It's been two years now that we've lived in Santa Cruz yet we had never been to Gabriella Cafe in downtown on Cedar. Tucked into a little Spanish-style building away from the tourist scene on Pacific, this place is the quintessential neighborhood restaurant in my mind. While it may not be polished or sleek in decor or service, it has a certain charm and intimacy that really grew on us over the course of the evening. Y and I are pretty hard customers to please, but Gabriella truly made a glowing impression.
The menu is very focused, and the philosophy of California cuisine is very apparent. While some dishes may sound very standard, the quality of ingredients and balanced layering of flavors make familiar dishes sparkle. While many restaurants these days work hard at marketing themselves and making the menu all descriptive and poetic, Gabriella channels that energy into the actual food.
Y and I decided to order two entrees (both from the daily specials menu), thinking we'd probably have room for dessert. Y ordered the duck breast w/ peach chutney served w/ polenta and summer beans ($24). I opted for the grilled sea bass w/ pancetta sauce served w/ grilled summer squash and roasted potatoes ($21). I was a little disappointed that they were out of their salmon w/ blackberry sauce, but I soon recovered.
Service was slow, but there was a large party as well as a pretty full house for 8pm on a Wed. night. I sorta wondered if we should have ordered a starter to get us going, but their housemade focaccia came to the rescue. They are known for their focaccia which they also sell at the farmer's market. It was very nice...fluffy, nutty w/ subtle olive oil flavor. Had a wonderful golden crust all around the exterior. We asked for seconds and our waitress happily obliged w/ a generous refill.
Then came the entrees. Y's duck was excellent! The breast was moist and juicy and extremely tender. No chewiness that I sometimes experience w/ duck breast. Flavor was rich and slightly gamey, but thankfully not as livery as I've had elsewhere. The bed of polenta underneath was creamy and loose; it tasted like there was some sort of cheese (not parmesan) that made it unique. The green beans were cooked perfectly, not waxy, completely cooked through but still bright.
The genius of this dish was the peach chutney which was really more like a sauce. Made of ripe farm peaches, the seasoning of fresh ginger, vinegar (I think champagne or cider), and possibly some brown sugar (or caramel as in a classic gastrique) created an elusive harmony of fruity, spicy, sour, and sweet. The sauce along w/ dots of dark, slightly spicy and fruity currants unified all components of this dish. We both were won over. The only flaw was that it was cooked just past medium-rare as Y had requested when asked; however, we were happy w/ the result anyhow.
My dish, while not as spectacular, was still quite delicious and satisfying. What I noticed immediately was that everything was seasoned really well yet not overly salty. The fish had a nice crust, and they aren't scared to char veggies really well, which is how I like it. The fish was overcooked in our opinion, but the flavor was good, particularly w/ that savory pancetta sauce. The slabs of squash were sweet and smoky, and the roasted whole red potatoes were concentrated in flavor but on the dry side. Both entrees were generous portions. We cleaned our plates and had to refrain from licking them to not let one drop of sauce go to waste.
So we were happy and ready to see the dessert menu. Y wasn't feeling drawn to anything, but I honed in on their fruit desserts. The peach and blackberry galette w/ vanilla ice cream sounded good, but I was less interested after finding out that they don't make their own ice cream (outsourced to Marianne's). I then settled on the bavarian cream w/ passionfruit sauce and fresh strawberries ($8). The waitress described it as a custard that wasn't as heavy as flan.
It looked simple but beautiful when it appeared. While it looked similar to panna cotta, it didn't have the gelatinous shine. Wow, it tasted so gorgeous...the essence of fresh cream w/ a hint of sugar, not marred by any additives like vanilla. Texture was very smooth and creamy w/ less bounce than panna cotta. The passionfruit sauce matched perfectly w/ the fresh strawberries, which gave the dish a very feminine, floral quality. I thought I even detected a splash of rose water. Again, I wanted to lick up every last bit of sauce.
We passed on wine that night, but their list looked good w/ some interesting selections. Nice stemware on other tables. We haven't been this impressed w/ a local restaurant in a long time. Their newish chef, Rebecca King, who replaced Jim Denevan seems to be doing a fabulous job! She has formal culinary training, interned at Chez Panisse, and previously worked at Foreign Cinema in SF. The website says she just spent two months in the Basque region of France and Spain to explore cheesemaking, so I hope to see influences on the menu. Can't wait to see what's in store for fall!
Some notes: This place seems very kid-friendly since we saw some toddlers, and they have high chairs. Again, it's a neighborhood place. The tables are very, very close together...more so than any other place I've been to in SC, so don't expect too much privacy. Overall, I like Gabriella more than Sestri, Pearl Alley Bistro, or Avanti. Soif is still great for inventive small plates and wine.