A couple of weeks ago, Sand and I hauled ourselves off to Santa Cruz for a weekend of relaxation. It's one of those spots for us. You know the type -- a cozy place that has lots of fond memories and a relaxed atmosphere that allows you to scrape off the barnacles that have been building up in the normal hectic routine of life. We have our favorite restaurant for breakfast (Gilda's on the wharf) where once we had breakfast as we watched the Coast Guard pull a dead body from the bay waters (one of the "priceless" moments on the credit card commercial list). We have our favorite motel (Seaway Inn) on West Cliff Drive, just above the wharf. From our favorite room (221), there is a great view of the beach and of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, the darling little amusement park on the beach for which Santa Cruz is famous, the very same boardwalk that the Travel Channel list as the best of the American boardwalks. It's the kind of place that makes you want to get drunk, get naked and tell stories about the '60's.
Though not a big town (only about 55,000 people live there), Santa Cruz enjoys a fairly affluent lifestyle thanks in no small part to the tourists it attracts and to its largest employer, University of California, Santa Cruz. The college students, along with the surfers and the beach volleyball teams, add a youthful vitality to Santa Cruz. Not as sophisticated as their urban San Francisco neighbors to the north, nor as snobby as the insufferable wealthy Carmelites to the south (from Santa Cruz, you could spit on the Pebble Beach, if spitting were permitted of course), Santa Cruz is a fun, unpretentious, and entertaining place to unwind.
"Listen," Sand said. "Before it gets too late, why don't we get some clothes on and go get something to eat, and you can finish your story about the Tiny Tim concert in the Greenwich Village lesbian cabaret." Off we went again in search of the Crow's Nest. I say again because on several previous trips to Santa Cruz, we had started off for the Crow's Nest only to end up else where. One of the things that makes Santa Cruz so quaint is that the roads were apparently an impressionistic art project of UC Santa Cruz that employed a series of disconnected blots of color arranged in such a way that when viewed from space, look very much like a woman with an umbrella. This time, however, we wound our way through some back alleys, over a few bridges, and found ourselves in the parking lot at the Yacht Harbor.
The Crow's Nest, like the rest of the best of Santa Cruz, is classy without being pretentious. As you are being seated in the dining room, you'll walk past the salad bar, and if it was half as good as it looked, it would be very tasty. However salad bar was not what we had in mind. We ordered off the menu instead, which is an eclectic mix that includes sashimi, spring rolls, pastas, chicken and steak. It includes prompts that indicate the house specialties, so I figured I'd give them a chance to put their best foot forward.
I allowed myself to be led to the wine special, a Bargetto Pinot Noir. The waiter, Lanny, after profusely apologizing for making us wait (even though I've waited longer for counter service at McDonald's, and even though there was little pain in waiting seeing as there was a beautiful sunset unfolding over the Bay), very correctly pointed out that Bargetto was one of the local wineries. I don't have a lot of experience with Santa Cruz Mountains appellation wines, and the little I've had wasn't pleasant at all. (So maybe I expected too much from a wine that is called Big House Red en Screw Cap. Really. Check it out at Bonny Doon Vineyard.) The Bargetto wine was very pleasant -- wonderful bouquet, bright fruity taste, enough body to catch and hold your interest, and a smooth, clear finish. So far so good.
We opted for the calamari appetizer. A designated house specialty, it was said to be "lightly fried in our parmesan herb breading." Much to our delight, what turned up on our table was a truly remarkable fried calamari. Perfectly cooked so as not to be chewy, the seasoned breading was delicious. This calamari catapulted itself to the number two all time best calamari we've ever had. (The number one all time best remains the calamari at Sinbad's in San Francisco.) Good wine, good calamari, we were on a roll.
For my entree, I once again went with a house specialty, and ordered prawns and sea scallops sauteed with fresh vegetables and semolina pasta in a cream alfredo sauce. This is a dish that you can get just about anywhere. While I know that anything can be done poorly, prawns are prawns and pasta is pasta, and any cook who claims to be a "chef" ought to be able to prepare prawns, scallops and pasta well. And except for the guy who adds licorice or shaved almonds to his scallops to make them his "signature dish," they should all taste about the same. So, if you order prawns, scallops, and pasta in an alfredo sauce (and you can argue with me here if you want), the sauce is what's going to make or break the dish. On this evening, the sauce was light, and very smooth, and savory, and it definitely complemented the perfectly prepared prawns, scallops and pasta.
