Upscale Homey at Restaurant James Randall

Restaurant James Randall on Urbanspoon

(This review appeared in South Bay Accent in May, 2007.)

“Family restaurant” and “comfort food” don’t evoke thoughts of upscale cuisine but all three terms apply to newcomer Restaurant James Randall in downtown Los Gatos. Owners Brenda Hammond and her son Ross Hanson named their cozy spot after her late brother, who left her an inheritance that was intended to be spent on some sort of life passion. The restaurant’s growing fan base can testify to the obvious zeal of mother and son in this loving enterprise.

On the food end, the restaurant is aiming toward more homey offerings – think extremely well-executed dinner party fare rather than complicated recipes made from chichi ingredients. But this isn’t Denny’s. Hanson is a culinary school grad and previously cooked at a couple of ambitious eateries elsewhere. While items like mac-n-cheese have appeared on his menu, they play a supporting role and are made with first-rate ingredients. His cooking features hearty, accessible dishes with enough pizzazz to interest savvy, been-there-done-that Peninsula diners.

Meanwhile, Hammond runs the front of the house. And it really is one. A few steps up from the town’s main drag and you’re suddenly in a cute little maison with hardwood floors, a fireplace, 24 closely spaced seats and romantic lighting. In keeping with the just-folks theme, servers are very young and friendly but not particularly polished.

Hanson isn’t aiming for subtlety in starters like a “tempura roll” of spiced tuna, avocado, macadamia nuts and rice inside batter-fried nori (dried seaweed), an emerging signature dish. Flavors were also deliciously big in a spinach and endive salad studded with candied walnuts, dried cranberries and blue cheese tossed in a sweet vinaigrette.

Tasty but somewhat odd on the plate was a “salad” that consisted of small cubes of yellow beet, dabs of goat cheese, toasted pinenuts and a smear of pureed arugula. Somewhere in this dish is a good concept trying to get out. However, perfectly in line with the fresh comfort food concept was a cool-weather choice of savory/sweet Delicata squash pancakes topped with apple sauce and sour cream. Its warm-weather corollary was a divine combo of corn pancakes and crab salad with spicy remoulade. Ingredient seasonality causes this frequent menu-item replacement or adaptation, which also gives patrons a good excuse to keep coming back.

Any foodie would be happy to return for the sublime pan-seared halibut entrée served last year. Since then, the chef has rotated through sea scallops and trout in similar preparations, always with great results. For example, he wowed guests one winter with juicy scallops on fragrant jasmine rice wearing a lemony butter sauce and with a fennel-citrus accompaniment. He’s equally masterful in his poultry offering, which has been a succulent seared duck or moist chicken breast. Pairings might be wild rice/pecan pilaf with braised kale or something totally different that follows the chef’s muse that day.

Meat eaters will be smiling over the generous, toothsome lamb and beef entrees. Whether braised lamb shank or grilled rack, Hanson hits a homer, showing similar skill with grilled steak, from flank to New York. One item that sticks around is the hugely popular grilled double pork chop, which is delish with the chef’s maple-enhanced jus. One of Hanson’s real gifts is in first-class accompaniments that always delight and surprise. Say, roasted fingerling potatoes or rosemary cannellini beans or cauliflower mashed potatoes or creamy polenta.

The kitchen might consider being less homey when it comes to dessert – although they’re still fiddling with this course to get it just right. Various choices have cycled through, like rice pudding, lemon tart, flourless chocolate cake and apple crisp. These somewhat mundane offerings would benefit from more of the personal touch evident in the preceding courses.

Wine is another good reason to visit Restaurant James Randall. Hammond – who is studying for the hard-to-get Master Sommelier certificate – has crafted a small list of interesting choices well matched with the cuisine. But if a guest must have one of the usual restaurant warhorses, Silver Oak cab is available, too. Like many of the food items, the wines by the glass keep changing. Adventurous guests might consider ordering the thrifty ($37) three-course dinner with a $30 wine pairing.

Deliciously unpretentious, Restaurant James Randall hits just the right note for diners who want a casual dining experience without a casual approach to food.

Restaurant James Randall, 303 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, (408) 395-4441; http://www.restaurantjamesrandall.com

HOURS: Daily, 5:30-10 p.m. Reservations recommended.

PRICES: Appetizers, $6.50-13; entrees, $22-30; desserts, $9. Fixed-price three-course dinner, $37 (Sunday to Thursday)

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