best bites santa cruz cafe sparrow
Dining Reviews

The Best Bites of 2016

Food writer Christina Waters names her favorite culinary discoveries of the year

Day boat scallops at Cafe Sparrow in Aptos were among this year’s highlights in food. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

2016 was the year of the scallop, with no fewer than three fabulous dishes capturing my fancy that involved my favorite shellfish. A fabulous lunch at Cafe Sparrow was highlighted by a trio of plump moist day boat scallops, seared golden and topping a foundation of polenta with orange reduction sauce. Here was a lunch to linger over and to remind me all over again just how much I love this enduring Aptos Village landmark.

Fresh sea scallops wrapped in prosciutto in a chipotle sauce at Plantation, on Long Beach Island, New Jersey also made a lasting impression. Another scallop dish right here in Santa Cruz made my list, too. Seared sea scallops with parsnip puree and an addictive slaw of Brussels sprouts, studded with thin slices of grapefruit and tangerine made by chef Mark Denham at Soif. Curls of flash-fried parsnip topped the beautiful dish that was also surrounded with a reduction vinaigrette—dazzling flavors!

At La Posta, an evening’s special pasta—a dish of plump gnocchi that had been sauced with shreds of slow-cooked pork and those little orange tomatoes—knocked me out. The pork and pomodori formed a sauce synergy that bathed each little pillow of potato pasta.  Sauce rich enough to act like a main course, yet subtle enough to flatter without overwhelming the pasta. I was impressed with an appetizer of roasted fresh Dungeness crab and infant greens at Chez Panisse last month. The white Bordeaux pairing didn’t hurt one bit.

A lunch entree of Idaho trout at Gabriella dazzled with delicious trout flavor flattered by a bed of inner leaves of baby romaine, arugula, cucumbers, and zest of carrots. Perfumed with tarragon, the vibrant dressing added zing. Gabriella was also the site of the year’s showpiece dessert—pumpkin semifreddo topped with a dusting of ginger snaps and a snowy field of unsweetened whipped cream. Dazzling! An outdoor summer meal at the Homeless Garden Project’s Sustain Supper showed off chef Brad Briske’s superb treatment of roast whole snapper, brined with garlic, rosemary and jalapeños and stuffed with yet more herbs. The aroma was incredible, thanks to the fire pit cooking process.

A textbook-perfect dish of boeuf Bourguignon at Bo-Beau in La Mesa offered herb-fragrant baby carrots, mushrooms, long haricots verts, and fingerling potatoes, adorning the moist, tender beef and rich pancetta reduction. Exactly the way someone’s French grand-mère would have made. Nothing less than a housemade glazed donut at Bantam’s brunch forced me to revoke my gluten-free creed for a few minutes. The rich doughnut arrived with its hole (also glazed) on the side. Each bite was intense, light yet substantial. The Scotch olives at Assembly—Castelvetrano olives stuffed with garlic sausage and cheese and then deep fried. Yeow! An order of Ahi Katsu Tacos from Hula’s sided with black beans and molten salsa, were worth revisiting. Laid across the two tacos were long slabs of pink panko-crusted ahi, topped with cilantro and underscored by fresh slaw. We cleaned our plate. The supple, nay tumescent almond orange cookie, dusted with powdered sugar from Cafe Ivéta has earned my love and respect over and over. The tension of flavors, intense almond pushing against the tangy citrus, is enough to make anyone’s afternoon (pair with jasmine green tea for a serious bliss event). Heavenly texture. Destined for Hall of Fame status are the always wonderful Red Oil Dumplings at O’mei. Tender, succulent, and brilliant in their incomparable spicy sauce (which I could eat for breakfast!). Diverse and well-seasoned, it was an unpredictable year. In food, as in other things. Here’s to a great 2017!

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

To Top