Dining Reviews

On The Rise

diningManresa Bread Project, New Year’s the French way, and a heavenly fruitcake

To celebrate the arrival of rain, I popped over to last Wednesday’s PopUp (next door to Assembly) for something fresh-baked from the Manresa Bread Project. Baker and Project entrepreneuse Avery Ruzicka was there, explaining ingredients to awaiting throngs, while I made an end-run toward a sensuous tart of Pear Frangipane ($6) and a heavy square of fresh moist pumpernickel ($8). Whoa! this is serious bread, I found out, as I rushed the pumpernickel home and sliced it for ham sandwiches. If you’re very skillful you can retrieve 10 thin slices from the aromatic dark bread. The pumpernickel uses Manresa’s sourdough base—the secret that perfumes each of the Project’s loaves—as well as rye, and is studded with pumpkin, sunflower and flax seeds. Like a savory, sour cake it tasted like a rainy day in Heidelberg. Or Sausalito. Each earthy mouthful delivered the ham and mustard in what amounted to textural perfection. After a few bites of the stupendous bread it became clear that this pumpernickel needed absolutely nothing. It has enough presence and intricate sweet-sour flavor that it can stand on its own. It’s almost too good to be made into a sandwich. But with the ham and a glass of champagne (not our usual lunchtime libation) … congratulations to Manresa’s Ruzicka. Her pumpernickel is a complete creation—unusual, delicious, and substantial. One could live by this bread alone. The pear tart, encrusted with toasted almonds, was a textbook pastry. Feather-light, barely sweet, it was sophisticated in every way. Academically strong, it was to our taste expressively weak. Made with a sensitive touch, the pastry was flawless—polite, correct—yet not exciting. To each her own. I can’t wait to sample more of Manresa’s sensuous breads, Wednesdays at the 11:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. PopUp. heypopup.com

New Year’s with a French Accent

I love this New Year’s alliance between Au Midi Restaurant and Windy Oaks Estate. Wines made by Jim Schultze are selected to accompany multiple courses of authentic French dishes created by chef Muriel Loubiere. A superb way to toast both the old and new year. The French Réveillon Menu (réveillon is a long dinner that requires staying awake until midnight) begins with lobster carpaccio infused with cognac, and a 2013 Sauvignon Blanc. Next, an albacore dish with garlic and parsley panna cotta paired with 2012 “One-Acre” Estate Chardonnay. Duck confit raviolis make an unforgettable pairing with a glass of 2012 Estate Pinot Noir, and the fourth course of prime filet mignon, sauce Périgueux plus winter veggies is offered with wood-tank fermented Estate Pinot Noir. Muriel’s chestnut vacherin with crème Anglaise perfumed with chestnut liqueur completes this New Year’s fête, along with a special barrel tasting of late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc. Jim and Judy Schultze will be on hand for this holiday dinner to discuss the wines. Make reservations quickly for New Year’s at Au Midi in Aptos. Dinner is $105/person, $155 with wine pairing (tax, tip non-incl.). Seating from 5 – 9 p.m. 685.2600.

Brotherhood of Fruitcake

If you didn’t begin your own fruitcake a few months ago, relax. The busy brothers of the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur have got it going on. Their flagship, three-pound fruit and nut-laced, brandy-dipped cake runs $43. Online, at hermitagebigsur.com, or at the Hermitage Gift shop on Hwy. 1 in Big Sur. Heavenly fruitcake.

Wine of the Week

Check out Storrs Sauvignon Blanc Monterey 2012 ($16.99 at Shopper’s Corner). At 13.8 percent it has both delicacy and clout. Minerals in the middle and then a soft, full finish. Laced with hints of chamomile, sea salt, lychee and pear. Perfect with seafoods.

PHOTO:  Manresa Bread Project offers fresh loaves every Wednesday at Pacific Avenue’s PopUp. ERIC WOLFINGER

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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