The Thursday night 'Cookin' at the Kuumbwa' series takes its patrons into the realm of the senses
By Selene Latigo
The simple act of dining out promises a more lively sensory experience than the typical home meal: new scents, flavors and visual stimuli abound in a restaurant setting. Add to that the concept of a dinner show, and the live music element can take the meal to a synesthetic level, with all senses wide awake. For this, Santa Cruz is fortunate to have the Kuumbwa Jazz Center and their ingenious "Cookin' at the Kuumbwa" dinners, combining widely acclaimed musical talent with great food. On a recent Thursday, guest chef Tom McNary from Carried Away in Aptos was paired up with the alto saxophonist Sarah Manning and her quartet, to create a truly memorable evening.
The dinner service at the Kuumbwa has a well-organized yet natural flow. Dave, Dennis and I were greeted at the door and handed meal cards after submitting our dinner show tickets. We then proceeded a few steps to the beverage counter to purchase a bottle of wine from the mostly local selections. Walking another short distance further to the food counter, we turned in our cards in exchange for a salad, the first part of our meal. Peeking into the small kitchen, we said hello to Tom, Emily O'Sullivan and Rene Martinez, the dedicated trio that prepared this feast for us. We then found seats near the red-lit raised stage, setting our plates down on the narrow tabletops lining the rows.
Our wine, the 2001 Trout Gulch Pinot Noir ($28), was light and subtle, growing and developing with each sip, and was a fortunate choice paired with the autumnal meal to come.
The bright and supple arugula salad tasted moist and peppery, topped with pickled red onions and dressed lightly to preserve the purity of the arugula. Alongside came a square of brandade focaccia, a crispy baked homemade concoction with salt cod, potato and Parmesan cheese. Carried Away had made their own salt cod using fresh fish and curing it with salt, then soaking it in milk and finally blending it with potato to create a creamy, complex flavor, golden brown and flaky on top.
After another sip of wine, our generously sized entrees were delivered. Three dishes were placed upon the plates, all skillfully balanced in texture and flavor. The fragrant riesling-braised green cabbage with bacon, carrots, celery and thyme was sweet, smoky and deep. On top of the cabbage was a large and pillowy chicken sausage with hints of sweet apple and thyme. This was served with piquant Dijon mustard and a side of perfumed and subtly spiced quince applesauce with honey, lemon and allspice. Finally, a pie-cut wedge of new potato galette brought a savory and earthy element to this outstanding meal. Thin slices of tender potato were layered with rich Gruyere and Parmesan cheese and the unmistakable flavor of sage, all baked and deeply crisp on top.
Vegetarians would have been pleased by their sans-sausage option, a winter squash gratin with broccoli rabe, kale, tomato, leeks and Parmesan. Dave was even tempted to purchase another plateful, the natural appetite inclination of the colder months setting in stronger than most for him, but I persuaded him to settle for dessert instead.
The Kuumbwa provided a wide array of baked goods, all fresh and tempting. We chose a slice of gateau l'orange ($3.50), a buttery cake full of the essence of citrus and topped with a luxurious bittersweet chocolate ganache. We also purchased a piece of the pear and almond grimole ($3.50), a creamy and soft cake with chunks of luscious pear and a crisp, toffeelike almond topping. These two French desserts brought this wonderful meal to a close as we turned our full attention onto the Sarah Manning Quartet.
Fully satisfied by Carried Away's offerings, we were further transported by the fluid sounds of the band's poetic creations. This meal would have easily been $20 or more at one of Santa Cruz's typically priced restaurants, but for $21.50 we were able to enjoy it along with an inspired jazz performance. The Thursday Cookin' at the Kuumbwa series is a great opportunity for these two forces to coalesce into complete sensory satiation.
Kuumbwa Jazz Center
Address: 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz
Address: 7564 Soquel Drive, Aptos