For many people, eating in public is not just a human necessity but has become a barometer of one’s sophistication and trend savvy. Websites, blogs and social media now make anyone with a keyboard an instant food critic — or at least a legend in their own mind — so urbane South Bay diners like keeping up with ever-evolving food trends to stay ahead of the curve. Imagine serving cupcakes to a discriminating foodie guest without being aware that trend was passé by 2010. Mon dieu!
Yes, it can take some work to maintain one’s food cred. But unlike clothing or hairstyles, the research can be quite delicious. There is much to sample twelve years after the new millennium, with the pace of restaurant openings and uptick in business at favored establishments proving that Silicon Valley sees the depths of the recession in the rear-view mirror these days.
Some earlier food trends have morphed into the fine-dining gestalt. Most prominent is local-ingredient-focused cooking, which was once called “California cuisine” but is now embraced as the “farm-to-table” movement. All discerning chefs now cook this way, with a few taking things even further with their own gardens and other local sources. Whether the cooking style is American, ethnic or some commingled version — fusion cuisine is still hot this year and could be on its way to becoming part of the standard playbook — chefs demand fine ingredients.
Here in the land of tech, one food craze of the moment reflects how entwined we’ve become with our electronic devices. Pop-up markets — those ephemeral gatherings selling unique treats — and underground dinners gather patrons via Twitter, Facebook and mobile phones, deliver a few hours of bliss, then disappear. In a similar vein is the explosion of food trucks that offer some of the most avant-garde menus around without the traditional venue.
Whatever your pleasure, there is plenty to savor among the fine examples of fashionable dining in 2012. So grab a fork and sample the South Bay food trends of the year. (See listings and links below.)
Focus on healthy eats
From the burgeoning obesity rate to Michelle Obama’s campaign to improve kids’ menus, eating healthy is getting more mindshare these days. The most compelling evidence that South Bay residents won’t flee from nutritious eats is the opening last year of LYFE Kitchen in downtown Palo Alto. The brainchild of some former McDonald’s heavyweights and celebrity chef Art Smith, who used to work for Oprah Winfrey, this first spot in a planned chain is devoted to great-tasting, good-for-you food clocking in at less than 600 calories. LYFE’s menu is large, appealing and affordable, such as “unfried chicken” served with roasted brussels sprouts, butternut squash, dried cranberries, cashew cream and Dijon vinaigrette that costs under $12 and has just 394 calories.
The unprecedented success of LYFE was followed this year by another notable opening: Asian Box, also in Palo Alto. The chef previously worked at San Francisco’s Slanted Door and delivers low-fat, low-sodium “Asian street food” that doesn’t empty the wallet, such as a build-it-yourself meal including rice or noodles, protein, sauce and toppers. With its big flavors and prodigious use of vegetables, Asian cuisine is an ideal vehicle for carrying mouth-pleasing dishes without the damaging cholesterol synonymous with standard American fare. So it’s not surprising that a handful of local Asian vegan restaurants have patrons queuing up.
It’s miraculous just how expertly these popular Asian spots can shape-shift soy protein into everything from fish to beef teriyaki. Say, in the delicious, batter-fried “soy chicken” in sweet-sour orange sauce offered at Merit Vegetarian in Sunnyvale, or the “grilled veggie salmon” available at Garden Fresh Chinese in Mountain View and Palo Alto. San Jose’s Dong Phuong Tofu gives malleable soy a Vietnamese treatment, while the fast-growing Loving Hut chain — the world’s largest family of vegan restaurants — serves mainstream items like non-meat burgers, tuna melts, fries and other favorites along with flavorful Asian choices.
Top chefs getting even better
Maybe it’s competition for high-end dining dollars from discriminating guests or just the perfectionism of our superstars, but some of the most heralded chefs have recently upped their game to new heights, garnering additional Michelin stars, other awards and blissed-out patrons. Already getting international attention, two-star Manresa in Los Gatos overhauled its dining room and was one of just two California restaurants named among the 50 best in the world for 2012 by Restaurant magazine.
Snagging another Michelin star and other recognition is Baumé in Palo Alto, which started life in early 2011 as a practitioner of molecular gastronomy but has dialed down the foams, liquid nitrogen and other pyrotechnics since then while dialing up the complexity and deliciousness. Doing likewise while adding another location in San Francisco and still holding onto the Michelin star it first earned in 2010 is Alexander’s Steakhouse in Cupertino — which is much, much more than a steak house. Yes, the beef is supreme but it’s the chef’s creative interpretations of modern Japanese food that wow the critics.
San Jose’s venerable Le Papillon hasn’t been snoozing, either. Newly revamped decor accompanies new prix fixe menus featuring multi-element plates and flawless technique. In a spicier direction, the region’s homerun king of sublime Indian food, the Amber India group, rolled out two new locations. One is named Amber Dhara, replaces Junnoon in Palo Alto and offers a new, terrific menu of creative small plates, contemporary recipes and hand-tossed tandoori breads.
