Ryan Shelton comes from Palo Alto's 2-Michelin star Baume. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

Ryan Shelton comes from Palo Alto's 2-Michelin star Baume. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

With the transfiguration of the Cellar Door bistro into Le Cigare Volant, proprietor/winemaker Randall Grahm plays to his strengths, as well as to his sense of play. Named for Bonny Doon Vineyards’ flagship wine, the restaurant simultaneously debuts chef Ryan Shelton, who brings to the cafe's exhibition kitchen deep experience in the alchemical ways of tres contemporary French cuisine—molecular cookery replete with scented and spiced foams.

Shelton, who worked as pastry chef and then chef de cuisine with French cuisinartist Bruno Chemel in Palo Alto's 2-star Michelin Baumé, is already expanding his sense of freedom in the more relaxed culinary environment of his Santa Cruz base. The exhibition kitchen allows the chef and acolytes to see the diners, gauge the success of the dishes and in general join in the communal pleasure. And the emphasis on local, seasonal and organic ingredients is very likely a big plus.

Pairing sophisticated technique with coastal attitude and impeccable ingredients, Shelton has amazed me at each of three recent visits to Le Cigare Volant. Every flavor clear and unmasked, every plate beautiful.

At this vibrant dining room, my go-to glass is the 2006 Nebbiolo, ablaze with pepper and excitement. Our latest visit also yielded a new discovery, the 2007 freisa/sangiovese blend Grahm has dubbed “Imagine.” The bold wines made perfect sense with both an entree of roasted 38 North chicken ($23), as well as slices of Eel River grass-fed beef rib loin ($32).

The chicken breast, its skin gleaming with a taut, golden-brown glaze, sat on a bed of rich potato purée and charred bitter greens. A confit terrine of chicken added a savory echo, and pretty leaves of amaranth punctuated the dish.

The rare beef arrived on a slick of roasted garlic purée, topped with a tracery of red wine reduction. Brilliant green shishito peppers and thick ribbons of lemon-marinated radicchio accompanied, and a slice of bone marrow made a primal statement at the top of the gorgeous ochre plate.

Another dinner began with sweet and lightly-brined boquerones, house-cured to amplify flavor yet not assault the palate ($5). With this meal the Cigare Blanc was perfect. A faux pizza flatbread—bound to be a destination dish—came scored into manageable squares and topped with Willey Farm's spinach, tasty hen of the woods mushrooms and shards of pecorino. A little bowl of Meyer lemon yogurt dipping sauce urged each bite into Greco-Californian ecstasies ($14).

I sampled a brilliant collage of shellfish—whole spot prawns, striped bass and prawn “chorizo.” A delicate lemongrass broth was poured over the seafood at table ($23). Here indeed was that sense of “fun and magic” that chef Shelton recently described as matching the “Flying Cigar” motif.

Another platter of Wildwood tofu, marinated and braised to a deep oxide hue ($16), came with a shamelessly rococo gratin of celery root and a tiny nest of julienned celeriac. This dish as well as others I tasted at the community dinners testified to Shelton's ability to create vegetarian dishes of remarkable style and substance. For example, a dish of Beluga lentils, roasted tofu and mixed vegetables provided mushroomy foundations and top notes of Szechuan peppercorn.

At my most recent dinner at the community table, I experienced the house secret weapon—pastry chef Yoomi Shelton, who along with her chef/husband fuels the speculation that Le Cigare Volant just might—with a bit more staff consistency—bring Santa Cruz its first Michelin star.

For the community vegetarian night table, the pastry chef created pools of melted and spiced chocolates, presented along with skewers of berries and fruits to dip. Another platter was laden with an array of witty candies, meringue “mushrooms” almost lighter than air, tiny chocolate cookies topped with salt and a gossamer, moist almond cake that I would have fought for. And almost had to, so outrageous was it in tender crumb and intense almond saturation.  

But it was the pastry chef's dessert variations on Live Earth Farms rhubarb that conquered us ($9). The first of a trio of glass containers—each the size of a large votive holder—held a fragrant jasmine sorbet and transparent cubes of [rhubarb glee] topped with a toasted sage leaf. In the next cup a rhubarb crisp wore a snowy cap of ginger foam. Last, and best, was a textbook panna cotta—creamy and barely sweet—frosted with a tart rhubarb coulis. Here was dessert to eradicate all memories of cheese platters.

Le Cigare Volant is not simply the name of a Jules Vernesque sculpture, or a Rhone-style wine—it's where you need to place your next dinner reservation.


Le Cigare Volant

328 Ingalls St., Santa Cruz


  • Sean

    Great cuisine indeed, but I’d point out that it is more of a restaurant and wine tasting destination than a cafe.

  • Sean

    Great cuisine indeed, but I’d point out that it is more of a restaurant and wine tasting destination than a cafe.