Sunday, January 20, 2008

Shadowbrook Restaurant - Guest Review

Dining Wowie Zowie-style!


by Cindy (Martinusen) Coloma, author of Orchid House

If asked where my all-time favorite restaurant is, in all the world (go ahead, ask me!), I won’t hesitate a moment.

My answer hasn’t wavered in ten years.

Now for some people, a choice like this may be simple. But with my travels to Europe and Southeast Asia quite a few times and to Mexico and all over the United States, and as a lover of great food which compels me to sample a variety of cuisines and restaurants, my palatal memory could make this a very difficult decision.

Rival restaurants come to mind like The Samba Room outside Chicago, that little place with the goulash and dumplings in Bad Ischl, Austria, Max Brenner’s Chocolate Restaurant in Manila, the exquisite dining at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, oh and what about Scala’s in San Francisco, or the rooftop site of my wedding reception, Lahaina Bar & Grill in Maui. And nay I forget, Emeril’s in New Orleans with the best sorbet I’ve ever tasted!

My travels always include dining adventures. So you see, I’ve eaten in some of the best places in the world (I keep thinking of places and my stomach is growling).

But still with all those wonderful choices, The Shadowbrook Restaurant in the tiny seaside town of Capitola, CA gets my vote for number 1. This restaurant truly is about experience for all the senses.

While attending the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference around 1996, I met my Uncle Chris for dinner as we did every year since he lived in nearby Monterey. He’d told me about the Shadowbrook for some time -- a friend recommended it to him as the place to take his favorite niece (I can say I’m the favorite because my sister probably won’t read this).

I parked my car and found Uncle Chris taking in the view of a nice welcome sign, a covered patio area and a cliff, but there was no restaurant in sight. Then we walked close to the edge where a stairway began and wowie zowie (yes, I just said wowie zowie and deservingly so)! Below us was a winding pathways and labyrinth of trickling waterfalls, fish-laden pools and fragrant gardens.

The walk is worth the restaurant visit alone. However, this isn’t the only way down. Guests can take the 70-foot descent in the famous hillside “cable car” – an outdoor, glass elevator. It’s very cool, though as I later discovered, I advise keeping the kids from going up and down when you take them (Can we do it again Mom?! No, this is a fancy restaurant. Okay, one more time!)

Uncle Chris and I walked and took the cable car back up, which is my recommendation after a number of visits. All the way to the restaurant entrance, we constantly made exclamations at discoveries of fish and plants, unique flowers, and fern-lined pathways. “Oh, look at that!” we’d say.

At the bottom, the Shadowbrook Restaurant nearly grows out of the hillside to overlook Soquel Creek. The exquisite brick patio is a masterpiece of curved design. Everything at the restaurant is filled with admirable craftsmanship in wood, stone, landscaping and originality.

Inside the restaurant which opened in 1947, a feast of beauty and surprise in discovered in each of its dining rooms. Uncle Chris and I went inside to the Red Rock Lounge to be greeted by the hostess standing before a grand wooden desk.

The Red Rock Lounge is great for light entrées, pizzas, desserts and more casual socializing. Out the high hillside windows, you can see the mountain rising up with plants and flowers. The room mixes wood, rock and modern lighting which added to the chic bar and the large brick oven that cooks excellent pizzas within view of diners, the Red Rock Lounge offers a wonderfully relaxing ambience.

Being an art lover of nearly every kind, I enjoy the wood and rockwork throughout the Shadowbrook as well as the surprises in design, color and mix of nature with creative architecture.

Here’s a descriptions from their website: “Each of the dining areas has its own special charm: The creekside, glass-enclosed Greenhouse • The cozy, paneled Wine Cellar • The airy Garden Room, with Cypress Tree • The Fireplace Room, with hanging balcony • The elegant Main Dining Room • The rooftop Redwood Room • The Owner's Private Dining Room • and the high-ceilinged, informal Rock Room Lounge.”

That first night, my uncle and I were taken to Garden Room. The living Cypress tree grows up and out the roof! And then of course, we began to explore the menu.

Here’s a sampling of their current menu:

  • Fresh Pacific Rim Salmon: Broiled, served over sea greens with sesame seeds, ginger-wasabi and ponzu sauces, topped with julienne vegetables tossed in miso vinaigrette
  • Crispy Ahi: Sushi-grade Ahi wrapped with Nori and coated with a crispy Panko crust.
    Served with miso julienne vegetables, sushi rice, tropical salsa and wasabi sauce
  • Chicken Breast Oscar: Boneless breast marinated in buttermilk, breaded and pan-sautéed. Topped with shelled crab claws, asparagus and béarnaise sauce. Served with Gruyère potato gratin
  • Prime Château Cut Sirloin: A flavorful, juicy steak carefully aged for tenderness. Wrapped with Corralitos bacon, char-grilled and topped with Maytag blue cheese. Served with seasonal vegetables and Gruyère potato gratin
  • Crêpe Patisserie: On our menu since 1974! Warm custard-filled crêpe with house made caramel sauce
  • Shadowbrook Chocolate Meltdown: A rich, dark chocolate cake with a molten truffle center. Served with vanilla bean ice cream
  • Crème Brûlée: Light vanilla-bean custard with a caramelized sugar topping

Isn’t that poetry to the stomach? Chef Ross also has a special three-course tasting menu and the Shadowbrook is famous for its artichoke soup. And it should be. That first trip, I had the salmon and the artichoke soup -- it was heaven to the taste buds.

Since that first trip, I’ve been to the Shadowbrook maybe seven or eight times. It never fails to confirm itself as my favorite. I’ve taken numerous friends and family, and everyone always returns. In two months, I’ll take my husband for the first time (we’ve been married less than a year). I’m already trying to decide what items to choose for the both of us.