Nuevo Latin taking off
This national trend has been percolating in our area, with local diners now increasingly resonating with the idea of pan-Latin creations that synthesize cuisines from Spain, Mexico, Latin America — or anyplace that speaks Spanish, basically — giving them an American twist. An early pioneer was CasCal in Mountain View, a gorgeous eatery opened in 2004 that has continued mining the Latin vein ever since. Newer entrants include hopping Joya in Palo Alto and San Jose’s Azúcar Latin Bistro and Mojito Bar; both deliver copious tapas, bold-flavored entrees and free-flowing exotic cocktails.
A handful of Latin American steak houses in Palo Alto, San Bruno and San Mateo have recently jumped on the bandwagon but the jury’s out on the staying power of beef-centric Latin cuisine. Rather, customers are resonating with Hispanic fusion food that maintains an identity, such as the modern take on Mexican cuisine served at Palacio in Los Gatos, Palo Alto’s Reposada, Casa de Cobre in Saratoga and Oaxacan cuisine specialist Mezcal in San Jose. While the latter’s menu includes a couple of esoteric choices like chapulines— sautéed grasshoppers with garlic, lime and salt — most come for the less daunting items.
Way before the Latin craze of today began, Aqui in Willow Glen was converting patrons to its singular version of Mexican-Southwestern-Californian-Asian-Whatever cuisine at reasonable prices. Now the rest of the world has caught up and Aqui has since expanded to three more South Bay locations.
Fusion continues unabated
Speaking of nuevo Latin, this is just one example of hybrid cuisines being offered to food-savvy diners who also expect chefs to meet their persnickety expectations of something new, fresh and — above all — exciting. This trend has brought us some intriguing dining spots. Zeytoun in San Jose blends the greatest hits from the Middle East and Mediterranean regions sprinkled with American preferences. Morocco’s serves up Moroccan fusion food that includes things never found in Marrakesh, like plenty of vegan, vegetarian and healthy options.
One of a kind — for now — is Redwood City’s Martin’s West Gastropub, delivering British-Scottish-Californian fusion food with a huge beer selection, wines and fancy cocktails. Demand might be slight for their “haggis on a stick” but offerings like stuffed quail and sticky toffee pudding are easily translated. Another unique fusion joint is new Naschmarkt in Campbell, which prepares modern Austrian food with a California mind set. There’s wiener schnitzel and bratwurst but also linguine with tiger prawns and wild arugula.
A particularly electrifying new entrant is All Spice, operating in a charming little San Mateo bungalow. Nominally Indian, the cuisine is ultra-creative and sophisticated, as seen in choices like lightly cured hamachi with guacamole and cucumber-tomato gelée or wild boar cooked in spices with saffron bread.
High-end Japanese cooking spots multiplying
While there will always be demand for sushi and sashimi, this is just a single category within the rich culinary environment of Japan that has kaiseki — the multi-course art form of a meal — at its apex. Regional restaurants offering this traditional, exquisite prix fixe have multiplied of late, joining the original local Michelin star holder, Kaygetsu in Menlo Park. Fortunately for foodies, when Kaygetsu’s founder retired and closed the hugely popular restaurant recently, it soon reopened as Mitsunobu with much of the same staff — and ethereal cuisine — not missing a beat.
Now there are other destinations for kaiseki, like Saratoga’s Hachi Ju Hachi, a small place with minimalist decor that is so traditional that it even makes its own salt by hand. Besides the kaiseki dinners, the menu has a la carte representatives from most of the kaiseki categories — appetizers, grilled dishes, steamed dishes, etc. — for those wishing less volume and less cost. Up the Peninsula, Wakuriya in San Mateo entirely devotes itself to nine perfect courses of stunning, traditional Japanese food, garnering its first Michelin star in the process.
While Burlingame’s Sakae Sushi Noboru doesn’t offer kaiseki, it does prepare the next best thing: an omakase dinner (“I’ll leave it to you”) in which the chef constructs a unique, multi-course feast based heavily on fish that is meant to wow patrons. Compared to the countless sushi restaurants around, this much-admired spot takes raw fish into the stratosphere, getting seldom-seen raw ingredients from Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji market.
Better comfort food
In tough times, people like to be soothed while still consuming well-executed food. All this soothing has given South Bay eaters an ongoing appreciation for hearty, rich, comforting dishes that are showing up in more ingredient-focused restaurants. Like the mac & cheese, bourbon-glazed pork belly, fried chicken, warm fudge brownie with toppings and other beloved, stick-to-the-ribs American favorites served at bustling Scratch in Mountain View. Meanwhile, Menlo Grill in the Stanford Park Hotel in Menlo Park brings on sustaining items such as mashed potatoes, biscuits and honey, hot artichoke dip and a three-cheese melt.
