Casablanca Restaurant continues to strike a memorable culinary chord
Should Pacific Avenue be closed off to traffic? Was the destruction of the Cooper House a horrible mistake? Where on the Earth is the best place to wear a mankini?
Dear Lord, with these questions floating about our striking ocean-view table, it was going to be a long night at Casablanca Restaurant. Not that the four of us minded. This was Casablanca, after all, the famed Santa Cruz destination right off Main Beach, an establishment that’s been hailed both for its breathtaking scenery and its culinary prowess. Besides, this had to be the first time the subject of mankinis—an odd amalgam of a bikini and Speedo for the testosterone set—came up in a dinner conversation before a meat dish appeared.
And so it went, on a chilly, rainy evening. We took the issues to heart, giving them equal contemplation while sipping our 2003 Sones Cellars Pinot Noir, which was surprisingly not too “fruity” and which served as a perfect form of liquid therapy in between storms. And the bottle bit the dust shortly after the appetizers arrived.
About those … well, what a dreamy pair these two dishes were: Fried Brie with Jalepeño Jelly ($11.95) and Fried Calamari with Thai Chile Lime Sauce ($12.95). That sounds like a “fried” marathon, but what’s interesting to note about both apps, is that neither felt heavy on the palate—or beyond it. Actually, the former provoked a whimsical, school-girl-like high-pitched gush, “You’ve got to be kidding me?” from one of us. (OK, it was me, but what can I say, I was jazzed about the blend of jalepeño in the jelly—not overpowering but still significant enough to get your attention.) The light chile lime sauce served the calamari well—again, the calamari didn’t appear to be as heavy as many other calamari dishes tend to be. This sort of “just-right”-Goldilocks feeling would continue throughout the evening in other dishes.
But first, we welcomed a bottle of Savannah-Chanelle Vineyards 2004 Pinot Noir. And what a serious creature this was. Big and bold, a bit jammy and Zinny, it leaves a vivid impression in the nose and fine after-effects in the noggin. (If you really dig Pinot, this is the one for you.)
Meanwhile, some answers arrived: “Pacific Avenue should, indeed, be closed to traffic,” somebody chimed in. “It’s ridiculous how it’s set up now,” one of the gals at the table offered. I was well into my Casablanca House Salad with Dried Cherry Vinaigrette and Candied Walnuts ($5.95)—yeah, it’s as good as it sounds—when I sighed. “Please! A one-way sign here, another one-way sign there. It’s no wonder we’re all schizophrenic driving around in that maze.” Somebody laughed. “Speaking of schizophrenics, did you know that early in the morning you can find …”
I raised my hand. “Just pour me some more wine.”
Our entrees arrived. Have you ever had one of those moments where the dish looks so great, you don’t want to mess it up by letting your fork and knife invade it? Well, that was certainly the case with my Grilled Salmon with Citrus Vin Blanc ($22.95). This significant serving of salmon was cooked to perfection. The hearty mashed potatoes came accented nicely with fresh chives. If you order this, try breathing in the aromas for a moment before diving into the meal. There’s something magical about those chives, I’m sure of it. (And no, I don’t believe this was the wine talking.)
We took turns sampling each other’s entrees. The gals at the table ordered the Dungeness Crab-Stuffed Prawns with Cous Cous ($22.95)—insert “happy face” here—and a Grilled New York Steak with Bourbon Peppercorn Demi-glaze ($29.95). I’m not a big meat-eater any more, so it must have been my iron-rich meat-and-potatoes Chicago upbringing that kept me pining for more of the steak. I found it delightfully smoky and its sauce reduction really inviting. The stuffed prawns were a wildly filling surprise and held just the right amount of moisture and tenderness. (Sometimes, dishes like this arrive and the insides are too dry. Not here.) One dish more to try though: Rigatoni Pasta Tossed with Roasted Garlic, Onions, Mushrooms, Feta Cheese and Roasted Tomato Sauce ($17.95) It comes across like a party in a bowl—the roasted sauce stands out.
More answers: “Destroying the Cooper House was a terrible mistake!” one of us noted, and we all seemed to agree. The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake may have shaken her up, but we each felt there could have been a way to save the dear, old CH.
But, alas, I was aleady diving into a Chocolate Mousse Pie—insane, I know, but it’s a rich creation with a unique, powerful dense culinary overcoat and an interior world that is surprisingly lighter than you’d think, even for mousse. Then, at last, I was alerted to the fact that the best place on Earth to wear a mankini is on the sexy beaches of South America.
Well, that may be true, but here, across the street from Santa Cruz’s Main Beach, there’s something more handsome, perhaps even more memorable. Casablanca Restaurant has withstood the test of time since the late ’70s. And, in a day and age when many of those around us cannot seem to stop Twittering about their experiences long enough to actually create “real” ones, it’s a refreshing treat to come to an old favorite and cherish something that is both familiar and good for the soul—a divine ocean view, one of the best wine cellars in the county and intelligent food design by somebody who clearly loves what he is doing: Chef Aaron Cunningham. No doubt manager Scott Cater’s dedication filters into this winning mix, too.
But Casablanca has one more admirable quality: A dining room that provokes real conversation over a real meal. That may be “old fashioned,” but honey, it will always be delicious.
This article is part of a series of monthly outings designed to inspire the marriage of great meals and savory conversation. Casablanca Restaurant, 101 Main Street, Santa Cruz, 426-9063, casablanca-santacruz.com. Open 5-9 p.m. daily. Pictured: New York Steak with Bourbon Peppercorn Demi-glaze.