A mechanical engineer by training, Hasan Yildiz has a passion for food that has led him on a quest to cook and learn. After several apprenticeships, he became the head chef at Mountain View's Vaso Azzuro, a position he held for eight years. For his first restaurant, Yildiz embraced the name La Fontaine, to honor the great 17th-century French poet and fabulist whose books he was read in nursery school.
There's much I like about the five-month old Italian-French restaurant and bar on Castro Street in Mountain View. The food is well prepared by a sure hand in the kitchen: flavorful, fresh, with ample portions at reasonable prices. Service is attentive, the wine list is adequate and a full bar never hurts.
I also like the cosmetic upgrades, which give a more refined contemporary feel than predecessors B'Zu and Zucca with new tables and chairs, hardwood floor and a viewing window into the kitchen. A long-out-of-use wood-burning oven is being restored for making pizzas. Many familiar elements remain: the extended mirrored wall, the angled bar, indoor/outdoor seating options. It's just much snazzier now.
There are, however, some front-of-the-house details that need tweaking. Details that taken independently might not be significant, but cumulatively affect the overall impression. As in so much of life, details spell the difference between ordinary and remarkable. For eating establishments, it is the difference between being regarded as someplace exceptional or as just another dining option along restaurant row.
On a recent visit, I found the bound menu was accompanied by an untidy creased sheet of paper listing the restaurant specials. That evening, there were seven specials including kunefe, which is neither Italian nor French.
First up, the grilled octopus ($11) came with asparagus spears and celery. A first-rate dish, the cephalopod was meaty, just cooked through, delicately flavored and sauced with a perfect pitch of olive oil, paprika and butter. It is easy to under or overcook octopi, leaving them rubbery and flavorless. This was perfection with a texture similar to sea scallops.
"Quatre bruschetta" ($7) were four savory takes on the classic Tuscan antipasti. The anchovy, mushroom, cheese and asparagus bruschette were mixed with the requisite chopped tomato, basil and twist of pepper. The olive oil- and garlic-rubbed toast remained crisp because the tomatoes had been well drained before assembly.
Eggplant gratin ($7.95) was olive oil-fried eggplant, tomato, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses: similar to eggplant parmigiana, but sweeter and creamier with the ricotta. I ordered the gratin as an appetizer at lunch one day. When the busboy cleared, he lifted my used fork and placed it back on the table. I doubt a clean fork would have upset the profit margin of the restaurant.
La Fontaine pappardelle ($14) was a colorful dish of pasta tossed with bacon, olive oil, garlic, arugula and cherry tomatoes, and sprinkled with Parmesan shavings. We asked to split the order between our appetizer and entree courses, and the waiter happily obliged with no additional charge.
The hunk of boneless short ribs ($23) that followed was blanketed with tomatoes and porcini mushrooms in fragrant Chianti sauce: fork-tender and flavor-packed. Unfortunately, it was served with pappardelle, the same version of pappardelle I had just finished. Made no sense. Why didn't the server alert me or suggest a substitution?
The vitello e gamberoni ($23) -- veal cutlets, prawns, butter, parsley and dry sherry was excellent. The veal was milky-tender, and the prawns were huge and perched atop the veal as a regal crown. The butter-wine sauce was a silken robe that cloaked the meat.
Leeks and rock shrimp were stuffed inside the salmon Wellington ($21.95) at lunch one day. Loved the idea but it was overcooked. The puff pastry wasn't light and flaky, but dark and doughy, and the salmon was dry. Even the moist leeks inside the Wellington were nearly dehydrated.
The one-page dessert menu was unappealingly dirty and smudged. Nonetheless, both the profiteroles and creme brulee ($7.95) were delicious. The profiteroles would slake any craving for chocolate for at least 24 hours. The creme brulee passed the spoon test. That is, the caramelized top didn't break when lightly tapped with a spoon; it required digging in to get to the creamy custard. Dinners concluded with a complimentary glass of port, an appreciated gesture.
The wine list is adequate and pairs well with the menu. Prices are sane with mostly California and Italian selections. There is happy hour with an abbreviated bar menu, and it is always pleasureful to sit outdoors in the pocket-sized patios along Castro Street.
A few fine-tunes to the front of the house, and La Fontaine will readily distinguish itself on restaurant row.
186 Castro St., Mountain View
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Mon.-Thurs. 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Fri. 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sun. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.