Taking comfort in a Continental direction is Saratoga’s The Basin, offering house-made burrata, lamb ribs, truffle fries, liver & onions and pasta, among other pleasurable choices. Meanwhile, similar contentment with a French accent is found at charming Bon Vivant in Palo Alto, a new cafe devoted to Gallic delights like brioche points, lardons, butter-fried filet mignon and duck-fat potatoes. There’s lots of food satisfaction to be had in Greece, which is the premise of the three local Opa! locations, serving skewered meats and other items featuring dulcet amounts of feta cheese and olive oil.
Finally, nobody gives comfort like a Jewish granny, which is drawing patrons to recently opened Oren’s Hummus Shop in downtown Palo Alto. Focused on comforting Israeli recipes, Oren’s serves dishes like falafels, rice bowls, kebobs and rich desserts. Eat enough beef-topped hummus, babaganush eggplant, Bavarian creams and chocolate babkas and stress just flies away.
Scott Cooper of Le Papillon is one of the progressive chefs using modern techniques.
Food science moving into the mainstream
Modern techniques like sous-vide, foaming and molecular gastronomy have rapidly evolved to the point that they are becoming part of the standard portfolio of the most skilled, ambitious chefs. These approaches won’t be visible on the menu but help deliver exciting, delicious food at top venues like Manresa, Baumé, Alexander’s Steakhouse, Le Papillon and others. To achieve meltingly tender textures, chef Scott Cooper at Le Papillon says, “If I can sous-vide it, I will,” while also using foams in memorable dishes like pistachio and foie gras soup.
David Kinch at Manresa sometimes performs sous-vide on fruit and vegetables, such as soft cucumber “noodles” that retain the fresh flavors of the raw version. For observant or inquiring diners, finding out which chefs are quietly using these advanced techniques can be taken as a sign of an enterprising, far-sighted restaurant worthy of attention. Among some local practitioners are Station 1 in Woodside, Madera in Menlo Park, and Saratoga’s Plumed Horse and Sent Sovi.
Once upon a time, such techniques defined a restaurant but this has changed radically. According to Sent Sovi’s Josiah Slone, he uses all the modern techniques, “although they are integrated into the dishes, not just for the sake of using them.” Peter Armellino of Plumed Horse takes the long view: “To compete on the national stage within the umbrella of fine dining requires you to know and help distribute the newer techniques to the new generation of cooks,” he says.
Great food; not the usual venue
The traditional restaurant no longer has a monopoly on great eats. Food trucks, underground dinners, upscale counter eateries, prepared-food vendors at farmers markets — such guerrilla dining is thriving in the South Bay and elsewhere. Plus, there’s the cachet aspect, with underground dinners and supper clubs — one-night affairs held in private homes or rented locations — not announced to the general public. Along with pop-up markets, these foodie extravaganzas are communicated via word of mouth, Twitter and the like — but applying search engine skills can help create some connections.
More accessible are the gourmet food trucks that are multiplying in our area like a chain reaction. Few cuisines — often unique fusion interpretations — aren’t represented among these cafes on wheels, with offering that range from a lobster mac & cheese sandwich to bourbon vanilla cream puffs. While popular food trucks often advertise their stops via Twitter and Facebook, regular gatherings of several food trucks are the latest craze and are being held all over the South Bay. Find out where through organizations like Off the Grid, The Mobile Gourmet, Moveable Feast and Edgewood Eats.
Farmers markets have become fab places for first-rate, ready-to-eat grub. Some of the richest offerings are at the markets in South Palo Alto, Los Gatos, Campbell and downtown Santa Cruz. Public markets are also emerging as great food magnets, like San Pedro Square Market in San Jose, which contains more than 20 vendors. This market’s star is Little Chef Counter, a “micro bistro” serving amazing dishes like duck confit, fluke sashimi and its renowned short-rib poutine — being happily mainlined by droves of foodies daily.
