From start to finish—from the outstanding octopus to the fresh fig tart—our dinner last week at Hollins House was easily the best we’ve had in years. The rockstar heading up the culinary team is young executive chef John Paul Lechtenberg, whose handiwork I’d tasted last spring at an al fresco benefit dinner. The food is enhanced every step of the way by the gracious setting—the 1920s home of passionate golfer Marion Hollins, with its dreamy view across the greens of the Monterey Bay and city of Santa Cruz twinkling in the distance.
Our server Angel (an appropriate name) guided us through this memorable meal, starting with a minerally Astrolabe Sauvignon Blanc 2015 with a bouquet of pears and honeysuckle ($12). Jack chose one of Jeff Emery’s Quinta Cruz Tempranillos ($13) and proved once again that a well-made red wine can work its own magic when paired with fish.
With our wines, a warm house-made sourdough and the fog below starting to prowl atmospherically along the coast, we began our first dish, a colorful starter of Spanish octopus ($16) that remained our favorite of the meal. On a large round plate Lechtenberg had created a plump ochre-hued cushion of intensely-flavored sofrito (think purée of peppers, garlic, oregano, tomato and cilantro). Sculptural branches of marinated roast octopus (impossibly tender) were dotted with brilliant green fava beans, grilled lemon and cherry tomatoes, and crimson Jimmy Nardello peppers. The creation was decked with blue borage blossoms and infant coriander flowers. Every bite offered a layering of those piquant flavors, cascades of harmonic flavors. Nothing conflicting, nothing gratuitous. An edible Matisse full of surprises!
We wanted every single entrée on this menu, from the salmon tartine to the beef and chanterelle pappardelle, but in the end we succumbed to the evening special petite entrée of exceptional fresh local halibut ($17) and splendid diver scallops with Parmesan-laced spinach risotto and roast asparagus ($26).
Our generous pours of wine were busy showing their stuff as we savored the high ceilings, sparkling hardwood floors and the spot-on vintage bossa nova from Stan Getz swirling in the deep background. Hollins House is one of the rare dining rooms in which you can enjoy exciting food and wine while actually conducting a conversation. No decibel irritation to interfere with the mood. Heat lamps were being turned on for patio diners when our entrées arrived.
The halibut special showed yet another variation of the chef’s commitment to the freshest flavors of the moment. More of the brilliant red sweet peppers and fat green favas adorned two small stacked filet pieces, impeccably roasted and stacked together on top of a swirl of puréed eggplant. Thin curls of pickled carrots played with the succulent seafood, and yes, the Tempranillo was a terrific partner for every bite of this fine dish. Jack used a piece of sourdough to round up every last trace of this amazing dish. Meanwhile I sighed over velvety risotto—the kind you fantasize about someday being able to make—surrounded by fat tumescent scallops and the bright tang of heirloom grapefruit, all topped with a thicket of roast asparagus perfumed by tarragon, a micro nasturtium leaf crowning the very top.
Now, about that fig tart ($13). Consider a generous warm tart made with two figs, Kadota and Mission, whose juices had caramelized along the sides of the incredible pastry. Next to the pastry sat a sphere of Earl Grey ice cream studded with cherries, made by David Kumer’s Mission Hill Creamery. A slender necklace of caramel punctuated the frozen cream—how did the chef know that these flavors of fig, caramel and tea-scented ice cream would rhyme and resonate? A thin underlying slick of toasted marshmallow joined the dessert’s two areas of interest, and even that bit of rococo wit made sense with every other note. I hope the Michelin people are paying attention: John Paul Lechtenberg is taking Hollins House to new heights. Destination dining with more than 30 wines by the glass. Get up there soon and be impressed.
Hollins House, Pasatiempo. Tapas on Tuesdays (starting in October), dinners Wednesday-Friday and some Saturdays. 459-9182.