The Cellar Door in Santa Cruz Ushers in the Lunar New Year

Chef Alex Ong plates a dish of fresh bamboo shoots at the Cellar Door.

This past Sunday, the Cellar Door restaurant at Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz welcomed the “Year of the Dragon” with a bang, thanks to Chef Alexander Ong of San Francisco’s Belenut, who prepared a masterful banquet fit for celebrating.

Indeed, my Santa Cruz cohorts half-joked that it was the first — and most likely only — time they could indulge in stellar Chinese food in their city, which unfortunately lacks some of the cultural and epicurean diversity of its larger neighboring cities to the north.

I was lucky to be invited as a guest at the 134-person dinner, which sold out in only a few days. It was the first guest chef dinner held there. But Proprietor Randall Grahm hopes to make it a monthly event at this quirky tasting room-restaurant that completely reflects his irreverent personality.

The "host'' (or shall I say "toast'') at the door.

An occasion for celebrating.

A New Year's dragon vies for space with a spaceship.

The tables are set for a festive time.

Festive red tablecloths covered long tables that were arranged in a serpentine in the front and rear of the space. The dinner was made up of (lucky) eight courses and served family-style.

Ong brought four of his crew down to prepare the gala dinner, which was filled with symbolic dishes, including a whole fish to represent “abundance.”

Busy in the kitchen.

The pizza oven in the background cooks the beggar's chickens.

Proprietor Randall Grahm with Chef Alex Ong welcomes the crowd.

The centerpiece was his signature beggar’s chicken — a whole chicken stuffed with mushrooms, Brussels sprouts and smoked pork belly, then wrapped snuggly in gray clay before being baked for hours in Cellar Door’s pizza oven. Ong joked that he had to transport so much clay for the dish that his car turned into a veritable low-rider because of the added weight.

Crunchy, marinated bamboo shoots to nibble on.

It's a Singaporean tradition to toss this salad high for the New Year.

Dumplings to die for -- with homemade skins.

Juicy "lion's head'' meatballs.

Artsy wine bottles on display.

The evening’s menu:

*Chilled Shanghai-style winter bamboo shoots

*”Yee Sang” sashimi of yellowtail jack, seaweed, pickles, citrus, sesame crackers, chili-preserved plum dressing

*Pork & chive dumplings, “Jiaozi,” chili-black vinegar sauce, and crispy shallots

2006 Riseling to Live

*”Lion’s head” pork meatballs, Napa cabbage, ginko nuts, glass noodles

2004 Le Cigare Blanc

*Whole Tai snapper in miso, ginger, scallions

*”Beggar’s chicken” clay-baked whole chicken stuffed with mushrooms and pork belly

2009 Nebbiolo “Ca’ del Solo Estate”

*Long-life noodles, green and yellow chives, garlic soy

*Emerald bok choy, Dungeness crab sauce, aged black vinegar

2009 Le Cigare Blanc

*Almond miso cookies with Mandarin orange ice cream

2009 Moscato Frizzante

Whole steamed fish.

The beggar's chicken, cracked open from its clay covering.

Noodles for a long life.

Bok choy with crab.

Sweet last bites.

If all that leaves you hungry for more, mark your calendar for Feb. 26, when the guest chef at Cellar Door will be David Taylor of A16 in San Francisco. His “Wild Things” menu will be $80 per person, which includes paired wines. For reservations, call (831) 425-6771.

More: The Food of Betelnut

And: Chef Alexander Ong’s Demo with Yours Truly at Macy’s Union Square

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  • A wonderful event! The food looks lovely. I particularly like the bok choi dish.



  • Don’t they have clay in Santa Cruz? 😉 Looks like a fun and festive celebration! Would have loved to see the tossing of the salad!

  • The food looks great…so interesting the chicken dish.
    Wonderful event Carolyn…have a great week 🙂

  • I haven’t had whole fish like that in ages. What a feast!

  • Yum…theses are really comfort food to me! Too bad I’m living so far away from there. Otherwise, I’ll definitely try it out.

  • You are so fortunate to be invited to all these incredible dining events. I’m jealous! This menu looks superb as I’m sure it was. Thank you as always for sharing your dining experiences.

  • Oh the food looks amazing!! I agree what a blessing that you get to go to all of these wonderful events!

  • yum! I wish we had CNY all year round if only for the food! 😀 I am not surprised that it sold out so quickly 🙂

  • Nice post, great food. Love the menu. What fun you get to go to so many wonderful events!

  • Thanks so much for posting about this dinner. It was a treat to finally meet you and find out who “Meat Boy” was—hee hee, my guess was way off. Chin-shu was kind enough to introduce me to Pim, who I had read for years. And you introduced me to Andrea Nguyen, who is one of my other favorite bloggers for Asian recipes. What a night! The food was wonderful. I especially loved the beggar’s chicken–the stuffing was to die for and I thought I didn’t like brussel sprouts. We lucked out, as a foursone seated next to us didn’t show. Bill and I about ate a whole snapper and chicken by ourselves (well, I did anyway). Only fair, since our table was told that the meat ball course had problems or something and we were instead served the vegetarian substitute of cauliflower. Definitely not the same, if you’re a carnivore. I did manage to eat two shares of dessert and then felt like rolling out the door. I can’t believe I actually sat and ate for four hours! Wish we were going to be in town for next month’s Wild Things. 🙁

  • Suzy: So nice to meet you in person after all this time, too! Glad you had such a wonderful time. But then, with that food, those wines, and such wonderful company, it’d be hard not to. My hubby is still chuckling over whom you thought he might be. 😉 Glad he could surprise you. LOL

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