oswald's santa cruz
Dining Reviews

Chef Damani Thomas Continues to Elevate Oswald’s Menu

Plus, 11th Hour Coffee’s debut, Kelly’s unmatchable pumpkin pie and Laili reopens

Owner and chef Damani Thomas is at the top of his game at Oswald. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

When was the last time you sighed over an appetizer of calamari fritti? Maybe the last time you dined at Oswald. Glistening and surrounded with zesty sauces of aioli, salsa verde and ketchup, these light-as-clouds calamari morsels ($17) began a terrific al fresco dinner at the downtown landmark last Thursday. Diners filled the interior while Melanie and I enjoyed the street sights and sounds from an outdoor table, warmed by heatlamps, as we chose wines from one of the most interesting by-the-glass lists in town. We asked to try a few of the wines, and were brought pours to sample. A light Tornatore Etna Bianco ($14) from Sicily, bearing a lyrical freight of volcanic nuance. A nice big AR Guentota Malbec ($12) made perfect sense with Melanie’s choice of lamb, and a complex Domaine Olivier Hillaire Côtes-du-Rhone married its grenache and syrah ingredients to full effect ($12). I knew it would make a fine partner to the pork dish that I was about to order.

Tanuki cider braised pork belly was encircled by cannellini bean puree and brilliant roasted purple cabbage, the perfect flavor partners to the unctuous and irresistible slab of tender pork ($35). Fork tender, rich with its own surrounding pillow of fat, this is a dish I love and Chef Damani Thomas does it to perfection. I’ll bet some people hear the words “pork belly” and imagine something that’s mostly fat. They would be wrong. The tender shreds of interior meat have been insulated by the white fat as it cooks, much like a confit. The result is incomparably succulent flesh, which one removes from the layer of quilting before consuming.

Melanie chose a beautiful wide bowl of curry braised lamb ($35) on a bed of creamy polenta—a brilliant pairing—and strewn with bits of lemony, garlicky gremolata for even more flavor power. We indulged with baguette and butter. Why not?

At meal’s end, we shared a deeply comforting yet sophisticated dessert of almond custard torte ($14), in which an addictive creamy almond interior was wrapped in a buttery turban of pastry crust, then topped with vanilla ice cream and a scattering of toasted almonds. A small bowl of coffee reduction accompanied the almond creation, which Melanie added to each of her bites. My fork kept attacking the almondy interior of the torte, which tasted like a masterclass in marzipan—only lighter and creamier. Bravo! Oswald, 121 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Open Wed.-Sat. from noon to 3pm, 4-8pm, til 9pm on Fri. and Sat.

High Pie

I popped into the very spiffy new 11th Hour Coffee last week—an utterly transformed Kelly’s—and enjoyed a textbook double macchiato. But not all by itself, because there in the display case was a fresh slice of pumpkin pie, made by Kelly’s, calling my name. Nothing beats pie and coffee on a foggy morning, and the visit gave me time to admire the gleaming, handcrafted interior of 11th Hour, filled with wood and rock-work benches and counter trims, plus botanicals including a ceiling-high fig tree right in the center of the coffeehouse. But seriously, the pie! Always one of the very top pumpkin pies, this one from Kelly’s kitchen was fabulous. Creamy, rich, with balanced spices and tender crust, this is the pumpkin pie you want, and deserve ($4). Go get some immediately. Go more than once. This is pie that gives pie its street cred.

Laili Update!Laili emailed to tell me that the downtown Mediterranean favorite has reopened after its long hiatus, for takeout and delivery only, Wed-Sat 4-8pm. The restaurant dining room and patio will reopen for seating in a few weeks. We have missed Laili’s splendid cuisine and welcome them back. Orders can be placed on the website at lailirestaurant.com.

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