(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in December, 2018.)
Sleepy Los Altos with its affluent citizenry and cute-as-a-button downtown has long beckoned restaurateurs but the surprising failure rate over the years seems out of line considering the potential. Fortunately for South Bay diners, this didn’t deter Andrew Welch, whose modern reinvention of his venerable The Basin in nearby Saratoga has been triumphant on tree-studded State Street. Opened in 2017, Asa, named for his baby son, is perennially packed, firmly occupying the happy role of the hottest restaurant in Los Altos.
While the soaring, contemporary architecture of this sliver of a dining spot sets it apart from the conventional suburban buildings nearby, Welch didn’t stray too far from the winning formula that has made The Basin a hit since its opening in 1999. At Asa, the people-pleasing cuisine with strong Spanish and Italian influences at The Basin remains, but notched up and modernized by executive chef Steven Vu, who has long run The Basin’s kitchen.
The succulent McFarland Springs trout, velvety Iberian ham, luscious pastas, paella, juicy clams and some other mainstays from The Basin’s menu have been given new treatments at Asa. Also transported is enthusiastic, attentive, thoughtful service. Hardly an absentee owner, Welch is on hand, as always, to greet guests and keep a sharp eye on the floor. If diners don’t like a dish, it’s often removed from the tab in this customer-focused establishment.
But nobody is sending back the brilliantly conceived vegetarian paella starter, which has the heavenly broth of traditional paella but with a crusty small sphere of rice and veggies in a whisper-light iteration. A seafood version with miniscule pieces of chorizo and three little shrimp is also popular, but like most of the starters, it’s served in very wee portions. Meanwhile, an Asa original, roasted leek “marrow,” replaces the oily beef rendition with an inspired combo of sweet leeks, almonds and fruity balsamic with a silky, guilt-free texture.
The Basin’s popular anchovy toast can be had here as lobster toast, with the shellfish enhanced by a creamy, slightly piquant sauce spread onto brioche, although “anchovy bread” is available and beckons to serious Italian food nuts who swoon over this assertive little fish. Don’t miss the raw offerings, including briny oysters and a revolving crudo creation that might feature scallops, hamachi or another pristine meat from the sea.
Given the dozen-plus starter options and their mini portions, light-eating diners might consider a tapas approach to get a good taste of Asa, but those who seek more generous servings and alluring additional choices should proceed to the entrees. The Basin’s simple, not-very-spicy Arrabiata pasta is done here, as is an extremely popular mélange of eight wild mushrooms bathed in a creamy sauce with seductive hints of garlic wrapped around house-made fettucine.
Guests love the pork belly, in which two small pieces are dry rubbed, braised and accompanied by fennel puree and apricot chutney. Asa has double the fun of The Basin’s duck breast by the addition of a scrumptious confit leg, while the roasted chicken remains juicy on both menus. Asa offers a takeoff on bouillabaisse with an ethereal broth, potatoes and tomatoes poured over the fish of the day (it’s often halibut) with a couple of Gulf shrimp.
Perfectly seared large scallops are an excellent choice, accompanied by seasonal risotto and amped up with crispy shallots. But deeply hungry diners will want to pick the steak offering, which is often a mammoth, 20-plus-ounce New York steak crowned with melted butter or is sometimes a filling Wellington. However, the $59 tab for a steak preparation might reduce one’s appetite.
One of Welch’s many accomplishments is introducing the South Bay to the magnificent pink McFarland Springs rainbow trout from a sustainable farm in far northeastern California. Sumptuous and flavorful, it’s been a signature dish at The Basin and is given royal treatment at Asa as well. This lighter choice will leave room for dessert, with the star being one of the chef’s “adult” ice creams, which are infused with booze like rum or bourbon and are quite yummy. A dieter’s alternative is outstanding salted chocolate sorbet with big flavors and no dairy.
Asa is decidedly not a bargain restaurant but given the consistent crowds, few guests seem to care — about the sizeable prices or the decibel level as sounds bounce off all the hard surfaces in this industrial-chic dining spot. There’s a bit less noise at the tables set up outside on the wide sidewalk, with Asa’s retractable glass front expanding the restaurant’s somewhat petite dining area while still connecting patrons with the excitement within. Or if sound levels aren’t an issue, a prime table is in the back of the house near the bar by the wall of glass that separates the active kitchen from the rest of the room.
The upscale cocktails, satisfying cuisine, nurturing service and overall energy apparent in this popular newcomer seem destined to give Asa the same longevity as its older brother in Saratoga. Perhaps establishing an eventual family dynasty was what Welch had in mind when naming his new spot after his toddler son.
Asa, 242 State St., Los Altos; (650) 935-2372. http://www.asalosaltos.com
HOURS: 5-10, Monday -Thursday; 4:30-11, Friday-Saturday. Reservations strongly recommended.
PRICES: Starters: $8-26; salads: $9-13; entrees: $18-59.