best dining 2017 hollins house santa cruz
Dining Reviews

From Cocktails to Dessert, the Best Dining in 2017

This year’s standout culinary moments from Santa Cruz and beyond

Octopus appetizer surrounded by autumn harvest produce, from chef John Paul Lechtenberg of Hollins House. PHOTO: CHRISTINA WATERS

From start to finish the most satisfying meal of 2017 was a flawless dinner at Hollins House where chef John Paul Lechtenberg showed us some superstar culinary moves. A starter of Spanish octopus was almost too beautiful to eat. Tasting as good as it looked, the dish of marinated roast octopus was flecked with fava beans, grilled lemons and brilliant red peppers. Impeccably roasted halibut fillets crowned a pool of pureed eggplant decorated with pickled carrots. Another entrée of perfect sea scallops arrived with heirloom grapefruit and roast asparagus. Dessert was a warm tart of seasonal figs accompanied by Earl Grey ice cream and a calligraphy of caramel sauce. A gem of a dinner in every respect.

The finest side dish of the year was a bravura creation of broccolini and kale created by Brad Briske at Home in Soquel. So brightly keyed as to taste almost alive, the baby greens were lavish with pine nuts, tiny currants, and chilis. Electrifying!

One of my favorite appetizers remains the splendid and wildly colorful beet salad with grilled prawns at Laili. Big succulent slabs of beet had been dressed with a memorable honey-Dijon balsamic vinaigrette. Large grilled prawns circled the plate like rosy petals. In the center was an island of piquant arugula topped with bits of goat cheese. Inspired!

The top appetizer of 2017 was Oswald’s sculptural Dungeness crab and avocado terrine topped with a crisp cheddar cracker and sided with pungent watercress. Addictive.

Another top food experience was dinner at Assembly of braised chicken leg from 38 North Poultry, which arrived bronzed into confit status, and surrounded by what amounted to an enlightened cassoulet of cannellini beans with caramelized leeks, chopped Route 1 kale, chorizo, and herbed bread crumbs. Mouthwatering then. And now.

My favorite plate of pasta was a supple dish of pappardelle Bolognese and a glass of Sangiovese consumed in Florence watching the sun set on the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. The perfect balance of meat, tomatoes, oregano, and al dente pasta, this dish was made at Rivoire, home of a world-class Negroni. A robust dinner of grilled lake perch, roast potatoes and Grüner Veltliner was one of my finest on a visit to Austria. But it was the celestial apple strudel at Vienna’s legendary Cafe Demel that took my breath away. Paper-thin pastry dusted with powdered sugar embraced apples, raisins and spices in a dish that frankly leaves every other version of strudel far behind. Ganz wunderbar!

 

Cocktail of the Year

It’s a toss-up between the Gin Cocktail at Bantam—a stirring of Venus 1, Bruto Americano, semi-sweet vermouth, and orange bitters—and the transformational Amorous at Oswald. Venus 1 gin, amaro, lime, and the substitution of muddled cucumber instead of mint. Liquid salvation. (Thank you, Sean Venus!)

 

Burger of the Year

Continuing its reign is the grassfed beef Unburger topped with melted cheese, caramelized onions, and smoked bacon from the kitchen of Gabriella. Wrapped in hours-old butter lettuce this is the queen of burgers—juicy, intensely-flavored, absolutely irresistible. A destination burger, even without the bun.

 

Dessert of the Year

A goblet of retro spumoni ice cream topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry at the equally retro seafood house of Anthony’s in San Diego. Never has chocolate, pistachio, and cherry-studded vanilla ice cream tasted so full-bodied, so unearthly rich, so approachable. My mom, my sweetie, and I devoured every trace of this guilty pleasure and smiled all the way home.

This is the year we lost the once-glorious O’mei and gained the possibilities of Abbott Market Square. Here’s wishing you many moments of sensory pleasure in 2018. Happy New Year!

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