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

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.

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.”

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.

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

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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