new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Risorante Avanti

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Risorante Avanti

Ristorante Avanti
1711 Mission St.
Santa Cruz
(831) 427-0135

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday- Thursday, 5-9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 5-9:30 p.m.

Santa Cruz isn’t known for it’s fine dining, but they have a real winner in Avanti. This intimate Cal-Italian restaurant does a commendable job with fine ingredients, delivering a laid back but still delicious experience. It’s really a classic California restaurant, pairing fresh local ingredients with modified takes on European cooking methods.

Arriving for our reservations at 8:00 on Friday night, Avanti’s intimate space was already packed with contented (and boisterous) adults. This definitely isn’t a place that draws a college crowd, with a firmly middle-aged clientele. Not that this keeps the volume or the energy level down – although if you’re like me, you may find this ups the fun meter even more.

Avanti is set within a very non-descript strip mall, but the interior features a charming array of Italian countryside thlotchkes, along with a little bit of exposed brick, a lot of aged wood, and some lovely tables and place settings. In any case, we were seated quickly and treated to a high quality breadbasket, featuring an especially memorable foccacia. (Because everyone loves thousand calorie chunks of bread dipped in olive oil before dinner has even begun.) Our server was a friendly and professional middle aged woman, as all the servers seem to be – my dad commented favorably that this place seems to be “run by a bunch of women!”

We began with a light appetizer, the grilled sardines on bruschetta with a celery cole slaw. The sardines were meaty and delicious, brushed in a proper amount of olive oil and cooked to a luxurious, oily char. The bruschetta were somewhat hard and more difficult to chew, but the celery cole slaw was a deserving accompaniment, providing a cooling and clean counterpoint to the unctuous fish.

A promising start. Next to come out was a simple but well-executed field greens salad, in a light balsamic vinaigrette with a small crostini painted with aioli on the side. The salad was not particularly memorable, but I liked it because it personified the spirit of what California dining is and should be: simple, fresh, and light.

But enough virtue. Entrees next.

I selected the special of roasted halibut, served with a salsa verde over a mix of fingerling potatoes, chanterelles, and snow peas. Verdict: The fish was flaky and falling-apart tender, pairing well with the light snap of the Verde sauce. The various vegetables scattered beneath it were generally commendable, especially the chanterelles (although I have rarely met a chanterelle that did not excite me.) The potatoes and snap-peas were serviceable enough, although I would have preferred the use of less butter and olive oil in their preparation. I prefer not to think of eating something as benign as a snap pea as some sort of death-defying experience.

My dad’s chicken cacciatore was tender and suffused with a good amount of deep red-wine flavor. It came with a creamy, if somewhat unexciting polenta, and a mound of absolutely crack-like roasted broccoli with onion that I would happily have stolen all of if given the chance. (I am a broccoli addict, a confusing and unexpected issue that no one really understands.) We both were perfectly content with our meals, considering the near-total lack of dinner conversation we engaged in – the mark of a good dinner.

The check came with a smile and a tiny sugar cookie. A nice touch of class and something to chew on as we toppled back out into the street. I’ll be returning to Avanti again next time I find myself in Santa Cruz. It’s an excellent choice for fine dining without the pretension or (much) of the guilt.

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