From its William Blake prints to its wraparound poetry, Bad Animal is a haven for retro chic unlike anything else in Santa Cruz. For one thing, the playlist last Thursday night of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Warren Zevon, Bob Dylan. Excellent. Keeping them company, a wall of handprinted broadsides, Impressionist paintings in thick gold frames, crystal chandeliers and a snug elbow of banquettes filled with an appropriately chic clientele. All those Evergreen Reviews, the New Directions existential classics, the tiny wine bar. I’m transported to Greenwich Village circa 1960, waiting for new arrivals to the Beat Generation to order a glass of orange wine and wander through the Camus and Bukowski. And this is all by careful design, as is the stuffed badger head gazing across the polished floor at a wooden mallard in flight. Tables quickly acquired human animals, talking of Michelangelo. The walls are loaded with serious reading—Adrienne Rich, Shakespeare, DH Lawrence, Jonathan Franzen, histories, philosophy, criticism. Enfolded into this salon of ideas, backed by an early punk rock soundtrack, is a tiny kitchen and an eccentric wine list, long on bottles and curiously short on wines by the glass. Bad Animal is doing its own thing while still exploring its culinary/oenological mission. After choosing glasses of a Chilean orange ($14) and a Spanish grenache ($13) from the edgy varietals from Italy, Alsace, Moravia, Serbia, and Greece, we roamed the tempting floor to ceiling bookshelves. Distracted by “Rebel, Rebel,” I decided to order food. And so we joined a group of fellow diners negotiating their dinner plans at the bar. The deal is you choose, order, and if you want, pay up front. How do I tip for service and meal not yet received? I sipped my orange wine as I pondered this and wondered whether I’m too binary for this glamorous scene.
Post-pandemic, Bad Animal has acquired the expert cooking skills of The Midway (chef Catherine Stern’s latest project). Her menu is artful—and short. Two snacks, two salads, two entrees, and two desserts. The tagliatelle verde ($19), with squash and nettles sounded tempting, as did the other entree of Fogline Farm chicken with miso, sweet potato and pickled daikon ($24). I found myself fantasizing over the no-longer-on-the-menu Manresa sourdough with salted butter from pre-pandemic days. Our entrees came to our table in handsome deep white bowls. Perfect for my pasta, but challenging for cutting the roasted chicken breast. I loved the crisp nettles lacing the pale green pasta. The chef likes to push sweet against salty, a strategy that adorned both our dishes. Salty miso and sweet yam. I was slowing down on my generous bowl of pasta and asked for a to-go box, as I picked at a few choice strands of tagliatelle. Immediately our dessert arrived, along with the to-go box. As I mentioned, a few kinks are still being ironed out—I was given a fork to scoop up the pasta, and we were given spoons for our beautiful dessert of chocolate ginger cake ($10). Even though it was awkward to eat without forks, this was a masterful dish. Luscious, ginger-scented barely sweetened chocolate cake was topped with unsweetened whipped cream. Black sesame seeds dotted the ethereal cream and cake. Encircling the plate were slices of poached quince and fig. A ravishing cascade of flavors. Chocolate, cream, quince, and fig. Bad Animal is a terrific scene, loaded with food for thought and exotic wines. Check out the desserts while you’re there. badanimalbooks.com 1011 Cedar St., Open Wed noon-9; bar & kitchen 5-9. No res.