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January 31-February 7, 2007

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Oswald

Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Bistro on the move: Oswald's current location closes Feb. 17 in order to get ready for their relocation.

Limited-Time Love

Oswald's final weeks at its courtyard location are a Valentine's season must

By Selene Latigo


If there's one rule that Dave and I have made over the years regarding romance, it is to never go out to dinner on a major date night. Valentine's Day is probably the worst occasion to spend at a restaurant--not only because the staff will be slammed and the food often hurried, but mostly because of the suffocating layer of tension that results from too much expectation on this society-appointed holiday of love. I'd compare the feeling to the archetypal high school prom experience. When this highly anticipated night turns into just another awkward drunk Saturday, the world crumbles in disappointment. To avoid the crowds of nervous diners, we picked a random weeknight to celebrate being together over what we knew would be an amazing meal at Oswald.

Despite the ghost-town feeling inherent in being surrounded by a boarded-up courtyard space, Oswald is still very much alive and kicking. The impending relocation from one of the most unique corners of downtown (the restaurant will be will be closing its current location on Feb. 17 in preparation for its move to an as yet undisclosed location) is no reason not to visit, even just to say goodbye to the intimate bilevel nook of brick and industrial juxtapositions. Hopefully, we mused as we headed toward the glowing beacon of windows, some of these interesting building materials will be salvaged during the upcoming destruction.

We passed the characteristic trio of lilies on the way to our table, which softened the urban bachelor pad ambience with a feminine touch. We were immediately presented with a variety of fresh breads and sweet butter to nibble on as we looked over the page-long, diverse regular and nightly specials menus. Every selection was presented as a representation of time and place in our locale and season.

With only a handful of wines by the glass available, we opted to share a bottle, which was more cost-effective and opened up a larger spectrum of region and varietals. A high level of knowledge and experience from the service helped guide us toward an excellent and inexpensive Spanish red. The 2002 Buil & Gine Priorat from Catalonia ($33) was light-bodied enough to enjoy with our wide span of food choices, yet vibrant and strong enough to stand on its own.

A recommendation from a friend perched at the table directly above us led to the calamari salad ($12). As our first taste of the local calamari season, this dish was flawless. A light batter surrounded the tender squid (both whole and in ringlets) and the accompanying fried thin rounds of Meyer lemon. The slight bitter zest and clean citrus juice melded with the frisée and garlic aioli underneath. Each bite was a balance of taste and texture.

The Fuyu persimmon and butternut squash soup ($8) was an earthy, sweet purée epitomizing winter. A generous drizzle of bold and bright paprika oil and bits of buttery toasted walnuts brought out even more rich, round depth.

I grappled between the scallops with lobster butter risotto and the Tai snapper En Papillote ($22), a nightly special that eventually won me over. The large piece of fish sat atop nestling clams, one perfect scallop and a fat prawn, all mingling with a tiny dice of delicate fennel, potato and carrot underneath. The parchment paper package enabled all of these flavors to intensely infuse the succulent, moist fish.

Dave's pork tenderloin ($18) was a sizable portion of meat, sliced and fanned out over a hill of braised cabbage and house-made, pleasantly toothy spatzle. Two plump tea-poached prunes added a dark, dried-fruit headiness to the roasted pork rounds, all especially outstanding with our wine.

It would have made sense to order the chocolate soufflé to honor our self-appointed Valentine's Day, because for me, chocolate is synonymous with love. But Oswald's almond custard torte ($9) will always pull me away from any other dessert consideration, and this night was no exception. The cake is dense and crusty like shortbread yet simultaneously soft and tender. An inner layer of vanilla-bean-flecked pastry cream adds even more to the moist core, all topped with a scoop of slowly oozing vanilla bean ice cream and pooling with a deep espresso sauce. This may be my favorite dessert in town, and it's always a fitting finale to the purity, balance and high caliber service and food that you will consistently find at Oswald, no matter where they end up.



Oswald

Address: 1547 Pacific Ave. (through Feb. 17; new location to be announced), Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.423.7427

Hours: 5:30pm-9pm Tue-Fri 5:30-10pm Sat

Price Range: $7-$26.


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