Wednesday, February 9, 2011

SHADOWBROOK, Capitola - Time in a Grotto

Hidden at the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountains, at the bottom of a steep garden slope, lays a meandering building that holds a restaurant by the name of Shadowbrook. Sounding less like a restaurant than a hidden shire in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, so much so that upon arrival one might expect ring wraiths and hobbits. Instead there is a refreshing ocean breeze and a parking lot at the top of a cliff.
Shadowbrook is a throwback to a simpler time. It is one of those peerless romantic getaways; it is the place young men want to take their prom date, the perfect setting for an idyllic Valentine’s day dinner, or the first place that comes to mind when a suitor seeks that special backdrop for a fairytale proposal. As a matter of fact, we witnessed just such an event in the dining room during our meal. It was precious, a breathless “yes,” followed by the applause of a roomful of empathetic strangers. Nice moment.

Shadowbrook is secluded, picturesque, and intriguingly laid out. A multitude of labyrinthian stairways lead to rooms, those rooms lead to other rooms, and after wandering behind the hostess on a journey much like Alice experienced after falling down the rabbit hole, diners are ultimately seated at their table. Every section of the restaurant is itself an Elysian setting. Most tables overlook either the lush gardens that majestically climb the rock wall to the upper parking lot, or provide a clear view of the small river creek that runs along the back of the building. Serenely surreal.

I’ve told you the restaurant is located on the edge of a tiny garden cliff and that parking is above the restaurant. This means that after parking one must either take a tram down to the restaurant or walk a meandering path down through the waterfall rock garden all the way down to the entrance. We opted for trolley down, walk up. The quaint little trolley (and I mean little, it holds maybe six people tops) leads almost directly down to the hostess station. It’s a whimsical device, looking much like the red and brass caboose from the Lionel train set my grandmother gave me in 1962, a red-lacquered wooden box, with wheels of bronze and black wrought iron. The word that comes immediately to mind is charming. But the walk is likewise beautiful, containing a whispered romance and its own sense of mystery. As one traverses the side-winding trail, there is a view of rock walls covered in flowers and verdant green plants. Lush and tropical, it made me think of Bernadette in her damp and hidden grotto waiting for a visitation from the Virgin. It was ethereal, a secret cavern of rock and water, stone and garden. The waterfall runs the length of the face of the rock, a lacy, cold exclamation point of beauty settling in a series of pools. From inside the restaurant, there is a towering wall of glass that looks directly out on that splendid garden. Indeed this is a place of intense visual beauty. But what about the food?

Last summer a large group of family and friends went to Shadowbrook to celebrate my husband’s birthday (or as you all know him my Better Half). We’d rented a communal beach house in Watsonville, and were close enough to check it out. So one Saturday night last July we drove the mountain roads over to Capitola, and made our way to this legendary restaurant. Having been once before, long before my days as a food writer, I was curious to see how it would hold up after so much time. The BH had taken me there for our wedding anniversary in the late nineties, and though I had fond memories, my standards for what constitutes fine dining have definitely changed. I admit to being more than a little curious.

Bacon-Wrapped Prawns
with pickled ginger/daikon puree

Special occasions demand a festive cocktail. I ordered a Caipiriñha, which I must confess I was surprised to find on the menu. The Caipiriñha is a very current trend in cocktails and Shadowbrook doesn’t scream current. It’s made with Cachaça (Pro: Ka SHA sa) a cane rum made raw sugar cane. It’s from South America, and is spicier than a rum made from molasses. The drink was pleasant, but average. It was a perfectly acceptable cocktail made by a good bartender, but not something I would say could elevate itself to anything one could consider a product of the artistry of mixology. The drinks in general were better than tourist fare (think powdered mixes, odd colors and too much sugar) but not fresh or balanced enough to be noteworthy.

