Top 3 Places to Enjoy Food & Wine Downtown
Tara Fatemi Walker
Downtown Santa Cruz is loaded with great places to stop in for a delicious meal or enjoy a nice glass of wine. But there are a few notable gems that have a real knack for crafting a menu and wine list that will pair perfectly on your palate. In honor of California Wine Month, we collaborated with Santa Cruz Foodie to pick our top spots to discover diverse wine and food pairings in Downtown Santa Cruz! Here are three must taste restaurants:
Assembly, an always-bustling spot, utilizes ingredients from local farmers and food purveyors and serves weekend brunch plus lunch, snacks and dinner daily except Tuesdays. It’s the first full-service restaurant from Kendra Baker and Zachary Davis, renowned for the local Penny Ice Creamery empire. The dynamic duo brought in Carlo Espinas from San Francisco to be their executive chef, and he’s been producing innovative, delicious food ever since. Some of his most popular dishes to-date have been slow-cooked pork shoulder, chickpea fries, Scotch olives, and chopped salad.
Scott Zapotocky was hired to design a “harvest table” wine menu, and he currently serves as their Beverage Director. “When Kendra and Zach approached me about the project, I envisioned wines and beers that had a rustic elegance to them that told a story of a producer and a place,” says Zapotocky. “Items that would be consumed around a large communal table either preparing for or after a long day of harvesting in the fields. I selected from areas and producers that gave me goosebumps due to the producers’ authenticity and varietal expression while exemplifying the craft.”
The list spans the globe but also features a variety of local producers. “All in all, I wanted to create a menu of amazing wines that I love that tell a story, and can create amazing relationships with the cuisine that Chef Carlo and Chef Kendra create,” adds Zapotocky. “I want to help create a meaningful experience.”
The restaurant recently began a winemaker collaboration draft wine program. Local winemakers work directly with Assembly and Zapotocky to create special blends available exclusively at the restaurant. Current selections include Pierce Ranch Iberian Assembly Red from Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard.
Zapotocky has many suggested food and wine pairings to share with visitors to the restaurant. Here are a few of those that are also customer favorites. To pair with the Monte Cristo sandwich: Avinyo Cava. For a chopped salad with chicken or trout, he recommends Odonata’s River Skimmer (Rhone white blend). He would pair the heirloom tomato and flatiron steak salad with Colette Maulin A Vent (Beaujolais), and says that the Pinson Chablis provides a beautiful accompaniment to the pan-roasted California halibut. Finally, for dessert, try the strawberry mascarpone tart with Florido Muscatel Durado.
SOIF RESTAURANT & WINE BAR
Soif underwent a remodel in June, adding a new kitchen, new wine bar area, and significantly revamping its wine shop. John Locke, wine director for Soif and sister restaurant La Posta for many years, and chef Mark Denham, who joined Soif in 2014, are integral to the first-rate wine and food that Soif provides.
As always, Denham uses fresh, sustainably grown ingredients, but thanks to the transformed kitchen he has access to a grill, griddle, fryer, and plancha. His new dishes include a signature burger with organic, grass-fed beef. The menu changes almost every day.
Soif has a fairly large selection of local wines, like small production pinot noirs from Windy Oaks, and some of the harder to find wines from Ridge. They have quite a few wines from assistant winemakers from other wineries, like Ser Wines from Nicole Walsh (Bonny Doon Assistant Winemaker), Maidenstoen from Mike Callahan (he was at Testarossa and is now at Chamisal in Paso Robles). “That being said, our emphasis is certainly on the old world, specifically, France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Iberia, etc.,” says Locke. “We have a lot of the classics — a large selection of Barolo, Burgundy and Champagne — and a lot of things not commonly encountered. Like Sicilian wines, especially wines grown on Mount Etna; a disproportionately large selection of wines from the Loire Valley; and many wines from the Alto Piemonte. It’s a selection of wines we love, know well, and which are not found many other places.”
Soif typically has approximately 40 wines available by the glass or by the taste. “We want the list to reflect a great diversity of styles, prices, varieties and geographic provenance,” says Locke. They also usually have three thematic flights; for example, one with reds, one with whites, and one with a white, rose, and red from Spain.
When Soif is looking for a wine to pair with a particular dish, they think about the preparation, the sauce, seasoning, or high point of the dish to complement or contrast. “For example, if the dish is flat iron steak with salsa verde or chimichurri sauce, the sauce is more important than the steak as far as wine pairing is concerned,” says Locke. “We might choose a smoky, slightly leafy, rich Pouilly-Fume with that.” For chef Denham’s roast leg of lamb with mint pesto, Locke says, you can’t go wrong with savory Syrah, but just as interesting and more surprising is lightly sweet, muscular riesling like Donnhoff Kabinett. “That is not just a hypothetical choice; it is one we have tried ourselves and is delicious,” adds Locke. “Savoriness, sweetness, spiciness, acidity, leafiness or greenness – these are all more important than fish or fowl or beef or pasta.”
On a recent evening in late August, the menu featured a melon salad with blistered padron peppers and sheep’s milk feta. Retail Operations Manager Alyssa Twelker recommended Kobza Mourtaou Rosé for a pairing.
One dish that should be on the menu soon is duck with raspberries and Tokyo turnips. I asked Locke for his suggested wine pairing. “The turnips will be slightly caramelized so it will be a fundamentally slightly sweet dish,” he said. “ One could go a couple different ways. We love a rich, exotic Alsatian Pinot Gris with sweet or savory duck preparations such as Domaine Ostertag. For something with berries, a classic is Red Burgundy like Gachot-Monot Bourgogne Rouge.”
From the moment it opened five years ago, Laili has been drawing crowds serving food influenced by Afghanistan and other countries including Iran.
Standing on Cooper Street outside Laili’s narrow front door, you would never expect such a restaurant—with high ceilings, lots of tables, a beautiful interior, and an open kitchen, the atmosphere is spacious yet intimate. Laili also boasts a large garden patio with several tables.
Appetizers at the restaurant include dips such as hummus, babaghanoush, and kadoo boranee (butternut squash, garlic, yogurt, and mint). Lunch options include lamb burgers, pomegranate chicken kabob with saffron rice, and flatbread with apricot chutney and grilled chicken (the latter is also available at dinner). Dinner entrees include filet mignon kabob, lamb shank, roasted half chicken with pomegranate sauce, and salmon fettuccini.
Matt Wafford, General Manager, is known as the resident wine expert. He says when deciding what wines to serve, they try to offer a wide range of grape varietals from all around the world while still having a strong local wine presence. They typically feature about 15-20 wines by the glass and another 15-20 by the bottle. Local wines on the current list include Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Storrs Winery & Vineyards and Merlot from Bargetto Winery.
One wine that Laili features is Altocedro Winery’s Malbec from Argentina, and Wafford recommends this with any of the restaurant’s red meat selections. “It is an earthy, dry wine that especially complements our lamb dishes,” he adds. For those who prefer chicken, fish, and vegetarian selections, Wafford suggests Berger’s Gruner Veltliner from Austria. “It’s a dry, minerally wine that pairs well with these foods.” One frequent customer to Laili who has a fondness for Prosecco says that she loves it with the roasted pomegranate chicken or with any of Laili’s popular appetizer dips. Laili pours Prosecco Brut LaMarca from Italy. They also offer a pomegranate mimosa that features Prosecco and pomegranate syrup.