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By Anita Felicelli

About this blog: I grew up in Palo Alto and now live in Mountain View with my husband, daughter and two corgis. After about a decade grappling with the law, first as a law student at UC Berkeley and then as a litigator around the Bay Area, I left ...  (More)

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Cijjo - Outstanding New Tapas Restaurant

Uploaded: Jan 24, 2014
One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to eat out less and cook more. But when I got an email from Mountain View's treasured restaurant expert Max Hauser raving about a wonderful new tapas restaurant called Cijjo (pronounced "Sy - Jo"), I decided my resolution was made to be broken. I've been a huge fan of tapas ever since I took a trip to Spain in 2001 with two girlfriends and I love the trend of small plates dining establishments on Castro Street. Cijjo is far and away the best of these tapas restaurants, and certainly the one that most captures the magic of Barcelona and other travels abroad.

Located at 246 Castro Street, Cijjo is the brainchild of four partners. They are working professionals in Silicon Valley who are motivated by a passion for travel and culinary adventure. They hope to become a destination restaurant and it looks like they are well on their way.

Two of the partners, Trisha Pham and her husband, have been working on the concept and menu ideas for two years, cooking and testing at home and trying to recreate the dishes they've tried abroad before working with the chefs to make the dishes as sophisticated as they are at present. So far, Cijjo's diverse menu truly has something for everyone, invoking the cuisine of Barcelona, Paris, Shanghai, Sao Paolo, Morocco, Peru and more.

At most restaurants, attempting to do this much fails; inevitably, the chefs are much better at certain kinds of cuisines than others. However, Cijjo's kitchen is brilliant. Helmed by Executive Chef Ira Siegel and Chef TB Lewis, the kitchen's attention to interesting details is exceptional. This is a somewhat expensive dining experience, but the reason for the expense is quickly made clear: every aspect of the menu, including the tuile cones and the fried leek shavings, are made in the kitchen.

Pham and her husband have adopted a tech entrepreneur's approach in creating and executing the Cijjo menu. For example, they are considering having a separate section of the menu be titled "beta" versus the well-tested choices of the main menu. They try to incorporate well-intentioned customer feedback when possible and are attentive to dining out as both a culinary and a social experience - the servers are friendly and good at anticipating customer needs. The interior feels like it's taken a cue from Apple's designers, featuring a lot of white by day and very modern furniture. The effect that Pham and the others are trying to achieve is "cosmopolitan." I think it is quite successful in that regard, though the accents of the palette are a little cool (blues, purples) for my tastes.

Cijjo's hard opening is not until February 21, so Pham and the others are still experimenting, moving items around the menu, changing certain elements of presentation (including utensils) and working on some new recipes. They also plan to remodel the front of the restaurant, which at present does not signal how sophisticated the menu is. Noise levels were fine while I was there, but I anticipate it will get louder as people realize how good the food is. I ate there on three occasions and each time I was pleased by the service.

To start off a meal, the Kumamoto oyster shooters ($4 each) are exquisite. The liquid part is composed of sparkling sake, yuzu sauce, and quail egg. Another good opening to a meal are the flash roasted shishito peppers ($9) sprinkled with flakes of high-quality smoked sea salt and accompanied by a mild red pepper coulis. The peppers pair beautifully with the "thyme snow ale" ($8), a cocktail invented at Cijjo and made of Ireland White Ale, thyme, muddled cucumber, and lime juice.

A clear crowd-pleaser is the Alsatian tarte flambe ($12). