The concept of pets often resembling their owners has a corollary in the restaurant world. Dining in an establishment run by an owner/chef, you’re likely to sample unusual, highly personal cuisine that reflects the passions and prejudices of one individual. For some chefs who spent their earlier careers toiling as an underling in someone else’s kitchen, executing someone else’s vision, the holy grail is to be The Boss in their own place. And some owner/chefs do look like their food.
May Yong, who opened teensy seafood bistro Lure in downtown San Mateo a couple of years ago, is lean and intense. She has done time in some highly regarded, now-closed French eateries such as Elisabeth Daniel, Chez Spencer and Palo Alto’s much-adored L’Amie Donia, where she worked for four years and left as chef de cuisine. But the food she prefers is light, fresh and packed with intense flavors that recall her Chinese-Malaysian heritage.
Diners looking for a heaping, heavy plateful in familiar preparations won’t understand Lure. This is just fine with the growing contingent of blissed-out, weight-conscious foodies who are captivated by the deft, unlike-anywhere-else offerings in this 34-seat dinner spot. Given her own eat-light orientation, Yong’s seafood theme makes perfect sense. To begin, she offers a big assortment of oysters and other shellfish, plus some swoon-worthy raw starters served on lovely frosted-glass plates.
These inventive raw nibbles pair a few pieces of pristinely fresh fish with intense accompaniments in a delectable flavor duel. Pale hamachi has been stroked with tangerine oil and a crunchy dusting of tobiko (flying fish roe). The cumin-flavored ribbons of shredded shiso leaf make a just-perfect topping. Similarly, the unctuous flesh of Spanish mackerel is taken to sublime heights by Meyer lemon preserve and a few grains of alderwood smoked salt.
A generous list of first courses includes a couple of signature dishes: caviar pancakes and juicy steamed mussels in a creamy, spicy East Asian coconut broth that’s a tasty reminder of Yong’s ethnic origins. Some offerings from her just-replaced winter menu should also be moved to signature-dish status and brought back from retirement. Specifically, an absolutely spectacular salad of shredded radicchio, orange pieces, sliced almonds and ricotta salata with dates in a pomegranate vinaigrette, and an otherworldly caramelized endive tart tatin with star anise and orange gastrique.
Her current first-course menu pays homage to her years of French cooking via monkfish liver au torchon (poached in a cloth bag), which is crusted with croutons and paired with fruit condiments. She also offers an enormous artichoke splayed open and mounded with house-made paneer (light, fresh cheese), breadcrumbs and curry vinaigrette. A subtle clam consommé poured over enoki mushrooms and shreds of dried seaweed probably has only double-digit calories, but is plain in comparison to the many flavor-rich choices.
Lure’s main-course selections typically include a whole-fish entrée, with the most recent being a succulent roasted Branzino (a small European seabass) slathered with a bright-green parsley/garlic sauce. The most substantial current dish for any big eaters is a flavorful stew featuring garbanzo beans, cashews and sunchokes with huge, moist Florida white shrimp that has a spicy kick. An eclectic wine list features unusual offerings like crisp Spanish Albariño and aromatic Torrontes from Argentina that would nicely match such distinctive food.
Unadventurous eaters to whom “fish” means the requisite salmon, halibut and the like won’t find their ubiquitous favorites at Lure. Instead, Yong works her magic with worthy, if less-common varieties like omega-3-rich mackerel. She glazes this lovely tasting fish with maple syrup and sherry, serving it with pineapple and a sesame seed-dusted avocado salad. The assertive contrasting flavors and textures are wonderful. However, the apex of her wizardry was reached in an extraordinary pan-roasted ono served with toothy lentil cakes, light cabbage slaw and lime-date chutney from a now-retired menu. Many patrons hope it will reappear permanently.
Yong’s idiosyncratic cooking style continues into dessert. The celestial house-made sorbets are guilt free, but even offerings like rhubarb and pineapple crisp are light instead of leaden. While molten chocolate cake seems to be on every restaurant menu these days, Yong’s chocolate choice is airy chocolate crepes glazed with candied orange peel and served with orange sherbet.
This little sliver of a place with its sophisticated city feel overcomes its long, narrow footprint by using both walls as canvasses upon which to replay the seafood theme. Undulating molded white waves on one wall and a glowing red backlit expanse on the other evoke a Jules Verne-like atmosphere. However, most guests are too busy savoring Yong’s memorable cuisine to worry about the imminent arrival of any giant squid.
Lure, 204-A 2nd Ave., San Mateo, (650) 340-9040, http://www.lurerestaurant.com
HOURS: Dinner only, Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-9:30; until 10:30 on Friday and Saturday. Reservations recommended.
PRICES: Seafood starters, $1.50-12; first courses, $7-19; main courses, $18-28; desserts, $7.