Downtown Santa Cruz is bustling more than ever these days w/ the summer crowds. I love walking down Pacific Ave. and soaking in the energy, watching the quirky people, and making my regular stops at Logos bookstore (for great deals on used cookbooks!) and Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Co. (for fresh strong coffee brewed by the cup!). The Wed. afternoon farmer's market is also wonderful when I can make it over.
Then the focus turns to dinner and I start to get grumpy. Sure there's Soif and some other sit-down restaurants, but they're pricey for a casual meal, especially when I make similar food at home. Other places that may have decent food seem to have 45+ min. waits during peak dinnertime. Some may not even be great but draw in tourists who don't really know better. I haven't been impressed by Taqueria Vallarta, Shogun, Benten, Zoccoli's. I have yet to try Gabriella Cafe on Cedar and heard that they have a new chef, Rebecca King, who has been linked to Chez Panisse.
So onto RED...Nathan P. reported on Red a couple weeks ago. Red opened in August of last year and is housed in the upper level of what was once the Santa Cruz Hotel on the corner of Locust and Cedar (one block west of Pacific). See link to their spiffy website. It's right above Planet Fresh and doesn't really have a visible sign that I noticed. I only found it b/c I knew what I was looking for and then noticed a menu case next to their doorway leading upstairs. Hmmm...how tres LA.
The interior fit Nathan's description exactly...rich red and burgundy tones, plush fabrics, dark wood molding. Half lounge area w/ low sofas and tables; half dining area w/ a cozy fireplace. Sort of modern American speakeasy meets Moulin Rouge. I loved the look of the bar area. The cohesive theme-like decor down to the servers hipster attire maintained the LA vibe. Even the restroom was very stylish along w/ being sparkling clean and good-smelling to boot!
Y and I and a friend got there around 7:30pm on Sun. No wait like most places along Pacific. In fact, the dining room was only about a third full, but everyone looked like they were having a swell time. We were seated at a window table that had a nice view of a magnolia tree in bloom.
The menu was quite broad and had many dishes that sounded appealing to us. The website menu looks to be fairly updated in terms of dishes and prices, although the restaurant menu was a bit more fleshed out. Our waitress very smoothly recited about 5 specials that night. We decided to order several items to share:
Soup of the Day ($4): large deep bowl of English pea soup w/ a nice tang from lemon and sweetness from tiny chives. Flavor was balanced and lovely but consistency was on the runny side.
Salad a la Nicoise ($11): large plate of fresh mixed greens w/ neat piles of seared ahi, purple potatoes, hard-cooked eggs, sun-dried tomatoes, black olives. Menu also includes green beans, but I dont recall that in our dish. Dressing was a basic but good vinaigrette. Ahi was generous, fresh, perfectly-seared. Ingredients werent classic but still tasty. Probably wouldnt order again though since I prefer the classic combo.
Pesca Plate ($13): triangular plate w/ a trio of fish prepstuna tartare, smoked salmon, and ceviche. In the middle was a circle of creme fraiche w/ 3 different colors of inexpensive caviarblack, green, red. About 9 crunchy pieces of crostini were arranged neatly to serve as platforms for eating this seafood array in whatever way we pleased. The smoked salmon was good quality and uctuous. The ceviche was zippy and made w/ whitefish (either tilapia or snapper?) and the tartare was my least favorite. One annoyance was the ultra crunchy bread that seemed flash-fried. Fun array for the senses, but maybe a little too much going on for me.
Lil Mac Platter ($11): 3 mini Angus beef burgers w/ different topping combos: bacon/gorgonzola; pesto/swiss; bbq/cheddar. Buns tasted house made and were the perfect size and texture. Served w/ fries that reminded me of McDs (which I like). My favorite dish of the night! Meat was cooked to about medium and was very flavorful and juicy.
So the food wasnt over the top great, but everything was well-seasoned, fresh, and artfully arranged. Its fun and tasty food for the senses! Very generous portions such that we couldnt finish it all. What I also really appreciated were the drink menu and excellent service. Some nice and affordable wines by the glass and beer options. In fact, their flight of any 5 wines for $15 sounds like quite a bargain! Among the 3 of us, we got a glass of pinot noir (forget name), Boddington beer, and a gin and tonic. Something for everyone. The service was very friendly, gracious, and consistently attentive. Probably the BEST service Ive experienced anywhere in Santa Cruz County. Nice tableware from the glasses to the knives were details that added to my pleasure.
Im looking forward to returning soon and trying some of their items like the LA-homage roscoes platter (buttermilk fried chicken, corn waffles, fries, maple syrup), pizzettas, sandwiches, and housemade ice creams. Fortunately, they open til about 2 or 2:30am and retain lots of options on their late night (post 10pm) menu. They were def. picking up by the time we left around 9:30pm and, for once during my time in Santa Cruz, I felt transported back to LA's late-20s/30-somethings scene. Now I wont get so grumpy when my stomach starts to growl downtown...
PS. Tried Lee's banh mi yesterday. They have only been open since Fri. but from the lunchtime crowd inside, looks like they've been there forever. Bread was a little too crunchy and fillings seemed kinda sparse compared to other Lee's, but I was still satisfied. I liked the dac biet (special combo) best while Y liked the BBQ pork. Mango smoothie was too icy. I'm happy that it's finally open for busines.
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