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Restaurants & Bars 5

CETRELLA (Half Moon Bay): pumpkin prix fixe and a destination-worthy meal (long)

Carb Lover | Oct 25, 200506:56 PM

Preface: Sorry this is so long. I did really try to trim it down!

I'm happy to report that Cetrella provided one of the best dining experiences I've had in 2005, and that’s in the company of Manresa, the "it" restaurant right now. They are two very different restaurants I know; however, I couldn't help but compare/contrast them since they were both destinations for life celebrations this past year.

While I don't think it's possible to say that one was better than the other, let me say this: Cetrella isn't cutting edge and doesn't take itself too, too seriously, but the seasonal Mediterranean-inspired food is quite serious. And it is seriously good. Factoring in the gorgeous space, the lovely cocktail and wine list, and outstanding service, Cetrella is worth a destination status, in my book. I can't wait to return for weekend brunch or a casual meal w/ a glass of wine in the bar area. As the meal unfolded, I could see why Michael Bauer included this in his Top 100 list this year and why rworange raved about brunch a few months back. It wasn’t a perfect meal and there were a couple of service glitches (the major one being that they lost our phone reservation which was smoothly resolved), but the gestalt left a glowing impression.

The immediate draw was their pumpkin prix fixe menu (3 set courses for $29.95) that’s offered for the rest of the month from Sun-Thurs. Not many days left. After reviewing the menu though, I considered reneging on my original plan. Something very rare happened...I had the urge to order everything on the menu. I'm not exaggerating here; the entire menu sounded so well thought out and delicious, even the salads, which I usually gloss over at most places.

The current menu looks quite different from the sample menu on their website (see link). Everchanging w/ the seasons, they print up their menu daily. Ultimately, I stuck w/ the pumpkin prix fixe and sampled my husband's dishes. Y did something unconventional and ordered their fruits de mer “plateau” for his main course and got other items to start. Our waiter was very experienced and completely unruffled by our request, and we appreciated him asking about sequencing of items. The pacing of the meal was absolutely flawless, allowing us time to have a lingering memorable experience that extended for about 2.5 hours.

Our courses:

Salad of red and green baby romaine, marcona almonds, pomegranate seeds w/ honey vinaigrette (shared)

Sugar pie pumpkin and chestnut soup w/ truffle scented creme fraiche (me)
Housemade saffron pasta w/ crab, green onions, and olive oil (Y)

Pan roasted Long Island duck breast w/ hash of big moon pumpkin, duck confit, roasted fennel in a cider reduction sauce (me)
Plateau of oysters, cherrystone clams, chilled whole shrimp, marinated black mussels, paprika marinated squid, and bay shrimp ceviche (Y)

Ginger molasses cake w/ pumpkin spice ice cream (shared)

Glass of Mark West 2003 Pinot Noir (me)
Glass of an Italian white (vermentino) whose details escape me now (Y)
1 coffee at meal’s end

Before I comment on our courses, let me first say that their housemade bread and olives were exceptional. The foccacia was moist and redolent of fruity olive oil, garlic, and thyme; the wheat levain w/ raisins had an Acme-style finesse. The various olives draped in their house brine were some of the best I've ever eaten. Deeply flavorful but still plump and not overly shriveled or salty. This made Aziza’s bread and olive starter seem like dog food, really.

The surprise hit of the evening was the saffron pasta. The housemade pasta was delicate and cut in the shape of cappellini, although it was a little thicker and square-ish. Texture was silky w/ good structure, flavor was eggy and floral, crab and scallions were delicate yet potent at the same time, olive oil and citrus brought it all together. A stunning specimen of simplicity, clarity, and balance. The tender salad w/ beads of pomegranate and the freshest marcona almonds had a similar impact.

Y’s fruits de mer platter was also impressive (photo below). It was presented on a stand but was removed for practicality. Not only was the shellfish of high quality and prepared w/ care, the portions were unbelievably generous. At $30, that has to be one of the best deals around. Noteworthy were the large whole shrimp (at least 4" in length), the citrus-cilantro marinated bay shrimp, and smoked paprika marinated squid. While clams looked and smelled fresh, they had a bitter aftertaste that I didn’t care for. Sauces and horseradish were stellar. We'll have to come back for the grand plateau that includes one pound of Maine lobster.

While the pumpkin prix fixe was quite a bargain, it was the weak link in our meal but enjoyable nevertheless. The soup was a bold start...rich, creamy, and nutty. Autumn in a bowl. Duck course was well-portioned and well-seasoned, but skin wasn't ultra-crispy and breast was a tad overcooked and too gamey and livery for my taste. Hash of duck confit, fennel, and pumpkin was rich and luscious, but it was too wet and cooked down; I craved more crispness and textural contrast.

Dessert was the most disappointing part of the meal. Presentation was not up to par w/ the prior dishes. Ice cream was muted in pumpkin and spice flavor and had an icy sherbet-like texture, and cake was pre-cut into 4 chunks and not moist or rich in ginger or molasses flavor. A weak finish that was redeemed by good Italian roast coffee that tasted like Illy. We were tempted to try the banana brioche bread pudding w/ Scharffen Berger chocolate sauce, but maybe next time if it's still around.

I wouldn’t have been that impressed w/ Cetrella on the basis of the prix fixe, so I’d lean toward their standard menu in the future. The wines that we each got were both wonderful and perfect w/ our respective courses. Plates were properly warmed or chilled and everything (including wine) came out at the ideal temperature. Total was $108 pre-tip, a great value for this caliber of food, service, and attention to detail.

Cetrella seems to be an ambitious restaurant attempting to cater to many types of diners and occasions; it feels like 4 restaurants in 1. They offer weekend brunch, jazz on some evenings, separate bar menu, an intimate private room w/ an exclusive view of their wine collection, happy hour and prix fixe early specials, and even a small kid’s menu. In fact, there were several tables w/ young children that night, which we were happy to see. For those looking to dine out for Thanksgiving, Cetrella is offering a 4-course meal for $45pp w/ a special kids menu. I don't know if they juggle all of these facets well, but our first visit came together splendidly. While Main St. was rather lifeless on Sun. night, Cetrella was aglow and a fountain of sensuous sustenance. Thanks for enduring another long report!

Link: http://www.cetrella.com/DinnerMenu.html

Image: http://i2.photobucket.com/albums/y45/...

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