater at your chosen destination.| Karen Petersen
Motiv, 1209 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, 429-8070. Full bar. Open from 4 p.m. daily, with happy hour 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Visit chefanthonykresge.com.
Silver Linings, Lou Caviglia, Clouds
For 14 years Clouds Downtown has been a humming hot spot. It’s a rare local restaurant that is busiest in winter, with a menu that’s made both for late-night snacking, and lingering over a three-course meal. Most likely, hosts Lou and Christi Caviglia will personally welcome you.
Lou Caviglia managed Santa Cruz Hotel’s Italian eatery and bar for a decade before opening Sea Cloud, a high-end, à la carte wharf restaurant. He missed the energy of downtown, and after the Loma Prieta Earthquake, was offered space in what was then the new Cinema 9 building.
“When I saw the theater,” Caviglia remembers, “I thought this will be the one thing that will bring everybody back downtown. I started doing my homework very diligently. At the time, there wasn’t really an American restaurant.”
He envisioned a cool San Francisco-style place, artistically decorated, where women felt comfortable and people could dress up.
“I wanted to come down and have a neighborhood bar where people could go and hang out three or four times a week, and that’s how the menu evolved,” he says. “There are always sandwiches on the dinner menu. I wanted to create a place that was difficult to copy. If you want to copy me you’d better bring your wallet.”
Caviglia recalls crowded lunchtimes in the pre-earthquake business-oriented downtown. Now it’s a nighttime destination. With just 20 tables, the earlier the dinner rush begins, the more meals can be served.
“I hate when daylight saving starts,” Caviglia says. “Who wants to go out to dinner at 6:30 p.m. when the beach is beautiful?”
Chef Nate Croslin has been cooking up a storm at Clouds for 18 months. A 22-year culinary veteran, he progressed through kitchens before attending culinary school.
“I used to cook with grandma,” Croslin says, “so that’s where the love comes from. I came here and they’re going to drag me away when I’m 93 years old. Without a doubt, this is a family restaurant.”
Indeed. The Caviglias’ three children work for them.
With a seasonal menu and nightly specials, weekend fish dishes are particularly awesome.
“Every Thursday I get phone calls from the boat about what they’ve line-caught,” Croslin says. “I bring them in on Thursday and they’re still flopping.”
The eclectic menu includes French, Asian, imaginative classics and fresh fish.
“We started doing sushi,” Caviglia explains. “Some of those dishes, like the lobster potstickers and the ahi, it’s funny: more people come in for those items and the pot roast than anything else.”
“We go through probably 70-80 pounds of pot roast a week,” Croslin adds, “and I’m ordering fish four times a week, sometimes five. The longest I’ll hold my fish is 24 hours. I’d say we go through probably the same amount in ahi.”
Caviglia believes the secret of success is to avoid looking back because somebody might be gaining on you.
“That is exactly the secret to success.” says Caviglia. “It is! You can’t just go open a restaurant in Carmel, you have to buy a place and change it. Here there’s so many places. When we first opened, we were just so crazy busy, but I knew that it can’t be like this forever.”
Back at Sea Cloud, Chef Steve Elb who helped launch both restaurants is now partner and general manager. Eventually renamed Olitas, it offers unique Mexican flavor. Caviglia’s daughter manages the dining room.
“When the chef is your partner,” Caviglia says, “you know that there’s tons of care in the food. We do a lot of traditional things, but there’s also so many really good seafood dishes. On Taco Nights it’s a Westside hangout. A lot of that is my daughter who has that young crowd. And we do have good deals.” | Karen Petersen
Clouds Downtown, 110 Church St., Santa Cruz, 429-2000. Full bar. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to midnight. Visit cloudsdowntown.com
Good Character, Nicholson Vineyards
Situated in the “wine country” of the Aptos sunbelt, Nicholson Vineyards is a boutique winery in a prime spot.
Owners Marguerite and Brian Nicholson (pictured) have planted four acres of estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes on their Pleasant Valley Road property, and also four acres of Tuscan varietal olive trees. So as well as the wine they produce—with help from winemaker Ian Brand—they are now getting a fair amount of olive oil as well.
“The olive oil is five Tuscan varietals and the olives blend into a wonderfully aromatic oil that is very peppery with hints of grass and spice,” says Marguerite. “It’s extra virgin and cold pressed. We made 25 gallons from our first harvest and it sold out within two weeks. But I learned a valuable lesson.”
She laughs. “Next time I’m keeping some.”
But the Nicholsons concentrate mainly on their winemaking. “One thing our clientele love is our old vine Zinfandel from Amador County,” says Marguerite. “The vines are 111 years old, so that’s a very popular wine because it’s unique for our area.”
Another one of their most sought-after wines is their estate Pinot Noir and their estate Pinot Noir reserve. “We selected two exceptional barrels of our 2007 production and we placed the wine in new French oak and let it age for an extra nine months, so the wine is very smooth and decadent. Our wine club members and our customers love it.”
This year they have produced their first Viognier. It is made more in the European style—100 percent dry with beautiful aromas.
Vinocruz In Santa Cruz and Cava Wine Bar in Capitola sell Nicholson Vineyards’ wines, but they are not sold in local stores. “Because we sell out of every vintage, I’ve placed our wines only at Corralitos Market,” says Marguerite. “They are wonderful about supporting local wineries.”
The Nicholsons offer wine tasting from April through September, but they’re often open at other times throughout the year. They also do small private events through August. Wine club members get to choose the wines they want, and this small winery always sells out.