 The first appetizer we had was an order of Bacon-Wrapped Prawns, which despite their old-style appearance were delicious. It is hard to find anything wrong with a lovely bacon wrapping on a moist succulent prawn. The dish combined the flavors of a pickled ginger & daikon puree with sweetness of the shrimp and the fatty crunchy bacon. It was a combo I found mind-bendingly, surprisingly delicious. It may not have been inordinately pretty, but in terms of flavors, this was genius on a plate.

Along with the prawns, arrived an order of Baked Brie. It’s crusty delicious and flaky, it arrived as a light pastry blanket over a lovely melted brie. The dish, however, had a fairly bizarre appearance. It sat there in a glowing neon-green puddle of semi-melted jalapeno jelly. A shade of green that mimics absolutely nothing in nature. Tasty though, in spite of the awkward presentation. The little pile of crostini that came along with the melted cheese were well toasted and quite good. So far, a perfect meal for a blind person.

Seriously, what comes in this COLOR?

The soups were all really good, and pretty enough. I had a Roasted Butternut Squash Soup which was superb. Creamy and flavorful, the blending of squash faultless. There was even a more concerted effort to plate this dish with some artistry, as it wore a big “S” made of créme fraiche.

I also had a Shadowbrook House Salad which was a lovely spinach salad, covered in pecans. It was a little shy on dressing, but I would rather salad was a bit underdressed than drenched. It was tasty enough and I enjoyed the addition of two more of their big fat, extra large bacon-wrapped shrimp as a garnish.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

My SIL had the Slow-Roasted Angus Prime Rib. She’s always been a huge fan of Prime Rib, having ordered it every time she went out since she was a kid. Prime Rib is her area of expertise, and she declared this a success, appreciating fully the horseradish cream and natural jus. It was nice and rare enough, which with Prime Rib can be hit and miss, depending on the cut and whether the beef was allowed to rest properly. SIL also enjoyed the Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes and Creamed Bloomsdale Spinach. There was a biscuit on the plate that they billed as Yorkshire Pudding and I’m not sure I’d give them that one. Yorkshire pudding is an art, and if done right, one of the tastiest treats on earth. It’s definitely not a biscuit.

Lobster Tail
 I had the Rock Lobster Tail (theirs is from South Africa), and while it again wasn’t the prettiest dish, the lobster was sweet and creamy and certainly fresh. It was poached in a champagne beurre blanc and came with pleasantly seasoned vegetables, which in this case were asparagus. The asparagus looked color treated to me, they were almost too green, but I enjoyed the buttermilk mashed potatoes.

We shared our desserts, trying the Jack Daniels Mud Pie (a spectacularly rich dessert, and the ice cream itself is completely infused with the liquor); a Chocolate Meltdown (this is a standard molten chocolate cake); and a Creme Brulee. All of them were toothsome and decadent. The waitress also brought the BH a free birthday dessert, complete with a nice little candle. Thoughtful touches like that do add to the class of a place.

Molten Chocolate Dessert
 I would sum this place up as something everyone should do at least once. It's fun and unique, even if it isn't quite the French Laundry.  The food is somewhat pricy but it’s good and the portions are large. This isn’t exactly fine dining, as the plating lacks a good deal of artistry, but the chef is talented and the huge menu is solidly enjoyable. Pretty much everything here is tasty, but served with a decidedly dated style. I felt the entire time as though I had been transported back to some wonderful seventies time warp. But it is a time warp I would gladly do “again.” This is an old-fashioned steak & seafood joint with an extraordinarily pretty setting. But I think it’s fair to say Shadowbrook is not just another pretty face.

Check it out for yourself, and Bon Appetit! (The BH says walk down, Tram up. By the time our full-bellied party hit the top of the walkway, none of us was able to breath so well, as it is all UP hill)

Shadowbrook Restaurant
1750 Wharf Rd

Capitola, CA 95010
(831) 475-1511

The Downsides: This place is NOISY. And since it’s so popular, they really pack you in. We found the tables were so close together, that it made it almost impossible to get up to get to the bathroom. One had to move the parties on both sides in order to get out of our chairs, and as we said in the seventies, “That’s not cool, man.”