(Published by South Bay Accent in August, 2013.)
Too many restaurants these days call themselves “farm to table” — which should mean focused on super-fresh local ingredients — but the dozen-plus spots in the upscale Lark Creek Group come by it honestly. The chain was co-founded in 1988 by notable chef Bradley Ogden before this term was invented to celebrate “seasonal, farm-fresh American fare.” Years — and many restaurants — later, nothing has changed. That’s why one of the newest spots, Lark Creek Blue in Santana Row, makes sure its seafood complies with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sustainability requirements while getting many of its ingredients from small family farms.
Opened during the summer of 2012, Lark Creek Blue replaced Yankee Pier, a spiffed-up chowder house that is also in the chain. This new seafood venture has a more sophisticated look, a mostly different menu and a better vibe for the thriving Row with its throngs of parading South Bay residents. Those looking for dinner with entertainment — non-stop people watching — won’t find a better spot than the Row. However, there’s a price for this on a Saturday night: long waits for your table, slow service and forgotten elements on the plate.
The long raw bar that now takes up one side of the interior offers the usual items — oysters, shrimp cocktail — including some vibrant iterations, like an outstanding tuna tartare featuring buttery tombo tuna. Chopped with flavorful additions such as horseradish, shallots and soy, it’s paired with a smear of sesame aioli, although the kitchen forgot to include the cashew crackers.
Also missing was the promised basil pesto and pine nuts on the pulled mozzarella starter. Mozzarella bars celebrating the creamy, irresistible version of this Italian cheese rather than the rubbery, plastic-wrapped supermarket kind are a new fad and this is Lark Creek Blue’s nod to the trend. Even without some of its parts, it was lush and tasty with sauteed squash and a few nicely salty olives.
Less successful was the under-dressed caesar salad, which was skimpy and included just a couple of tasteless croutons. A better choice would have been fried calamari with a flavorful addition of fennel and green onions or a remarkable layered goat cheese tart with seams of caramelized red onions and beets along with the smooth, slightly tart cheese. Chowder, a soup and more salads are also on the menu.
The absent starter ingredients were quickly forgotten after tucking into the magnificent miso-glazed local halibut entree. Perfectly cooked, the snowy flesh dovetailed perfectly with stir-fried shitake mushrooms, prawns and softened spinach along with puckery pickled ginger and an umami-rich miso broth. The kitchen also did a masterful job on pan-roasted local petrale sole whose delicacy was enhanced by capers and parsley while a mound of shoestring fries provided rib-sticking substance.
Other seafood standouts are half a roasted Maine lobster paired with spaghetti with an “arrabiata” tomato sauce whose heat is supplied by Calabrese chiles, as well as a nicely done blackened catfish with dirty rice and braised greens. The menu also contains pan-seared sockeye salmon and a hearty shellfish gumbo.
Despite the seafood focus, there’s a lot beyond fish on the menu, like roast chicken with macaroni and cheese, a buttery vegetable risotto with half veggies and half rice, and several high-quality steaks. These are mostly on the large side, such as a juicy, 10-ounce flat iron steak that, like all these meat items, comes with a choice of side dish and sauce.
These sides were a bit underwhelming, alas. Bland macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach are ordinary, while sauteed broccolini should have been punched up with some lemon or chiles. However, all the ingredients throughout our meal were obviously fresh and respectfully treated.
Highlighting a generous list of desserts is the “famous” butterscotch pudding that the chain has long been known for. It really is quite divine. Seasonal crisps are always available and the strawberry-rhubarb we tried was nice but a bit too tart. However, we happily fought over the chocolate semifreddo — like a high-end fudgesicle — with candied nuts and chocolate sauce.
Although Bradley Ogden is co-founder and his fresh, American food oeuvre is clearly still a driving force, he isn’t very involved these days in menu development. Nevertheless, the chain — other local representatives include Parcel 104 in Santa Clara — is putting effort into maintaining quality standards, having replaced the opening chef of Lark Creek Blue when his food didn’t measure up.
The servers during our evening were friendly if a bit overwhelmed with the weekend mob, which was the usual San Jose parade of often-sloppily-dressed humanity. We sat at one of the sidewalk tables with the best views of the intense people scene but our heater went cold and wasn’t refueled for awhile on this chilly evening.
We looked longingly at a prime, always-occupied table behind a glass wall in front of the restaurant that seemed to have its own quiet alcove. For those who like to check out the peeps at the Row, this has to be the primo seat from which to nibble good if somewhat pricey seafood and ogle the South Bay’s diverse masses.
Lark Creek Blue, 378 Santana Row, San Jose, (408) 244-1244; www.larkcreekblue.com
HOURS: Lunch weekdays 11:30-5. Dinner Sunday-Thursday, 5-9; Friday-Saturday, 5-10. Reservations recommended.
PRICES: Raw bar appetizers: $16.60-37; starters: $7.50-12.75; entrees: $17-43; desserts: $7-8.