I love the boisterous pace and energy of Bantam, although I admit that Katya and I try to get there right at opening time in order to score our favorite spots at the bar. And before the noise level rises.
Chef/owner Ben Sims was chopping and dicing along with his team in front of the hard-working wood-fired pizza oven, so we made a point of sampling some of the evening’s menu in addition to some liquid refreshments. We tasted a few wines by the glass, then zeroed in on an icy flute of Blanc de Blanc ($12) and a pour of Ampelos Cellars Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($14), both solid choices with the food to come.
A plate of house bread and salted butter made sense with a starter of cauliflower pickles ($6), bright yellow from turmeric and tossed with black sesame seeds. They were crunchy and dazzling to the tongue. Perfect, light pickling made them almost addictive. Another opening plate of creamy burrata ($12) with wood-oven figs and hazelnuts in an oregano olive oil sauce was diverting, but might have prospered with less oregano and more figs. Adventurous idea, though.
Two more dishes that we shared last week brought home the obvious: Bantam is a serious restaurant disguised as a neighborhood pizza joint. Our main plate was an elegant creation of grilled scallops astride a landscape of black lentils surrounded by avocado cream ($25). The scallops were perfect—tender inside, golden crisp outside. Crimson Jimmy Nardello peppers joined the shellfish, and everything gleamed in an intense citrus oil. This was a spectacular constellation of flavors and textures. Earthy luxury, and a dynamite pairing with both the bubbly and the Pinot.
Since we had been sharing each plate, we both had room for a little something more. Dessert? You bet. We instantly went for a special blackberry and strawberry crumble, topped with almonds and a scoop of bold, house-made ginger ice cream ($9). This deeply satisfying pastry gave currency to the concept of bypassing dinner and going straight to dessert. The berries were warm from the oven, the almondy crumble an exact topping—not too much, not too skimpy. And the icing on the cake (I can’t help it) was the tart and barely sweet, ultra-creamy —almost gelato-esque—ginger ice cream. Berries, almonds and ginger ice cream: you do the math. Thank you Bantam for locating yourself very close to where we live.
Bantam, 1010 Fair Ave., Santa Cruz. 420-0101, bantam1010.com.
Animal Branches Out
Just when you thought it was merely a sophisticated bookstore with a wine bar attached, now there’s fried chicken at Bad Animal (and no, the chicken isn’t the animal in question.) Proprietors Jess and Andrew continue with their Left Bank Brunches on Sundays, and in the evening, Chef Parker is growing and morphing the Southern Sunday Supper menu (5-8:30pm) in homage to the New Orleans institution Willie Mae’s Scotch House, featuring not only fried chicken (be still my heart) but the ultimate comfort food, macaroni and cheese.
Bad Animal, 1011 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. 900-5031, badanimalbooks.com.