Although they produce 1,000 cases annually, they are hoping to double their production in the next three to five years. As well as their own grapes, the Nicholsons use regional fruit sourcing—concentrating their production from specific vineyards in Santa Cruz and north Monterey counties, the exception being the fruit from Amador for their old vine Zinfandel.
“We’re very lucky to get this very old fruit from T.C. Vineyard owned by Chuck Sisney,” adds Marguerite. “It’s important to us to produce elegant wines that highlight the uniqueness of the individual terroir. We want to showcase the characteristics that represent the variety of the region and the vineyard.” | Josie Cowden
Nicholson Vineyards, 2800 Pleasant Valley Road, Aptos, 724-7071. Visit nicholsonvineyards.com
Nice Breeze, Windy Oaks
A visit to Windy Oaks Winery is well worth the trip. It’s a nice drive up a shady lane of redwoods—eventually coming out at their glorious property atop a hill. A breathtaking view from the ridge —nearly 1,000 feet above the Monterey Bay – awaits you for your effort.
It’s on this prime land that Jim and Judy Schultze grow their sumptuous Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. It’s also a perfect spot for the delicate Pinot Noir grape as the coastal fog cools the vines in the evening, allowing for a lengthy hang time—an important factor for the fruit to develop intensity.
We had a guest from England staying for a few days recently, so we took him to experience a good wine-tasting afternoon up at Windy Oaks. Windy Oaks is one of the participating wineries in the Corralitos Wine Trail (held twice a year in May and September) along with Nicholson Vineyards, Alfaro Family Vineyards and Pleasant Valley Vineyards, but we didn’t have time to visit those other lovely wineries as well.
The wines we tasted at Windy Oaks were superb, but I really fell in love with the 2006 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir 2006 Estate Cuvee—and I bought a bottle ($38) on the spot. Even though it’s a complex wine, chock full of intense fruit, it’s still easy to pair with just about any kind of food. I would be happy drinking this Pinot Noir with or without food because it’s so darned good. Winemaker Jim Shultze declares that it’s a wine to drink every day with almost anything—salmon, pasta, pizza, salad niçoise – you name it. It’s aged for 17 months in French oak barrels and bottled in the Shulzte’s state-of-the-art bottling line.
Windy Oaks proprietors Judy and Jim Schultze are truly dedicated to wine making. They stick to the classical Burgundian techniques—using only gravity flow (not pumps, which could bruise the grapes) and without filtering or fining. (Fining agents are sometimes used to improve color.) They are so particular about the type of French oak barrels they use that they go to France every year to personally select them. I presume they do a bit of wine tasting while they are there as well. | Josie Cowden
Windy Oaks Estate Vineyard & Winery, 550 Hazel Dell Road, Corralitos, 786-9463. windyoaksestate.com. Open by appointment.
Making waves, Surf City Vintners
It’s been more than a year now since Surf City Vintners formed in Santa Cruz. SCV is a group of wineries that got together with one great idea: to form a collective of tasting rooms within an easy walk of each other. The concept was an instant success.
Lois Sones, who with husband and winemaker Michael Sones, runs Sones Cellars, says it’s been the best move for them. “It’s nice that people can come and spend an afternoon of wine tasting all in one spot,” she says. “It makes it very easy because the Santa Cruz Mountains can be hard to get around.”
Phil Crews of Pelican Ranch Winery says, “It’s a brave new world. Now we have all our friends nearby. And it’s a great venue for winemaking and wine tasting.” Phil and his wife Peggy have been at their present location for several years, but they feel everything has now come together since becoming part and parcel of Surf City.
Odonata Wines, formerly called Dragonfly Cellars, had to change its name because of a trademark issue. Winemaker Denis Hoey joined Surf City Vintners at its inception. “It’s a great mechanism for joint marketing that we can all do together,” he says. “We’re one great big family but we still coexist as separate businesses. We can help each other out. It’s great.”
When Hoey and his wife were initially trying to come up with a name for their winery, a beautiful dragonfly flew by. “It was a strong, powerful image,” he says. Odonata is the scientific name for dragonflies and damselflies, so they chose that name when they had to make the change.
Silver Mountain Vineyards is the latest member to join Surf City Vintners. Winemaker Jerold O’Brien says he’s very excited about opening a tasting room that is part of the collective. “This complex is terrific for the wine taster. It’s a boon to have at least eight wineries within one block. And there’s no other one group around where there are this many quality tasting rooms within a one block distance.” | Josie Cowden
All the wineries listed below also belong to the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association (685-8463, scmwa.com).
Wineries belonging to Surf City Vintners in Santa Cruz include:
Pelican Ranch, 402 Ingalls St., #21, 426-6911
Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, 334 Ingalls St., #A, 426-6209
Equinox/Bartolo, 427 Swift St., #C, 423-3000
Sones Cellars, 334 Ingalls St., #B, 420-1552
Vino Tabi, 334 Ingalls St., #C, 813-8384
Odonata Wines, 334 Ingalls St., #A (with SC Mountain Vineyard), 566-5147
Trout Gulch Vineyards, 427 Swift St., #C, 471-2705
Silver Mountain Vineyards, 402 Ingalls St., #29, 466-0559
Storrs Winery, 303 Potrero St., #35, 458-5030 (in a different location, but part of the group)
Note: Surf City Vintners is putting on a benefit the day after Thanksgiving. They are asking participants to bring a donation for a local charity—a present, toy or food—and the tasting fee will be waived. For information: surfcityvintners.com.