When you go, make sure to explore the different rooms and the intricate woodwork (even in the bathrooms). And all of the Santa Cruz and Capitola area is filled with great places to see and taste. Stop by Mr. Toots Coffeehouse in Capitola as well as Gayle’s Bakery. In Santa Cruz, there’s the Caffe Pergolisi which is like an old bohemian coffeehouse in a Victorian House (an artists’ hangout) and yummy too, The Crepe Place.

But whatever you do, if you are anywhere near San Jose or Santa Cruz, go to my favorite restaurant The Shadowbrook. I guarantee it’ll be an experience you greatly enjoy. And if it becomes your favorite as well, well, I don’t mind sharing.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Suzi's China Grill and Sushi Bar

Rush hour haven of the socially disaffected commuter


It wasn't really a conscious decision. It was a wrong turn and a glut of commuters. Then a sign with the words sushi (got my attention) and Chinese (got The Woman's attention) and we were in the parking lot.

Well, what do you think?

Beats the traffic.

And we were inside. Hardly an auspicious beginning. Would it make a difference if I were to say that we've been back? Twice?

The loquacity of my novels notwithstanding, I have a curmudgeonly streak that manifests itself after bouts with corporate culture. When the dinner gong sounds and I sidle up to the trough, I find myself in need of desultory conversation and the soothing libation. The atmosphere at Suzi's is perfect for the low-key diner otherwise known as the rush-hour date night aficionado. And the gin martinis are mixed with a knowing and loving hand, designed to restore the tissues damaged by overly intimate contact with the corporate world.

When you walk into some Chinese restaurants, you are immediately assaulted with the sense that you are in a Chinese restaurant. "Ahoy, there," they seem to say. "Stand up and take notice. This is a cultural experience." Everything is red and gold and the lucky cats are on prominent display with the right paw (protection) or left paw (wealth) raised. Suzi's China Grill and Sushi Bar is not that place. It has a more Japanese vibe of understated elegance. And the menu bears that out.

The first time around we got an appetizer featuring avocado, crab and shrimp. I'm not sure what it was, and I haven't seen it on the menu since, but it was excellent. For the entre, I opted for the Malaysian Chicken (sauteed sliced breast of chicken with eggplant, string bean and cashew nuts in a coconut curry sauce), while The Woman tried the Chicken and Shrimp with Cashew Nuts (Shanghai-style, stir-fried with glazed oyster sauce). The Hispanic standup comic who was waiting on us repeated her order as "the chicken and shrimp fajitas." He must have really liked that joke, because he repeated it on our third visit several months later.

As the ancient philosopher once said, "Some like it hot" and he was talking about me, so I could have used some peppers in the Malaysian Chicken, but I really didn't miss it that much. The Woman didn't take to it, but I got a feeling of solidarity with the Malaysian folks while shoveling it in with the chopsticks. On the other hand, The Woman thoroughly approved of the Chicken and Shrimp with Cashew Nuts. There really is nothing like a good oyster sauce to make the difference.

On the next visit, we started off with some edamame (soy beans) which were a bit salty for my taste. (But take that comment with a grain of salt, since I rarely salt anything. I'd probably eat my hat without salt if I had one.) For the entre, I made up for lost time with the Firecracker Prawns (marinated jumbo prawns, sauteed with onions in a hot and spicy garlic and sherry wine sauce) aptly named and guaranteed to provide that capsaicin high we all know and love. Well, perhaps I should say that all right-thinking citizens know and love. The Woman's mileage varies somewhat. She selected the Golden Sesame Chicken (golden crispy chicken tossed with red chili in a spicy brown sesame sauce). You really can't go wrong with a sesame sauce. I was surprised she ordered something with red chili, but I didn't complain, especially since I got to have the leftovers later.

On the third visit, we started out with a spicy tuna roll, a good start. I decided to evaluate my reference dish at Chinese places, Kung Pao Chicken. I had to eat the peppers to get the spice level up to my desired endorphin-releasing levels. I'd rather the heat be cooked in, but I guess keeping it calm allows them to serve it to more people and let the diner self-regulate their capsaicin levels via optional pepper eating. The Woman tried the Chicken Delight. I don't know that I would call it delightful, but it certainly was good. Nice flavor. I'd choose it over the Kung Pao Chicken, which is saying something.

I'd like to go back for the Bejing Duck, if I can plan my life at least 24 hours ahead, since it requires a day's notice. If the other dishes are any indication, I expect it's worth waiting for.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year, New Schedule

I've been doing weekly restaurant reviews for 18 months, mainly during a time between writing projects. Now I'm back in the saddle with a project and can't afford as much time for blogging. So, I'll be cutting back to monthly reviews, plus the occasional guest review.

Reviews will post on the first Sunday of the month, and will vary between written and podcasts. By the way, I'd be interested to know your preferences between written and audio reviews. Give me feedback via email or comments.

Guest reviews will post on the third Sunday. If you don't use an RSS reader to check blogs, you should consider it. It's waaaay more convenient. Check Google Reader. It's the one I use. Really simple.

However, to avoid the national pandemonium that would otherwise doubtlessly erupt when the news hits the streets that a weekly Whittington fix is no longer available, I'm resuscitating an old project. From 1992-95 I posted a list of what I was reading each year on my website, with acerbic comments. (Yes, I've been on the web that long. Since the late 80s, actually.)

Now that blogging has come along, it's more convenient to update the list more frequently. So, as I work my way down my stack of to-be-read books, I'll post my comments and ratings on it. You can use it as a list of books to read. Or books to avoid, depending on how closely your tastes reflect mine.

For the Wunderfool Reading List I'll be re-using the Wunderfool Blog, since its former content has been migrated to