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Assembly’s executive chef Carlo Espinas lets diners choose between ‘Modest’ and ‘Substantial’ dishes on the lunch menu. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

Assembly’s executive chef Carlo Espinas lets diners choose between ‘Modest’ and ‘Substantial’ dishes on the lunch menu. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

Rita and I made our IPO (initial public outing) to Assembly last week for a late lunch, joined by an inquiring crowd of fellow foodies. In addition to those antler chandeliers (shades of True Detective!), and an inviting front bar, the uncluttered interior is equipped with urban sleek and plenty of light. Banquettes line the front and side walls, while two and four-tops populate the spacious central dining area. A sextet was being seated in the front power nook overlooking the street action when we took our table, ordered San Pellegrino and checked out the “rustic California” menu. Immediately the user-friendly pricing jumped out at us—entrees were priced between $8.50 and $11 and proved generous enough to require to-go packaging.

Executive chef Carlo Espinas has put together a likable menu that is refreshingly free of tricky, concept-driven items. The lunch menu organizes dishes into “Modest”—inventive soups and small salads—and “Substantial,” which can include a mammoth burger with homemade brioche bun, fried chicken, crispy duck leg with kumquats, radicchio and much more, and a slow-cooked beef with various root veggies.

The Cubano press immediately appealed to me. What’s not to like in a robust sandwich filled with roasted pork and smoked ham, adorned with pickled onions, Swiss cheese and sweet-hot mustard ($9.50)? The sandwich, toasted a la panini, arrived with a bouquet of house-made potato chips and a little green field of infant arugula—seriously delicious micro-greens—bathed in an excellent tart vinaigrette.

Rita’s slow-cooked beef was served in a deep bowl and was very very tender in a broth with sunchokes, celery root, carrots and fresh horseradish cream ($11). Major burgers were served at tables around us, a slab of beef riding high on a homemade brioche bun topped with cheddar, lettuce, pickled onions and served with fries so beautiful they looked Photoshopped.

Desserts at Assembly feature Penny Ice Creamery specialties, and both of the menu items we sampled showcased ice cream. Salted caramel ice cream filled a beautiful tumbler. A bed of whipped cream supported the creation, which was topped with chocolate sauce and toasted almonds—an enlightened, yet decadent sundae ($8).

Another visually opulent item paired up a small Bearss lime tart with tiny, micro pyramids of meringue dotting an undulant arrangement of quivering lime gelées, and a creamy oval of white chocolate ice cream ($7). This was a showpiece salvo from house pastry chef Anna St. John. I would love to see even more pastries added to the otherwise ice cream intensive dessert list. In keeping with the community gathering spot concept, partners <a href=”http://www.santacruz.com/articles/gourmet_goodies_in_the_picnic_basket.htmlKendra Baker and Zachary Davis (Penny Ice Creamery, Picnic Basket) were very hands-on owners, working the crowd throughout lunch, stopping to talk, explain decor and make sure every patron felt welcome. Next time I’ll stop by for dinner and sample the wine list offerings.

Assembly, located at 1108 Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz, is open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner, 11am-10pm (11pm on Friday and Saturday nights). A snack menu is served from 3-5pm.

Product of the Week: We have surrendered to the light, tart pleasures of Kevita sparkling probiotic drinks. They have a freshness that outdoes even ginger ale. The Lemon Ginger flavor and the Lemon Cayenne are our favorites. $2.99 for a large glass bottle, almost 16 oz. Organic and loaded with everything you really need to quench your thirst, satisfy your picky tastes and give your digestion a boost. At New Leaf and other local outlets.

  • emile

    Tried Assembly last night. Must admit I was not impressed. Service was slow, weak, not very knowledgeable, and annoyingly sweet (we must have been asked 20 times by at least 5 different employees “Everything is alright?” with nodding “yes” heads – RATHER THAN bringing us what we asked for – silverware, bread, water, pepper grinder, and more). The food was rather bland, so-so in presentation, and definitely not memorable. Taking a few items out of a jar, slicing them, and arranging them on a plate does not impress. Taking small portions of raw materials, and putting them into a small serving bowl with dabs of sauce or garnishes does not impress. Flavors were less than creative. Presentation was ala cooking school. Management attitude was on the arrogant side. As a guest of the Santa Cruz community I was disappointed.

  • emile

    Tried Assembly last night. Must admit I was not impressed. Service was slow, weak, not very knowledgeable, and annoyingly sweet (we must have been asked 20 times by at least 5 different employees “Everything is alright?” with nodding “yes” heads – RATHER THAN bringing us what we asked for – silverware, bread, water, pepper grinder, and more). The food was rather bland, so-so in presentation, and definitely not memorable. Taking a few items out of a jar, slicing them, and arranging them on a plate does not impress. Taking small portions of raw materials, and putting them into a small serving bowl with dabs of sauce or garnishes does not impress. Flavors were less than creative. Presentation was ala cooking school. Management attitude was on the arrogant side. As a guest of the Santa Cruz community I was disappointed.