Dining Reviews

Oswald Chef Damani Thomas Serves Up Sophisticated Comfort Food

Consistently wonderful Oswald team creates expert, innovative dishes

Customers settle in for outdoor dining at Oswald in downtown Santa Cruz. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

It is no surprise that the kitchen run by Oswald chef and owner Damani Thomas can turn out expert dishes. We all know that. 

But it’s delicious to be reminded, as we were last week savoring a fabulous takeout dinner from Oswald. From the generously proportioned arugula salad, decked with walnuts, chevre, and bits of roasted delicata squash, to the plump wedge of fragrant almond cake with creme fraiche, it was sophisticated comfort food every single bite. The salad was a knockout of flavors and textures all wrapped up in a memorable fennel seed vinaigrette ($11). We piled our salad plates high and finished every bite. 

The entrees were even better. The roasted pressed chicken breast ($30) was as moist, tender, and flavorful as chicken gets. Period. A complex rub of spices gave the poultry appealing flavor depth. With the chicken came an inspired ratatouille of diced red bell peppers, onions, eggplant and zucchini on top of wild rice luscious with basil butter. Every flavor made sense with all the others. Brilliant. And I never say that about chicken. 

Then there was my order of skirt steak ($32), which arrived pink and juicy as requested, arranged in thick slices next to a potato gratin that was perfection. I counted at least a dozen paper thin layers of potato stacked into a perfect rectangle of buttery creaminess, and accompanied by spiced, roasted carrots. The potatoes were culinary architecture, both dense and supple. The wonderful beef had been sauced with an addictive chimichurri butter which I enjoyed shamelessly. “This is great! This is great!” was all my dinner partner could say as he went back for seconds of the brilliant salad. And with that we toasted the chef. Damani Thomas knows that butter is an important enhancing element of meat and vegetable cuisines, and he uses it with flourish and precision. 

The dessert of almond cake was delightfully not-too-sweet. An adult dessert, it had a fine texture and was surrounded by barely sweetened creme fraiche—such a smart way of highlighting the delicate flavor and chewiness of the cake. With the almond cake came a small container of butternut squash compote. Daring touch, letting the squash stand in for fruit. Conceptually and palate-wise, it was another playful bit of innovation. We thank the universe for this consistently wonderful kitchen. Kudos chef Thomas and team! 

Oswald, 121 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Open Wednesday-Thursday noon-8pm, and Friday-Saturday noon-9pm. 831-423-7427, oswaldrestaurant.com

Holiday Dinners 

The Buttery is offering a Christmas dinner of organic Diestel turkey with all the trimmings, including garlic mashed potatoes, green bean almondine, apple pecan stuffing, gravy, and fresh cranberry sauce. This meal serves one person for $24.95. Order now; it’s a major good value. And don’t forget the Buttery’s outstanding pumpkin pie, which serves eight, for $22.95. Order online at butterybakery.com. Don’t wait until the last minute! 

LaPosta will be offering Christmas Dinner for pickup, menu still in progress. Email  [email protected] for more info.

Soif downtown will offer a Christmas Eve dinner (for pickup between 11am-1pm Thursday, Dec. 24). Artichoke and citrus salad with hazelnuts or salt cod bouillabaisse; stuffed squab with sausage, or prime rib roast with creamed spinach. For dessert, choose the traditional Buche de Noel or sticky toffee pudding with creme fraiche. Priced at $75/person, the dinner is designed to be reheated at home and comes with detailed instructions. 

I enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner from Soif this year and can attest to their expertise in making a fine holiday meal for takeout. Learn more at soifwine.com.

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.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Warren

    January 2, 2021 at 1:40 pm

    Hi Christina, I know you have written about Pizzeria Avanti in the past. Do you know that a gofundme has been set up to try and save the restaurant? The address is gofund.me/6204ff0d. Perhaps you could let your readers know about it. Thanks, Warren

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