(Published in June 2016 by South Bay Accent magazine)
Like the fungi that sprout after a rain, the South Bay’s thriving economy has procreated a swath of new restaurants in the last few years. One of the most sizzling, hands down, is Bird Dog in downtown Palo Alto, which has taken aim well above the heads of the average local dining spot. Indeed, chef/co-owner Robbie Wilson has said his goal is to elevate the level of dining sophistication in the burbs. While local restaurant owners might take issue with this concept, what’s undeniable is that Bird Dog has been lobbing home runs since it opened in November. Good luck getting a table without planning well ahead.
However, beyond question is Wilson’s cooking pedigree, which is atop virtually all his regional competitors. He trained under Michel Troisgros in France, whose three-star family is restaurant royalty. Along the way, he has worked with heavyweights like Thomas Keller, Nobu Matsuhisa and Tom Colicchio and has owned several of his own establishments, too. He was lured from a popular Santa Barbara wine country spot by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist power couple, who are investors.
Wilson’s august background is distilled in exciting, uncommon dishes with a French-Asian-California bent that mostly deliver the goods. This dare-to-be-different mindset is seen in a smallish menu featuring some raw fish starters, lavish use of vegetables both raw and cooked, along with an eclectic team of main-dish proteins including aristocratic Wagyu beef and ubiquitous pork belly along with, ironically, fried chicken thigh. But it’s darn good.
Notice is given from the outset that things will be different here as friendly servers deliver a warm, smoky, salty folded round of whole-grain roti — Indian unleavened bread — to each guest. The optimal next choice should be one of the raw fish choices. The only thing wrong with these crudo concoctions is their diminutive portions. The best of the current trio is tai snapper, paired with lime, chile, pecan and sesame oil. The textural and flavor combination makes for mouth rapture.
Perhaps due to his stint producing modern Japanese cuisine under Nobu, Wilson is a big fan of such crudo creations, which he fiddles with from time to time. During my visit, he also offered kampachi — a rich fish related to kingly Japanese hamachi but darker — doused with matcha, smoked grapefruit, serrano chile and white soy. While not quite as divine, it was still a yummy, complex dish. Some of his raw fish items error on the less-tart side in terms of the preparation so gravitate toward the choices that contain citrus.
Wilson brought just one dish with him from the Southland: wood-grilled avocado, one of those why-didn’t-I-think-of-this, simple composites that deserves its must-order status. The creamy flesh, kiss of smoke, tangy ponzu sauce and fresh wasabi are a miraculous medley.
Two salads are significantly outstanding on the starter side and are more generous, portion-wise, than the rest of the menu. Frisée and endive tossed in a lovely mustard dressing wear thin slabs of mild cheddar on top. Then there’s the heap of arugula leaves in a perfect vinaigrette, divine with creamy burrata and grilled butternut squash punctuated with the tart pop of pomegranate seeds.
Veggie lovers should continue on to the middle column of the menu to find a half dozen worthy choices. A standout is the potato terrine, layers of starch amped up with brown butter and pretty, sweet Kabocha squash puree. This is carbo love at its finest. But soft-roasted heirloom carrots are also wonderful, the vegetable’s sweetness played off nicely by tart tamarind and red curry.
As in the rest of the menu, the mains introduce new flavor concepts, which are already being rotated despite the restaurant’s short lifespan. A small, juicy Wagyu striploin is nicely cooked and paired with tart citrus accompaniments like burnt satsuma or yuzu. There’s also a Wagyu bavette steak — trendy flap meat that has deep flavor — that Wilson pairs with papaya, avocado and chile.
On the seafood side, the richness of salmon is played up by honey and chamomile with just enough lemon to create contrast. A popular poultry choice is duck breast paired with pumpkin, banana and cashew in which the rich-with-rich concept works nicely. Meanwhile, fried chicken thigh — a great choice for keeping food costs low — was earlier offered in a trio but is now just one moist, crunchy-skinned thigh that can be munched with dots of green curry on the side. The smoked uni listed on the menu wasn’t noticeable on the plate.
Desserts have been improved since opening, although the coconut tapioca still needs some work. Better is chocolate creameux, a creamy disc cozying up to rich chocolate buttermilk cake and punctuated with citrus. Also available is a nice parfait that includes layers of guava-whipped yogurt and strawberry sorbet given textural interest with pistachio.
The wine list here is impressive — and priced for the undoubtedly wealthy patrons who are loving this place. Getting past the sticker shock, the list is large and varied, containing lesser-known wines as well as superstars from Sine Qua Non, Raveneau and Coche-Dury.
Echoing the cool, understated swank of Bird Dog, the servers try to be helpful and present without overdoing it. This is a busy place so being in a hurry isn’t a wise approach but water glasses remain filled and there are enough staff members gliding around that one’s needs usually get addressed.
A handsome, tall-ceiled, noisy space that’s chic with its dramatic hand-blown light fixtures and colorful duck decoys on painted cinderblock walls, Bird Dog is definitely producing foodie buzz. The VC part-owners are also investors in the Golden State Warriors, the conquering heroes of West Coast sports. It appears their new restaurant is another top dog to add to the portfolio.
Bird Dog, 420 Ramona St., Palo Alto. (650) 656-8180. http://www.birddogpa.com
HOURS: Dinner only. Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday- Saturday, 5-11 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations strongly recommended.
PRICES: Starters: $14-18; vegetable sides, $11-14; mains, $18-31; desserts, $10-12.