Where to Find It
– LYFE Kitchen, 167 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 325-5933, http://lyfekitchen.com/
– Loving Hut http://lovinghut.us/· Oakridge Mall, 925 Blossom Hill Rd., San Jose, (408) 229-2795
- 165 University Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 321-5588
- 516 Barber Lane, Milpitas, (408) 943-0250
– Merit Vegetarian, 548 Lawrence Expressway, Sunnyvale, (408) 245-8988, http://www.meritvegetarian.com/
– Garden Fresh Chinese http://www.gardenfresh.us
- 1245 W El Camino Real, Mountain View, (650) 254-1688
- 460 Ramona St., Palo Alto, (650) 462-9298
– Dong Phuong Tofu, 2359 McKee Rd., San Jose, (408) 251-6838
-Asian Box, 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, (650) 391-9305, http://asianboxpaloalto.com/
The best get better
– Le Papillon, 410 Saratoga Ave., San Jose, (408) 296-3730, http://www.lepapillon.com/
– Manresa, 320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, (408) 354-4330, http://www.manresarestaurant.com/
– Baumé, 201 South California Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 328-8899 http://www.baumerestaurant.com/
– Alexander’s Steakhouse, 10330 North Wolfe Rd., Cupertino, (408) 446-2222, http://alexanderssteakhouse.com/
– Amber Dhara, 150 University Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 329-9644, http://www.amber-india.com/Indian-Restaurant-Palo-Alto/
– Azucar, 71 East San Fernando St., San Jose, (408) 293-8482, http://www.azucarsj.com/
– Joya, 339 University Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 853-9800, http://www.joyarestaurant.com/
– CasCal, 400 Castro St., Mountain View, (650) 940-9500, http://www.cascalrestaurant.com/
– Reposada, 236 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 833-3151, http://www.reposadorestaurant.com/
– Palacio,115 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, (408) 402-5085, www.facebook.com/palaciorestaurant
– Mezcal, 25 West San Fernando St., San Jose, (408) 283-9595, http://mezcalrestaurantsj.com/
– Casa de Cobre, 14560 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, (408) 867-1639, http://casadecobre.com/
– Aqui Cal-Mex, http://www.aquicalmex.com/
- 1145 Lincoln Ave., San Jose, (408) 995-0381
- 5679 Snell Ave., San Jose, (408) 362-3456
- 201 East Campbell Ave., Campbell, (408) 374-2784
- 10630 South De Anza Blvd., Cupertino, (408) 996-1443
– Martin’s West, 831 Main St., Redwood City, (650) 366-4366, http://www.martinswestgp.com/
– Zeytoun http://www.zeytoun.com/
- 191 Metro Dr., San Jose, (408) 392-9709
- 185 Park Ave., San Jose, (408) 295-4696
– All Spice, 1602 South El Camino Real, San Mateo, (650) 627-4303, http://www.allspicerestaurant.com/
– Morocco’s http://moroccosrestaurant.com
- 86 North Market St., San Jose, (408) 998-1509
- 873 Castro St., Mountain View, (650) 968-1502
– Naschmarkt, 384 East Campbell Ave., Campbell, (408) 378-0335, http://www.naschmarkt-restaurant.com/
– Hachi Ju Hachi, 14480 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, (408) 647-2258, http://www.hachijuhachi88.com/
– Wakuriya, 115 De Anza Blvd., San Mateo, (650) 286-0410, http://www.wakuriya.com/
– Mitsunobu, 325 Sharon Park Dr., Menlo Park, (650) 234-1084, http://rmitsunobu.com/
– Sakae Sushi Noboru, 243 California Dr., Burlingame, (650) 348-4064, http://www.sakaesushi.com/
Better comfort food
– Scratch, 401 Castro St., Mountain View, (650) 237-3131, http://www.scratchmtnview.com/
– Oren’s Hummus Shop, 261 University Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 752-6942, http://www.orenshummus.com
– Menlo Grill, Stanford Park Hotel, 100 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, (650) 330-2790, http://www.menlogrill.com
– The Basin, 14572 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, (408) 867-1906, http://www.thebasin.com/
- 1384 Lincoln Ave., San Jose, (408) 998-8704
- 27 North Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, (408) 399-7417
- 325 Main St., Los Altos, (650) 209-5340
– Bon Vivant, 535 Bryant St., Palo Alto, (650) 485-3228, http://bonvivantcafe.net/
Food science expands
– Manresa (see above)
– Baumé (see above)
– Alexander’s Steakhouse (see above)
– Le Papillon (see above)
– Station 1, 2991 Woodside Rd., Woodside, (650) 851-4988, http://station1restaurant.com/
– Sent Sovi,14583 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, (408) 867-3110, http://www.sentsovi.com/
-Madera, 2825 Sand Hill Rd, Menlo Park, (650) 561-1540, http://www.maderasandhill.com/
– Plumed Horse, 14555 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, (408) 867-4711, http://www.plumedhorse.com/
Great food; new venues
– Little Chef Counter, 87 N. San Pedro St., San Jose, http://www.littlechefcounter.com
– San Pedro Square Market 87 North San Pedro St., San Jose, http://www.sanpedrosquaremarket.com/
– Food truck gatherings:
- Off the Grid, http://offthegridsf.com/weekly-markets
- The Mobile Gourmet, http://the-mobile-gourmet.com/wordpress/
- Moveable Feast, http://www.mvbl.org/
- Edgewood Eats, http://www.facebook.com/EdgewoodEats