Quiet Brilliance in Woodside: Station 1

The environment is simple at Station 1 but the food is anything but.

Station 1 on Urbanspoon

The chef and owners of charming Station 1 restaurant in their refurbished dining room. This spot used to be John Bentley’s.

(This review appeared in South Bay Accent in July 2011.)

It’s a no-brainer to offer luxury food in a billionaires’ burg.  Nevertheless, no truffles, caviar, foie gras, lobster or other haughty ingredients darken the walk-in at the latest entry to tony Woodside’s restaurant scene. Rather, Station 1 serves a three-course, fixed-price menu that celebrates vegetables and more humble foodstuffs such as red snapper, chicken, farm eggs and even — yikes — tripe.

In the adroit hands of chef Zack Freitas, unassuming ingredients are turned into subtly bewitching dishes that celebrate freshness and sustainability. But this charming little restaurant isn’t a funky counter-culture joint with tie-dyed curtains.  The food is sophisticated and creative, quietly employing modern techniques like sous vide to help the chef achieve his tasty vision, honed during previous stints at Commis in Oakland and Manresa in Los Gatos.

Dinner prices have been elevated a bit since last year’s opening — to $54 — but Station 1 is still considered on the thrifty side, particularly for such fine vittles.  Thus even the locals — who can afford a lot more — are pointing their Porsches in the direction of this two-room restaurant, which was originally a fire station in the 1920s.

With its rustic wooden chairs, fireplace, reclaimed oak floors, red wallpaper and unmatched handmade plates, Station 1 oozes a kicked-back farmhouse vibe. But the food is decidedly uptown in a non-showy way. Although portions are smallish, dinners include a few choices for each course and come with habit-forming house-made flatbread, an amuse bouche, a pre-entree palate cleanser and post-dessert sweets. The menu changes frequently.

Freitas sometimes delivers a mouthful or so of heavenly soup as his amuse — say, silky cardoon and potato or an intense spiced carrot. Full-flavor tidbits like a meaty sardine on a dollop of toothy farro have also appeared. Some of his first courses have already developed fan clubs, like his smoked gnocchi, in which soft pillows of potato dumpling are lightly smoked, topped with long-cooked tripe (trust me, it’s wonderful) and accompanied by various creamy, crunchy and spicy complements.

With its pretty veggies and slab of dried prosciutto, “Pig in the Garden” is playful and delicious.

“Pig in the Garden” is a visual treat that’s somewhere between a salad and a vegetable dish. Earthy, sweet beets and light green romanesco (it looks like Martian broccoli) perch on a little puddle of sauce with a slab of whimsical dried prosciutto riding shotgun.  A popular spring starter is a divine asparagus treatment in which thick spears are paired with sliced strawberries, mâche and a pressed block of pomelo, with the result a delicious balance of vegetal, bitter and sweet.

A highly seasonal spring offering was nettle risotto with flavorful mushrooms, green garlic and tart sorrel.  The flavor contrasts were sublime: creamy, earthy, pungent, acidic and more.  Even more exciting was a soul-soothing mixture of flavorful potato puree, ramps (wild leeks) and black trumpet mushrooms stuffed inside toothy razor clams. Comfort was in every mouthful.

Perking up your palate before the main course is a shot glass containing variations on a citrus theme, such as homemade Meyer lemon soda, spiced tangerine soda or grapefruit soda with ginger.

Three entree choices usually steer between fish, fowl and meat.  The chef’s red snapper with beech mushrooms and two sauces is quite acceptable, but not as exciting as other seafood creations that have been offered, such as olive-oil-poached halibut or crispy-skin salmon trout. Showing the chef’s bent toward flavor contrasts is arctic char (sometimes substituted with coho salmon) in a sweet shallot sauce perked up by a puddle of fluffy, creamy avocado mousse and sour-crisp green tomato wedges.

A step up are the treatments for feather-covered beasts.  Humble chicken, in Freitas’ hands, becomes a silky nugget with dark and light meats fused together using transglutaminase (aka “meat glue”) then cooked sous vide, with a crisp exterior that contrasts perfectly with creamy, cheesy grits and broccoli. The chef made a similar dish that wowed diners during his time as executive chef at Commis.  At Station 1, he has featured other feathered friends like Muscovy duck breast, as well as an honorary member of the fowl family: rabbit.

The chef makes magic with chicken – with the help of a little sous vide and meat glue.

Equally sublime are the meat dishes, such as Berkshire pork cooked three ways served with fennel that showcases that unctuous favorite, pork belly.  Bavette — flank steak — is juicy and satisfying, while Freitas does a nice job with Wagyu tri-tip steak, served with tasty potatoes, exotic mushrooms and a smoky garlic puree.

Pastry chef Paul Shields hits it out of the park every time.  His mini Key lime tart with huckleberries has become legendary, while he makes magic with chocolate, such as in white chocolate brioche with caramel or a ravishing chocolate-hazelnut cake draped in milk chocolate.  However, his maple custard with whiskey caramel sauce and pecan brittle is the stuff of dreams.  Even the post-dessert cookies, such as wonderful spicy ginger treats, are worth the trip.

The small menu is accompanied by a petite wine list that features wines by tastes or bottles, although the mark-ups are quite high.  The restaurant also has bar service, with specialty cocktails of the same caliber as the food.

Matching Station 1’s homey atmosphere, servers are friendly yet attentive, understanding the brief menu well enough to provide helpful details.  The owners — a youthful couple with deep restaurant backgrounds — stay on the floor to assure their guest are content.  The only furrowed brows sometimes come from those seated in the back room, which lacks the buffed glow of the main room.  Fortunately, the scrumptious meal tastes just as good out there.

Station 1, 2991 Woodside Rd., Woodside, (650) 851-4988, http://www.station1restaurant.com

HOURS: Lunch, Tuesday-Friday, 11:30-1:30; dinner, Tuesday-Saturday,  5-9:30; Reservations strongly recommended.

PRICES: Dinner, three-course prix fixe, $54. À la carte also available.

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