Dining Reviews

Showcasing Santa Cruz County’s Top Dining Spots in 2021

From Avanti Santa Cruz and Oswald to Barceloneta and La Posta, variety reigns supreme

Bartender Jake Casarez mixes up a house cocktail special, the Pomageddon, at Mentone in Aptos Village, which served up some of the best food and drinks of the year. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

In a year of dining dangerously, we all took culinary pleasure where we could find it. Often it was in carryout dinners—Avanti Santa Cruz’s lamb meatballs with polenta, Laili’s marinated beets, coriander, arugula and goat cheese salad. Oh, and the lamb kabob with perfumed saffron rice and those fiery and complex chutneys.

But as restaurants tip-toed into outdoor parklet dining, we enjoyed incredible meals in the romantic back patio of La Posta. The house sourdough holds a place in our heart. At one special dinner, we feasted on an appetizer of large shreds of smoked trout, joined by fingerling potatoes and diagonal slices of fresh snap peas in a vinaigrette infused with fermented Fresno chilis, lemon, and garlic. Equally impressive was a sensuous cannelloni entree filled with succulent braised pork, kale and black currants, dusted with parmesan inside and out.  

Sometimes it was one spectacular dish that stood out: a fried calamari appetizer at Oswald, feather-light, crisp and tender. A slice of tumescent pumpkin pie, spices perfectly balanced, from Kelly’s, served at 11th Hour Coffee. At Gabriella Cafe an entree of local coho salmon glazed with Gema Cruz’s chimichurri sauce knocked me out, as did an appetizer of watermelon gazpacho. From the energetic hand of chef Todd Parker at Sante Adairius came a mile-high chicken salad sandwich that was like nothing I’ve ever eaten, sandwich-wise. Lots of labor-intensive dicing went into the central core of chicken, celery, carrots, a ripe juicy tomato, and preserved lemon (the key to these cascades of flavors). Inside the micro-chopped chicken salad was the tart, citrusy surprise of sorrel leaves.

The Ibiza Hippie Salad from Barceloneta won us over, again! Kale, preserved lemons, yams, little pastas. Easily the most delightful suite of ingredients in town. At Venus Spirits Cocktails and Kitchen the crisp, crisp brussels sprouts with pink onions, cashew cream and black garlic sauce was perfection, paired with the Venus No.2 G&T laced with star anise and a bay leaf. At Copal, we accompanied our margaritas with hand-made corn tortilla quesadillas, warm with melting cheese and mushrooms—the star of the meal! When Brad Briske of Soquel’s HOME took over the kitchen at Discretion Brewing for a while, he created something outrageous—fresh cod tacos layered with sriracha aioli, avocado whip, cabbage slaw and pickled onions.

Brunch at Gabriella was good enough to get us out of the house on a Sunday morning. And it was our very first meal in a restaurant during this weird year. Eggs Florentine (perfect avocados) and breakfast tacos made celestial by the addictive house salsa plus French press coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice. So satisfying.

Mentone in Aptos Village specializes in delicious sophistication. One particular stand-out meal included a gorgeous platter of earthy, salty Wagyu bresaola, a definitive pizza bianca with three cheeses, and transformative Negronis, classic as well as the Spagliato Bianco. The housemade fior di latte gelato, infused with sea salt and olive oil, is the dessert we want for our final meal on earth.

Dinner at Trestles in Capitola Village was at this year’s very top, thanks to the uncanny touch of chef Nick Sherman, who reinvents seafoods and elevates vegetables through fusion sauces and playful combinations of ingredients. Pork belly with roast watermelon and jalapeño vinaigrette shared the spotlight with roast trumpet mushrooms in balsamic glaze. We were also amazed by a dish of caramelized scallops cushioned by kohlrabi and a port reduction.Our favorite lunch at Iveta always delivers: turkey and havarti sandwich, with sea salt chips, a lime wine spritzer and that incredible Cowboy Cookie. Here’s to health, happiness and a re-opening of our world in 2022!

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Beck & Bulow

    December 31, 2021 at 10:15 am

    This is an amazing place for great food. It will now be my go-to recipe for spaghetti & meatballs. Very moist and flavorful!

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