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Cetrella Bistro and Café

Way down along the wind-blown coastline of San Mateo County lay the makings for an exquisite day trip, weekend, or lifestyle: the Maverick's for collecting shells and watching surfers, the nurseries and roadside stands for fresh flowers and produce, Costanoa for retreats, the Moss Beach Distillery for Bloody Marys, Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero for beers, Half Moon Bay Brewery for calamari, Barbara's Fish Trap for fried clams, and Canada Cove for daydreaming of owning a little trailer by the sea (in the shadow of the Ritz-Carlton, ironically enough).

Rounding out the area's offerings is a sophisticated restaurant considered a destination for Bay Area foodies: Cetrella Bistro and Café. Located past the quaint hubbub of Half Moon Bay's Main Street in the historic Half Moon Bay Growers' Association building, the 120-seat "Bistro" and 50-seat "Caf" (along with two private dining rooms, a terrace and a cheese aging room) have won awards since opening in September, 2001. Cetrella is the go-to restaurant for elegant-casual dining in the area.

Executive Chef Erik Cosselmon (Rose Pistola, Le Bernardin, Daniel) and Executive Sous Chef Lewis Rossman (Acquerello, Kokkari) follow modern tradition and name names on the Northern Mediterranean menu, citing Bellwether Farms cheeses, Giusti Farms artichokes, and Point Reyes blue cheese for example. Prices vary from $6 to $12 for starters and $17 to $28 for entrees, with a 3-course prix-fixe Sunday through Thursday for $25. The cuisine is of the Northern Californian school of "fresh and local," incorporating a bit of Morocco here and a touch of Catalonia there, with heavy regional Italian influences.

At the time of our visit, Massachusetts razor clams were in their brief season, and our server insisted we try them. (The service on our weeknight visit was great, although I've heard on busier nights that it can get a little hairy.) Romanced by our fireside table and the knowledgeable manner of sommelier Tom McGowan, we went with the 5-inch long clams. Rubbery and bathed in a tepid tomato and pastis broth, the dish was an unsuccessful start to what turned out to be a gorgeous meal.

Instant redemption was delivered in the form of an impossibly fine soup of pureed parsnip and cauliflower with Parmesan cheese and olive oil ($6). I don't know if I've ever had such a smooth, delicate soup in my life. It was sheer genius, with flavor complexity that went far deeper than its short, vegan ingredient list. Bravo!

We also tried a plate of lovely house-smoked king salmon, sable, and albacore, which was spritely with marinated cucumber, chervil and ancho cress ($10) but missed a hint of dairy. Wine pairings were spot on. We moved into dinner with a perfectly autumnal oven roasted pork loin chop with sage and fontina-infused soft polenta and grilled rapini ($20). Fresh fish offerings are numerous, and the Zarzuela (shellfish stew) comes highly recommended ($23). The menu appeals to foodies with mesquite-grilled calf's liver ($17) and a first-rate artisanal cheese selection (10-$14), while less esoteric eaters will no doubt enjoy the mesquite-grilled rib-eye with service for two ($28).

Desserts, with a dinner menu like that, are going to be great. Warm Scharffen Berger chocolate cake ($8): nice, very nice. Sorbet, profiteroles, poached pears, the whole nine. Brunch is rumored to be fabulous, with brioche French toast and fresh huckleberries ($9) and Tuscan-style baked eggs with braised greens and Parmesan ($9).

Basically, the proprietors have taken almost every trick from the conscientious Northern California fine dining book, and implemented them in unison, along with the occasional ho-hum element, in a comfortable atmosphere. They have the space and resources to do this; it's pretty pleasant to experience so many familiar, high-quality touches in one place.