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Fondue Fork Fight Guests at the Wine Cellar can expect a good time, from appetizer to dessert.

SchoolHouse Rocks

The soul of Los Gatos' Old Town, the Wine Cellar reopens with a menu worth waiting for

By Christina Waters

THE WINE CELLAR, one of the very first tenants of Los Gatos' Old Town crafts and shopping district, is back after several years of renovating. Tucked under what is now Borders Books but was once the auditorium of University Avenue School, the cozy dining spot offers an Old World feel and an appealing New World menu.

No, there aren't any white table linens, but there's lots of ambience, thanks to an intimate bar, multilevel seating and attractive stone and wood wainscoting. From our comfortable banquette, we could watch a full house of happy diners clearly enjoying their wine and dinner. The broad-ranging menu lists plenty of nonthreatening starters and a full dance card of salads, featuring chicken and prawns, myriad pastas and hearty grilled entrees.

A skilled server helped our dinner move along smoothly, starting with glasses of red wines from the Santa Ynez Mountains--mine, an elegant Fess Parker Pinot Noir 1999 ($11); Jack's, a robust Peachy Canyon Zinfandel 1999 ($10)--joined by a shared pizza of smoked salmon and piquant lumpfish caviar ($14.50).

Witty as well as tasty, the pizza had been topped with lavish quantities of smoked salmon on a layer of dill-laced sour cream. It arrived with a tomato "rose" center and leaves of fresh basil. It was almost too good, and we had to force ourselves to box up half the generous portion for the next day.

From the list of evening specials, I chose grilled ahi tuna ($21.95); for Jack, it was a simple matter of filet mignon ($22.50). At these prices, we could afford to splurge--as could our fellow diners, clearly enjoying their attractive meals.

Arranged attractively on a huge white plate, my thick ahi steak arrived medium rare, lightly glazed with a ginger, garlic and sesame sauce. Slices of fresh ginger adorned the top of the ahi. On one side was a pillow of outstanding mashed potatoes, tinted pale green by a light inflection of wasabi mustard. On the other side of the enormous slab of tuna sat a bevy of infant carrots, perfectly, lightly sautéed and still crunchy.

Someone in the Wine Cellar kitchen definitely knows how to cook. More evidence of this was displayed in the sensitive strategy of barely wilting the baby spinach that accompanied Jack's delicious, crimson-rare filet mignon. The delicate leaves stayed sweet and succulent.

Joining the beef was a freshly baked potato topped with sour cream and garlic chives. Classic American cookery all the way--big flavors and savvy preparation. We were in the midst of an altogether happy experience. Even the guys in the exhibition kitchen, with its pale golden tiles, were having a good time.

Both our wines were poured generously, and they opened into memorable sipping. A few more local labels would help round out the already interesting wine list. Our server actually appeared to listen to our requests, was knowledgeable about the food and stopped by just enough to make sure the meal went smoothly. He even made the right call on a dessert suggestion.

Along with excellent cups of espresso, we sampled a shared dessert special that was both light and satisfying. Described as berry shortcake, the creation was actually a tender and crisp puff pastry shell filled with fresh berries and heavy whipped cream ($6.95).

Pooled around the pastry was a light cream sauce, in the style of a zabaglione, studded with ripe raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. We loved its tart and creamy interplay, and nothing beats sharing a dessert for a touch of romantic fork play. Sampling dessert after a multicourse meal can often be a chore, one of the poorly understood liabilities of the reviewing profession. This berries-and-cream dessert was sheer pleasure to consume, and we left--I confess--not a trace. How nice of the new, improved Wine Cellar to provide a moderately priced option for discerning Los Gatos diners.

The Wine Cellar
Address: 50 University Ave, Los Gatos
Phone: 408.354.4808
Hours: 11:30am-9:30pm Sun-Wed; 11:30am-10pm Thu-Sat
Price Range: $14.25-$22.50

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From the February 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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