(This review appeared in South Bay Accent in June of 2007.)
Half Moon Bay has more going on than the traditional pumpkins and fog. Fine dining has made an appearance in this cozy seaside town in recent years and in the case of lovely Cetrella, Half Moon Bay now has a full-fledged destination restaurant. Located on the south end of the blip of a downtown, Cetrella looks like a millionaire’s Tuscan estate on the outside. Inside, it’s all clean, understated elegance and top-notch food to match. Discriminating Peninsula diners can get the twofer of an outstanding meal and glorious sunset all in the same place.
Launched in 2001, Cetrella had a modest décor since then but the most significant change was the return of former chef de cuisine Robert Holt as executive chef in 2007. His impressive resume that lists some noteworthy San Francisco establishments has prepared him well to take the helm. His is a serious kitchen, turning out house-made charcuterie, pasta, smoked fish, breads, ice creams and sorbets while employing you-can’t-do-this-at-home tools like a wood-burning oven and high-heat la plancha griddle.
With a gaggle of foodie friends in tow, I hopped over to the coast recently to sample Holt’s early spring menu. We’re a jaded bunch, but we found ourselves saying “wow” and “try this” a lot as we devoured a memorable meal of what’s billed as “Mediterranean” cuisine. In practice, Holt’s offerings are creative, expertly prepared, beautiful and focused on fresh, local ingredients. And they’re unfailingly delicious. I was particularly delighted to see a good assortment of tasty, clever vegetable accompaniments along with the obligatory proteins. And even the latter boldly departed in some cases from what most restaurants view as safely familiar ingredients. Those guests in the know are pouncing on Holt’s vinegar-cured local sardines and skate, two wonderful and seldom-seen seafood options.
Holt pairs the mild, meaty cured sardines with a blood-orange vinaigrette, mandarine orange pieces, licorice-flavored fennel and toasted pistachios for crunch. Skate – a ray-type fish with lusciously moist flesh – was offered in a fantastic starter in which the cheeks were roasted on la plancha and paired with a smoky tomato sauce, green olives and fried capers. More conventional but incredibly yummy was a starter of plump seared scallops crowning a delicious baby vegetable ragout and accented with sweetly rich mascarpone cheese and an orange reduction.
Many guests order the steamed mussels, whose briny earthiness is set off by an addictive Spanish romesco sauce redolent of red peppers, ground almonds and garlic. Another popular item is smoked, prosciutto-wrapped quail stuffed with roasted sweetbreads and wild mushrooms, served with a hearty sauce featuring black kale.
The menu has just two pasta dishes but both are magnificent. Hand-made wide pappardelle noodles are tossed with black trumpet mushrooms and melted leeks in an earthy symphony of fine flavors. Holt also stuffs agnolotti with duck confit, pairs it with sweet spinach and tops the whole with a brown butter sage sauce.
We enjoyed our entrees almost as much; the only issue was a little overcooking of a couple of dishes. One of these was an otherwise-pleasing Korabuta pork chop served with a nicely toothy ginger risotto, savoy cabbage sour kraut and candied bacon. The Scottish salmon filet was also cooked a bit past its prime but the accompanying caramelized broccoli Romanesque and sautéed escarole in orange butter sauce was adequately distracting. Fortunately, the lovely sea bream filet was roasted just right and was optimally paired with crushed corona beans, Meyer lemon, green garlic and olive tapenade. Holt was also impressive with duck breast – cozying the juicy slices up to roasted wild mushrooms, sweet carrots and carmelized cipolline onions – while the dry-aged New York strip steak with its creative potato and broccoli sides and garlic-lemon sauce regularly sends carnivores into orbit.
Based on our experience, Cetrella’s dessert offerings are much better than was reported awhile back. The caramel-layered dark chocolate mousse cake with spiced pecans was simply incredible, while the sweet crepes filled with baked apple compote and cinnamon crème anglaise was equally enchanting. Even the Meyer lemon crème brulée was elevated by the subtle addition of lavender shortbread and candied citrus.
After making the trek to the coast, it was great to get not only terrific food but charming, helpful service and what seemed to be universal friendliness from the staff. Half Moon Bay may be outside the usual Silicon Valley orbit but Cetrella creates a tasty reason to visit.
Cetrella, 845 Main St., Half Moon Bay, (650) 726-4090; http://www.cetrella.com
HOURS: Dinner, Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m.. Closed Monday. Reservations recommended.
PRICES: Starters, $9-15; pastas, $20; entrees, $18-35; desserts, $6.50-8.