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12.31.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Pete Shea
Sublime: The seared dayboat scallops with apple, wild arugula and pumpkin seeds at Soif made the short list of this year's greatest meals.

Everyday Magic

Christina Waters on the most memorable meals of the year, in Santa Cruz and abraod.

By Christina Waters


Some of the best meals I enjoyed last year were choice, special occasion experiences, but most of them simply showcased straightforward, solid, clear concepts presented and enjoyed in delightful settings. Here's my list for 2008.

A lunch in Manhattan at the Museum of Modern Art's fifth-floor Terrace cafe offered sparkling textures, flavors and colors--perfect for the setting--all revolving around a bouquet of seafoods topped with a burst of astonishingly tender mâche. A fat shrimp, several scallops, beautiful tangles of calamari and heirloom cherry tomatoes all drizzled with a tart passionfruit and verjus vinaigrette--it was blatantly superb. And the intense chocolate tart that followed wasn't exactly chopped liver. Another amazing lunch involved the handmade cured salumi and prosciutti at Gabriella, followed by a witty reconstruction of the lowly frittata into a thing of sheer flavor luxury. Chef Sean Baker, who also dazzled me with his Bonny Doon tasting room creations, had embedded infant trumpet mushrooms into the eggs, cut the frittata into thin triangles, layered them along a rectangular plate and dusted everything with pecorino cheese. I can still taste it.

Berkeley's Café Rouge knocked me out last summer with an all-natural beef Niman Ranch cheeseburger served really (really) rare on an Acme bun with french fries good enough for Paris. A glass of syrah from Paso Robles completed this picture. One of the jewels of Berkeley's Fourth Street district, Café Rouge continues to deliver the goods.

Thanksgiving dinner at my house made a big hit, I have to admit. Instead of turkey, we bowed to the gods of fresh, local and seasonal by serving cracked Dungeness crab from the Monterey Bay. Ungodly sweet and delicious, it worked beautifully with side dishes of creamy polenta topped with fresh-grated Parmesan-Reggiano and bitter greens. I braised fresh sorrel and chard in olive oil, garlic, chicken stock and red pepper flakes. Along with those addictive olive francese rolls from Gayle's and Veuve Clicquot champagne, it gave us another reason to give thanks. My pumpkin pie with double spices and whole cream completed the delicious effect.

In a week of pleasurable meals this autumn in Italy, one or two especially stand out. Sitting on the 1,000-year-old cobblestones of the marketplace in the haunting Tuscan hill town of Volterra, we enjoyed the crisp September weather while sharing a huge porchetta panino loaded with sage and olive-stuffed pork sliced right off the roasted pig in the outdoor marketplace. It was a matchless moment partnered by a cold Heineken. A week later we split pizza to kill for, paper-thin crust topped with grana and wild boar sausage, joined by chianti classico, at La Bussola in Firenze. One of the greatest meals of our trip was at Mama Gina, also in Firenze, where an entree of bistecca al sangue, sliced over a bed of arugula and strewn with sweet, buttery sauteed fresh porcinis, was just about perfect. No. It was perfect.

But my top meal of 2008 was (and is) a disarming "small plate" I have enjoyed no fewer than five different times at Soif in downtown Santa Cruz. Usually joined by something in the key of grüner veltliner or sauvignon blanc, my favorite meal is Chris Avila's signature sautéed scallops. I have loved them lounging on a bed of crunchy, roasted cauliflower, ignited by a dazzling sweet and salty purée of raisins and capers. Or maybe I love these fat shellfish just as much in the most recent variation--in which the scallops straddle a latticework of julienned green apples, toasted pumpkin seeds and peppery arugula. This dish never, ever disappoints. Something about the tumescent interior and the glistening, golden-brown, slightly crisp exterior is just astonishing.

Here are a few more top tastes of 2008: At Avanti an entree of Liberty Farms duck breast, fanned out across a hash of lentils, favas, green garlic and roast onions, was a stand-out. Also deeply satisfying was a festive lunch with my mother and aunt at Limoncello, where chef Giovanni diMaio outdid himself with a bold, creamy manicotti with red sauce, and classic veal piccata with beautiful European-style potatoes and carrots. The tiramisu and panna cotta were the biggest hits with my mom and aunt, who have never met an Italian dessert they didn't love. And a juicy, spicy barbecue pork and coleslaw sandwich at River Café.

On this inspirational note, I invite you to be good to yourselves in 2009 and never dine mindlessly!


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