(Published by South Bay Accent in June, 2015.)
Second acts can sometimes outshine their predecessor. Steve Jobs, Jimmy Carter, Michael Milken — these are just a few people who had remarkable comebacks after failures (or felonies). Deeply talented local chef Jeffrey Stout has also had a worthy rebound, with the result pleasing the tummies of South Bay food lovers.
The founding chef of Alexander’s Steakhouse, Stout helmed the pricey, white-tablecloth restaurant through growth (a sister location in San Francisco) for eight years until being dismissed in 2012. He was vindicated when the restaurant then lost its Michelin star, with further sweet revenge coming in the form of Stout’s new place, Orchard City Kitchen — nicknamed OCK — in Campbell’s Pruneyard, which has been an unqualified hit since it opened in late 2014.
OCK is the anti-Alexander’s in that it’s “very casual, very at ease,” as Stout describes it, with a mostly small-plates menu, kick-back, rustic decor and prices that don’t bust your credit limit. But the breezy concept decidedly doesn’t include Stout’s cuisine, which is even more inventive than the sophisticated fare he delivered at his former digs.
Inspired by whatever’s in season, the menu is constantly rotating, with a particular emphasis on seafood and veggies (although a juice-dripping New York steak for $50 is available). Stout’s famed hamachi shots from Alexander’s here lighten up the portion of pricey raw protein while still showing off the luscious ponzu sauce while also featuring thin radish slices, herbs, avocado and the clever addition of herb pesto.
Beyond fabulous are seared scallops, whose accompaniments vary but are always divine. Our version had magnificently cooked baby artichokes with a whisper of black garlic mayonnaise, delivering soft bites of shellfish with multi-textured veggie. Double yum! Bite-sized mounds of seared tuna with eggplant caponata, curry oil and truffle crema were also worth fighting over.
Grilled octopus seems to be in vogue but OCK eliminates any chance of rubberiness by including shreds of tender meat in an impressive tomato sauce wrapped around toothy strands of bucatini. Alas, the finger lime pearls were only included on the menu rather than in the dish. Missing nothing — including flavor — was “beets & butterfish,” showing off roasted beet chunks in a horseradish dressing with lovely smoked black cod.
OCK’s grazing menu encourages experimental ordering and plate sharing — accommodated by a pile of extra plates and serving spoons on each wooden table. Too wonderful to share was phenomenal grilled asparagus in shitake dressing, smoky and with perfect textural changes between the inner and outer stalks.
Stout’s preparations borrow from various cuisines, emerging subtle but delicious, honoring the fine ingredients included. He goes faintly Latin in dishes like root vegetable slaw with queso fresco, a bit French in a superb steak tartare, and Asian in several dishes — for example, lobster dumplings with chili oil.
Far from delivering the ubiquitous choices found at too many eateries, he marches to a different drummer, even in standard items like macaroni and cheese and the burger. The former uses artisan sharp cheddar and has a hunk of barbequed brisket on top while the latter is first class, from the grilled onions and rosemary fries to the house-made pickles.
One of the fun things about OCK is how Stout’s team tweaks and remakes dishes, like the previously mentioned seared scallops. Patrons were swooning over an earlier poultry creation — Korean fried chicken with peppers and hot paste — which has evolved to jerk-fried chicken in which Jamaican spicing replaces Korean.
Among the few big plates are the 12-ounce steak, grilled mahimahi with Mexican flavors and a popular, supremely tasty salmon entree in which first-rate fish is gussied up with refreshing Greek tzatziki, a melange of yogurt, cucumber and dill. But assume appealing new offerings will roll out regularly to keep guests coming back for new experiences.
The dessert list combines the homey with the creative. Comfort food is represented in soft-serve ice cream in changing flavors like banana and mint that are turned into lavishly luscious sundaes. Meanwhile, Stout’s chocolate-coffee pie is sophisticated, pairing creamy chocolate filling with crunchy coffee granita, whipped cream and a refreshing dab of orange puree.
OCK captures the zeitgeist with its small plates, lower prices (although the menu is so tempting that the tally can soar), t-shirted patrons, simple decor — and often overwhelming noise level. Escape to a table in the bar end of this spacious former Hobee’s or flee to the soon-to-open patio for relief.
The laid-back leitmotif is also seen in the casually dressed young servers, who are as pleasant and approachable as the food. The fancy duds, expense-account dining and snooty attitudes of Stout’s former spot are an old chapter now happily rewritten in delicious new ink.
Orchard City Kitchen, The Pruneyard, 1875 S. Bascom Ave., Campbell, (408) 340-5285; http://www.orchardcitykitchen.com
HOURS: Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30-2. Dinner,Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30-9:30; Monday & Sunday, 5:30-8:30. Reservations strongly recommended.
PRICES: Small plates: $8-16; larger plates: $24-50; desserts: $6.