The real surprise of the evening, however, was reserved for dessert. I had a piece of key lime pie with a drizzle of mango sauce. I've read that key lime pies should have the consistency of firm custard as opposed to soft pudding, but if over-cooked, they can be rubbery. By that standard, most key lime pies I've ever had have been over-cooked. Not so with the Crow's Nest's pie. The taste and texture of this pie was nothing short of stunning, and while I had doubts about the use of mango sauce, now I can't imagine key lime pie any other way. I was hard pressed not to roll in the pie in utter bliss, and I may well have done so if I had seen even one other person in the restaurant roll in their food.
I was very pleased with the entire experience, and I guarantee you that the next time we are in Santa Cruz, we'll definitely throw some clothes on and head back to the Crow's Nest for dinner.
Four things I require in a restaurant (unless I'm starving to death, which according to the doctor's scales, there is no chance of whatsoever): cleanliness, good service, tasty and edible food, and a decent wine list. (Unless we're talking early morning breakfast; a wine list is not very important to me at 7am.) I cannot abide an eatery with dirty floors, sticky tables, or particle-spattered walls. Restaurants with apathetic, resentful or unhappy servers are a complete downer. Menus that are artsily-fartsily filled with spicy stuff that will kill me or freakish ingredient combinations that make me long for a bowl of oatmeal -- just forget it. And I have no patience with a restaurant that charges dinner prices for food but has only chardonnays on the "white wines" list. Please. If chardonnay is all that is offered, there must be something icky about the food, because chardonnays tend to overwhelm the flavors of the food they're served with. So if you have very bland pasta, chicken, or fish (or stinky ones) chardonnay is fine. But if you have something that actually tastes good, you don't want to smother it with the tannin overkill that some chardonnays pack. There is no "unless" when it comes to the chardonnay thing.
For years I had been wanting to try out The Crow's Nest restaurant in Santa Cruz. Advertisements lauded its menu, its entertainment, its views. However, Santa Cruz's street layout, topographically designed by various devastating earthquakes in collaboration with hypothermic surfers looking for the best beach access, did not lend itself to easy discovery.
Here is the secret: take Ocean Street to San Lorenzo Boulevard or Murray Street and hang a left. The name changes about fifty more times until you get to tiny one-way "Lake Street;" turn right and you'll wind your way to The Crow's Nest.
Don't worry if it takes you half an hour to actually find the right street. It will be worth it.
We were seated on the sunset side of the downstairs restaurant, and the views of the Santa Cruz Bay and the sundown cloud display over the western curve of Santa Cruz were spectacular. The view alone would have disposed me to think kindly of the Crow's Nest, but I was further delighted to find that the wine list included Beringer's Pinot Grigio, which I consider to be one of the best of the California pinot grigios. A sky full of color and a delicious wine ... I was being won over rapidly.
We always try fried calamari wherever we go. Fried calamari appetizers done well will bring us back to a restaurant over and over again. The Crow's Nest fried calamari appetizer was so good I was ready to move to Santa Cruz on the spot. It wouldn't have mattered if the rest of the menu was awful, that calamari was superb. I refrained from stabbing Bernie with my fork when he ate the last piece.
In spite of having chosen a white wine, I ordered the Alder Smoked Prime Rib. It was served with delicately flavored garlic mashed potatoes and green beans, beautifully presented, garnished with an orchid blossom. Wonderful flavors, perfectly done. Good heavens, if this was any indication of the restaurant's quality of food, I would have to return to sample the prawns and ravioli or the seafood risotto at later dates.
Now, as to service. No one at the Crow's Nest was so obnoxious as to call me "Hon" or "Dear," which I greatly appreciate. Indeed, none of the employees we encountered seemed unhappy with their positions, and I hope that they aren't. A very handsome and charming fellow named Lanny took care of us on our visit to this fine restaurant. In point of fact, I thought he was handsome and charming even before he suggested that we mention such in this review.
Impeccable environment, good wine, fabulous food, and convivial staff. Sounds like four stars out of four to me.
However, I can't stop thinking about a meal consisting of an appetizer order of fried calamari and a side salad, putting Santa Cruz back at the top of the priority list of places we need to visit soon. This time, Bernie better watch out for The Fork.