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[whitespace] Tiffany King and chef  Rich Huber
Photograph by Ute Bonn

Decent Exposure: Restaurant manager Tiffany King and chef Rich Huber sample an entree of grilled sea bass and an appetizer of house-cured duck prosciutto.

Southern Lights

An Aptos bistro offers a splendidly seasoned glimpse at refined regional American cookery

By Christina Waters

WHAT A TASTY EXPERIENCE, I thought, after last week's dinner. Southern Exposure has matured confidently as a bistro showcase for New American cooking. Gone is the fussy prettiness of its debut culinary attitude. The current menu addresses classic flavors and seasonal ingredients with gusto and an inspired sense of flavor chemistry.

Refreshingly, the bistro addresses the seasonal realities of its location on the coast of the continent, with a splash of Mediterranean climate. Halibut arrives with tapenade and potato skordalia, Cornish game hen joins polenta and grilled sea bass is paired with organic arugula and creamed red lentils. Figs had come into their moment of choice perfection when Ann and I arrived for dinner. A native of Georgia, Ann is a one-woman embodiment of southern exposure whose culinary radar is swift and accurate. She was the first to admit at the end of the evening that we had experienced serious dining pleasure. Here's how it happened.

A leisurely pace presides over the soft pink, minimally decorated dining rooms. Joined by extremely lively fellow diners--the room was at decibel overload by 9pm--we sampled a bottle of outstanding Renwood old vine Zinfandel 1998 ($32), and struggled to decide over a lineup of mouth-watering possibilities. But finally choose we did, helped along by a finely textured francese bread served with full-bodied olive oil. While service at Southern Exposure is warm, friendly and helpful, the kitchen's commitment to detail can slow things down. But with good company and a great zin, one can be happily patient.

Beautiful appetizers arrived on those enormous white plates that seem to have become the industry standard. An artful mosaic of grilled vegetables--asparagus, squashes, mushrooms, red peppers--arrived bound into a botanical garden by a pale green leek and some delicious, balsamic-tinged aspic ($7). Perhaps too loosely organized to live up to its "terrine" billing, it was a compelling appetizer, and lovely with its encircling infant greens and dots of crimson bell pepper coulis.

Ann's starter of prosciutto and roasted figs generously filled the plate with fat fruits drizzled with a balsamic reduction and liberally strewn with lean prosciutto and thick ribbons of parmesan ($12). A fluff of sassy peppercress made a provocative garnish. Practically a meal in itself, it became an operetta when joined with the full-throated zinfandel. There was ample time to deconstruct the appetizers as we waited for our main courses, which arrived on old-fashioned gold-rimmed china. The duck dish (reminiscent of the ones I fondly recall made by Jack Chyle when the restaurant was Chez Renee) was handsomely organized, including a rich leg sauced with a port reduction and a fan of rare, delicious breast meat. Alongside was an abundantly, perhaps too abundantly, rich, cheese-topped and salted square of scalloped potatoes and a bevy of lovely, fresh yellow wax beans ($27). My main course of grilled sea bass was so succulent and exuberantly flavorful--again we noticed the use of salt in preparation--that I felt the workhorse seafood had been newly invented ($22).

With it were the dinner's true stars; sensuous, creamed red lentils adorned by fat cherry tomatoes that pretty much swept us both away. How clever to join an unpredictable side dish with this seafood staple. Sensuous and filled with earthy depths, the lentils were a revelation. Plus, as a counterpart, tangy young arugula had been sautéed into a designer version of southern bitter greens. Even the kitchen's use of salt admittedly added to the intensity of the flavor. This was a definitive dish.

Managing to save a bit of room, we joined cups of fine espresso with a semifreddo of frozen chocolate mousse topped with vanilla cream ($6.50) and a delicious cookie tuille filled with a ginger zabaglione (to die for!) cushioning wine-poached white figs ($7). Tender with subtle spicing these desserts continued the dining theme of beautifully made food to their creamy conclusion. Here is a bistro to add to your short list of local dining treasures.

Southern Exposure
Address: 9051 Soquel Dr, Aptos
Phone: 831.688.8698
Hours: Dinner Wed-Sun from 5:30pm; Sun brunch 10-2
Ambience: **1/2 Spare, comfortable
Service: *** Very warm
Cuisine: ***1/2 Innovative combinations of ingredients and fresh approaches to classic American dishes make this bistro an excellent dining destination.

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From the October 24-31, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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