SRJC Culinary Academy
By Ella Lawrence
Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. We invite you to come along with our writers as they--informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves--have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience.
The first thing I noticed about the Santa Rosa Junior College Culinary Arts' Cafe and Bakery is that everyone is so darn friendly. Heartfelt smiles abound, from the espresso-making cashier dispensing divine pastries early in the morning to the teenager in the chef's hat in the wide-open kitchen. The cynic in me wants to think, "Hah! Naive! That smile will wash off once they go to work in a real restaurant!"
Maybe it will, maybe it won't. The optimist in me quickly quieted the cynic over lunch at the culinary cafe, which is certainly a real restaurant and sometimes books out days in advance. And for good reason.
A recent lunch began with the leek-chive soup ($3) and the mixed-greens with red Bartlett pears, radicchio and feta ($3). The soup was a pleasing pale green, very creamy and mild, adorned with a darling sprig of flowering garlic chive, which was a bit underwhelmed by the richness of the soup. The salad was perfect (especially the pear), an early promise of the produce that would make the rest of our meal spectacular. The SRJC's culinary academy supports local farmers and features organic produce and meat from its own Shone Farm in the north county.
Next up was the Shone Farm beef polpettine with tomatoes and peas ($8.50), served over house-made fettuccine and Swiss chard, and the Dungeness crab cake with orange-chipotle sauce ($10.50). Polpettine, in case you didn't know (we didn't), are breaded, deep-fried meatballs, and everything on the plate was comforting just to look at (although I suspect those "peas" were actually lima beans). The sauce was reminiscent of a ragout, complete with chunks of pancetta. Mmm . . . bacon . . .
The crab cake was more Southwestern than I'd anticipated, which was a welcome change from the creamy, aioli-covered dishes that are the standard accoutrements to crab cakes this time of year. The sauce was the highlight of this dish‹I'd never have thought that the smoky orange and chipotle would pair so wonderfully with the sweetness of the crab. All of the produce on our plates was of superb quality.
The best part of lunch was dessert: we ordered the chocolate bread pudding with coffee-brandy sauce ($3.50) and the maple custard with pecan butter crisps ($3.50). The bread pudding was a little intense for me after the delicate orange flavors of the crab, so the maple custard was a perfect pairing. It came with fresh segments of mandarin orange swimming in its own fresh juice, and the custard was divinely light, paired with tiny, sweet crunches of clear pecan brittle.
And the best part of the culinary academy's restaurant? Its prices. Six courses, a coffee and a hefty tip later, my wallet was only 40 clams lighter!
SRJC Culinary Arts' Cafe and Bakery, in the Brickyard Center, 458 B St., Santa Rosa. Lunch, Wednesday-Friday, 11:30am to 2pm. Reservations required. 707.576.0279.
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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.