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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
gifts of gabi: Gabriella Cafe chef Brad Briske with the Liberty duck, albacore crudo and Unti Syrah.

All Charm All the Time

A landmark for 17 years, Gabriella is charm itself, but that's just the beginning.

By Christina Waters

OIL PAINTINGS line the graceful rooms, white cloths and fresh flowers top the tables. Owner Paul Cocking greets guests, pours wine. Brad Briske's team rocks the kitchen. And between a fine lineup of California wines and a nightly menu showcasing local specialty items, this is arguably the best dining in town.

We began with a pour of bone-dry River Run Chardonnay 2007, which proved the perfect partner for our incredible starters of local halibut crudo ($12) and shaved cucumber involtini filled with albacore conserve ($11). Glistening white cubes of halibut, topping a rich bed of avocado, were grouped in a pretty quartet across a wide rectangular plate. Cucumber juice and preserved Meyer lemon, flecked with nori salt, provided a delicate sauce for this supple creation. A lineup of shaved cucumber cylinders arrived, each pale green involtini filled with a rich stuffing of albacore and frosted with aioli. Sprigs of peppery watercress and a splendid, spicy salsa verde formed calligraphy around each roll of cucumber. A sexy bit of tart and creamy dialogue, the dish had us both licking our forks. The superbly fresh greens and herbs from Lindencroft Farms help transport Gabriella's dishes from the merely wonderful into a higher domain of flavor nuance. Long slices of warm focaccia helped soak up the delicate sauces.

Glasses of red wines arrived--a full-bodied Testarossa Pinot Noir ($12.50) loaded with plums and licorice, and an appealing 2004 Le Bocce Sangiovese ($8.75) filled with Tuscan aromas. Suddenly, well before sundown, the tiny restaurant was packed. On a Tuesday! So busy in fact was the dinner trade that main dishes sold out, and a few luscious pasta dishes had to be added. In all the sudden bustle, our entrees took more time than they should have. In recognition of too long a wait, our appetizers were discounted.

When our entrees did arrive, however, they lived up to our appetites and then some. Jack feasted on an appetizer portion of Devil's Gulch pork meatballs ($10) slathered in a sauce of vibrant roasted dry-farm tomatoes. My dish of pastured pork belly from River Dog Farms arrived in crispy layers, unctuous and juicy underneath ($22). Straddling a bed of bitter greens and pancetta-braised shelling beans, the designer pork 'n' beans proved ridiculously flavorful. Nestling under its layer of belly fat, the rich natural pork tasted exactly like a confit. A nest of paper-thin Armenian cucumbers, lemon-marinated, lay coiled nearby. Relentlessly terrific, every bite.

A slice of Strauss Family yogurt cheesecake was miraculous ($10). Beyond creamy, the tangy cheesecake was inflected with intense summer blackberries transformed into a deep purple coulis. A few triangles of amazing pinenut brittle (!) and a topping of sea salt turned the creamy pastry into the best dessert of the year.


Address: 910 Cedar St., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.457.1677

Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm Tue-Fri;
Brunch Sat-Sun 11am-2pm;
Dinner from 5:30pm Tue-Sun

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