(Published by South Bay Accent in June, 2014)
Maybe it’s the presence of a Michelin superstar, Manresa, in their midst raising the bar. Or the South Bay’s now-humming economy. Or the fact that Los Gatans really like to eat out, apparently. But this cute town is brimming with new eateries, some of them replacing the more pedestrian dining spots that dominated Los Gatos years ago.
One of these newbie entrants is Hult’s, the namesake of former European hockey player Alexander Hult. An untimely knee injury kept the personable young Swede from skating with the San Jose Sharks but did precipitate a major career change. Now he glides around on the newly installed hardwood attending to patrons in his modern restaurant, which replaced decades of lower-end chains from Hobee’s and Bakers Square to Denny’s in this stand-alone building overlooking Highway 9.
Hult and his experienced chef, Michael Ellis, are aiming much higher than coffee shop fare and largely succeeding in delivering fresh, progressive but accessible dishes that appeal to a demanding audience. Ellis earned a Michelin star some years ago at Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg and was most recently involved in an ambitious effort to get culinary recognition for his food at a combined fancy restaurant and strip club in North Beach. Undoubtedly, this objective will be easier to achieve at Hult’s, where no topless dancers are around to take attention away from the impressive plates.
While à la carte prices at Hult’s are equivalent to similar upscale dining spots, one of the best deals in town is the “Hult’s Experience,” a three-course dinner in themes of red meat, poultry, seafood or vegetables at just $39. Naturally, there’s also a $95 tasting menu for those more flush.
Or just peruse the regular menu, starting with some delicious first courses in modest, but not miniscule portions. Still, I wished I had more of the beets and goat cheese, a colorful blend of roasted and raw beets to add textural interest with creamy cheese, crunchy walnuts, micro greens and some juicy clementine slices. More of the tuna tataki would also have been nice, too, given its properly seared exterior and creative pairing with compressed watermelon, pea shoots, toasted sesame salt and miso-passionfruit vinaigrette.
In Ellis’s hands, a simple green salad is pumped up to something special, adding blood orange pieces, fennel, sweet baby tomatoes and assertive pecorino cheese to organic greens in a well-made shallot vinaigrette. Or go lavish with lobster salad that features fresh hearts of palm, red grapefruit, avocado puree and some rice pearls along with the snowy shellfish.
As is the trend in ingredient-focused restaurants like this one, recipes are shuffled frequently to chase seasonal produce and give the chef creative opportunities. For example, a delightful earlier version of the tuna tataki involved dusting the fish with fennel and placing the seared meat on crunchy, pan-fried ramen noodles with a soy glaze and accenting these items with mustard-Sriracha aoili, lime and mango slices garnished with Thai basil.
In keeping with the owner’s homeland, one special dish that took some hard selling at first — Alex Hult passed out tastes among patrons to overcome their reluctance after it remained unordered — was a modern, reportedly delicious Swedish platter of homemade sausages and Scandinavian mainstays like creamed herring. However, this menu item might not appear very often in the future given the local attitude toward Swedish food.
There’s plenty of Italian food in town these days but Ellis’s pillowy, creamy, subtle pea agnolotti starter can give them a run. Or the full-flavor meatballs in a well-done marinara notched up with smoked mozzarella. Or cream-gushing burrata with prosciutto and spring garlic.
Main courses are also thoroughly enjoyable, demonstrating Ellis’s skill with modern techniques like sous vide. The fresh, perfectly cooked salmon had a classic French accompaniment of whole-grain mustard, while black cod wore a daring sea-urchin crust, underscoring the dish’s marine origins. However, the modernized chicken saltimbocca was the star of the non-red-meat offerings, with the juicy nuggets stuffed with prosciutto and sage — although none of the advertised truffles were evident.
On the meat side, lean pork tenderloin is amped up by being wrapped in bacon before cooking, then paired with turnips, apples and rosemary. Lamb lovers get a double treat in a plate offering juicy, flavorful roasted rack as well as long-braised shoulder. But the carnivore’s centerpiece is a Wagyu beef ribeye that shows off meltingly tender Iowa-grown meat.
Desserts are also people pleasers, starting with a bittersweet molten chocolate cake with creamy gelato and including warm apple cobbler and crême brulée. On the lighter side is poached pear with raspberry sorbet. Like all the plates at Hult’s, each dish is lovely to look at.
In keeping with the food quality and prices, Hult’s delivers little extras like introductory amuse bouche and — intermittently — after-dinner chocolates. Happily, there’s a pleasing amount of space between tables in this clean, contemporary restaurant, which features a wrap-around bar in the center that helps create two dining areas. The more pleasant, quieter choice would be the front section with its wall of wine bottles and windows looking out on the street.
Sometimes, Alex Hult’s wife joins him as he roams the restaurant, checking in with patrons. San Jose-raised Sarah Chapman Hult is a former model and beauty pageant contestant who shares her husband’s good looks, warm personality and lack of attitude. The couple’s goal for their restaurant is to stand out from the typically laid-back approach to service found in Los Gatos by hiring particularly friendly servers, who start things off with hot towels and smiles. Unfortunately, the pair’s aspirations sometimes conflict with a kitchen that has too-frequent backups, making guests wait an inordinately long time for their food.
However, this will likely change. In his hockey days, Alex Hult was known for his work ethic and ability on offense. These skills will help his new restaurant make a long score among the many new dining enticements in town.
Hult’s Restaurant, 165 Los Gatos-Saratoga Rd., Los Gatos; (408) 354-3434; http://www.hultsrestaurant.com.
HOURS: Dinner, Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10; Friday-Saturday, 5-midnight; Sunday, 5-9. Weekend brunch, 10-1:30. Reservations suggested.
PRICES: First courses, $9-24; main courses, $27-59; desserts, $9. Fixed-price dinners, $39-95.