(Published by South Bay Accent in April, 2014.)
(NOTE: This restaurant has just closed.)
A steakhouse patron from the ’70s transported via time machine to a modern-day equivalent would barely recognize the place except for the masculine, clubby atmosphere. Back when Watergate and pet rocks made their debuts, these temples of beef mainly featured mediocre grilled steaks, a salad bar and baked spuds with trimmings.
Today, at stellar beef specialists like Palo Alto Grill, even vegetarians will find epic comestibles. In fact, chef Ryan Shelton’s cuisine is so modern, inventive and euphoric that it easily holds its own against non-steakhouse high-end restaurants in the region.
This isn’t a big surprise given Shelton’s previous gigs as chef de cuisine at local Michelin two-star Baumé and executive chef at — sadly — short-lived Le Cigare Volant in Santa Cruz. Opened in April of 2013, the Grill replaced — after a thorough overhaul — the former Miyake sushi spot, a noisy fave of 20-somethings seeking a sake buzz and mediocre food.
The only buzz these days is among foodies who are discovering Shelton’s large, alluring menu. The pleasures start with exciting salads, raw dishes and killer small plates, segue into serious, dry-aged steaks, divine non-steak entrees and a handful of Croation dishes (a holdover from nearby, now-closed Lavanda, whose Croation owner opened Palo Alto Grill), then complete the delicious circle with subtle, wonderful desserts.
You know you’re in for something special as soon as the bread basket arrives. Three house-made choices include a majestic epi pretzel bread with all inclusions paired with a crock of creamy mustard cheese spread. It’s all so darn good that it’s hard to stop munching. But practice self control so there’s space for the rest of the menu.
Shelton adds creative touches to classics like chopped salad — rows of colorful ingredients mixed tableside — and caesar, whose wedges of romaine are swaddled by a lush green goddess dressing. But the biggest wow factor shows up in intricate, occasional offerings such as his “Autumn Salad of Raked Leaves” featuring dehydrated vegetables resembling leaves topping a melange of lettuce, butternut squash, pear and pomegranate seeds in an airy vinaigrette. Or a beet salad dusted with powdered goat cheese to resemble a snow bank. Or a fresh, piquant ceviche encased in a frozen shell made from coconut milk.
One dish that particularly displays Shelton’s prolific, painstakingly constructed creations — his menu is decidedly in “can’t-do-this-at-home” territory — was designed to look like a Japanese watercolor, including edible calligraphy. Featuring pristine raw yellowtail on a square white plate, this starter includes “lotus blossoms” made from herb flowers, plum slices and swaths of plum vinegar, crispy rice pearls standing in for water bubbles and touches of basil oil and horseradish cream for flavor and more color. Besides being beyond gorgeous, the dish tastes wonderful.
There are so many beguiling early courses, including some amazing side dishes like much-ordered fried Brussels sprouts steeped in apple juice and brown sugar, that a memorable meal actually can go no further. But this report would be remiss by skipping over the rest of the menu, particularly the cow items that define this cutting-edge steakhouse.
Shelton changes up his treatments frequently but fine cuts such as strip loin, rib-eye and filet mignon make appearances, along with a less-costly, less-enormous offering like flat-iron steak or hanger steak that come with some of the most remarkable, triple-cooked fries on planet Earth. The monster on the current menu is a 17-ounce, dry-aged bone-in rib chop with Asian glaze clocking in at $49 and don’t-ask cholesterol levels.
The kitchen wields magic in the pot pies that cycle through the menu and show off a fabulous, glossy crust. Painstakingly made from impeccable ingredients pre-cooked separately to achieve perfection, the latest iterations feature squash and lobster with peas and herbs as well as a swoony vegetable bisque pie.
After seeing such a deft hand in the warm-up seafood items, guests can expect delight in entrees like a sophisticated cioppino dense with Dungeness crab and other sea creatures, or super-moist, olive-oil poached halibut with the perfect accompaniments of olive, tomato and saffron rice.
With the abundance of irresistible entree choices, one would think that the handful of Croatian specialties would languish but these protein-heavy items seem to have a definite fan club. On the insiders list is Cevapcici with Ajvar, spiced, grilled, mixed-meat mini-kebabs served with a sauce of eggplant, red pepper and garlic with some heat.
Throughout a typical self-indulgent repast at the Grill, servers competently whisk dishes to and fro while demonstrating knowledge of the menu and friendly attitudes. Not being pushy, they won’t deliver instructions to save room for dessert, but perhaps they should. Pastry chef Yoomi Shelton, Ryan’s wife, thrills with choices like layers of bittersweet chocolate sponge cake spread with chocolate mousse topped with powdered peanuts and citrus caramel.
Her fruit tarts are petite, big-flavored and pretty while her fluffy brioche beignets outscore other mini-donut-type desserts elsewhere and come with macerated strawberries and frothy strawberry milk. Even the plate of petit fours is masterful, with macarons better than any bakery and tiny delights such as three-chocolate sea salt cookies. Yum!
Palo Alto Grill, 140 University Ave., Palo Alto; (650) 321-3514; http://www.paloaltogrill.com
HOURS: Lunch weekdays, 11:30-2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.; Sunday, 5-9 p.m. Reservations suggested.
PRICES: Soups, salads, raw: $10-16; small plates: $7-14; sides: $5-7; entrees: $16-49; desserts: $7-11.