Jordan Chesko of O’mei with ‘Ants Climbing a Tree’ dish and garlic prawns with bok choy.
Dining Reviews

Eating gluten-free at O’mei

Plus, Brad Biske’s new restaurant and a boho cocktail at 515

Jordan Chesko of O’mei with ‘Ants Climbing a Tree’ dish and garlic prawns with bok choy. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER

Thanks to a very gluten-avoidant guest visiting us last week, we discovered the small but powerful menu of “wheat-free” dishes available (if you request it) at the splendid O’mei, where soy-intensive dishes often leave those GF diners in a quandary. Yes, there is a tiny bit of wheat in soy sauce, so we surveyed other possibilities.

An entree of prawns and baby bok choy, wok’d with lots of garlic and rice wine proved wildly popular with our table. The dish preserved the fresh plumpness of the ingredients, revealed in all their sparkling flavor thanks to the soy-free preparation. Another dish that I always love, called “Ant Climbing a Tree” was a delicious GF choice. This dish uses the sensuous texture of “glass” (bean thread) noodles, along with ginger and minced pork to make a huge flavor impact. I, however, went rogue and started my meal with an order of those addictive Red Oil Dumplings with sauce to kill for. Given the generous spacing of O’mei tables, and the harmonious atmosphere (i.e. we can actually carry on a conversation!) we almost always take out-of-town guests to O’mei . . . And, it turns out that not too far from O’mei, over at Cafe Ivéta, glutenphobes can request gluten-free bread for their favorite sandwich. Nice idea, although we agreed that the very firm sandwich platform required a lot more salt and a lot more mayo to add moisture and hold the interest of our tastebuds. Still, it did act as a delivery system for a thick wedge of turkey, havarti and tomatoes. Yum.

Wine of the Week

La Honda 2013 Red Table Wine “Exponent” loaded with Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon spiked with Syrah, Merlot and Sangiovese. This is a big-shouldered creation for such restrained alcohol (13.5 percent). We found it to be layered with cassis, blueberry, birch root, clover, graphite and mahogany. Even more subtle nuances as the wine opened. It was wonderful with a few slices of rare filet mignon and an arugula and fig salad. Somewhere near the $20 range at fine wine and food emporia.

Cocktail of the Week

Even though I had visions of working (drinking) my way through the hefty 515 cocktail listing, I just couldn’t make it past that exceptional “Cantina Band” ($10). Arriving in a tall, slim tumbler, this tart beauty hits all the palate spots. St. George terroir gin, with a touch of cane sugar and lime juice lay down the foundation. Ginger beer adds body, and Fernet Branca carries the top note of burnt orange tones—an exceptional bitters. Cucumber is muddled, and added as a garnish. This is a beautiful sipping drink, delicious, rich with gingery flavors and neither sweet nor sour. My companion settled in to a 100-percent classic Negroni—gin, campari, and Vermouth and wasn’t the least bit jealous of my “Cantina Band.” Nice atmosphere up in that bohemian U-shaped bar. 515 Cedar St., Santa Cruz.

Home Again!  

Home is the name of chef Brad Briske’s new restaurant (the former Theo’s, former Main St. Garden Cafe) and I’ve already heard raves from pre-opening diners. Artisanal charcuterie, rustic pastas, local ingredients, lavish use of produce and herbs from the backyard garden, and desserts such as the dreamy Blood Orange Panna Cotta. I’ll be back soon with my own impressions, but Briske, who won legions of fans during his time at La Balena in Carmel, is a true artist. You can count on his new restaurant being a hit! Official opening this week.

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.

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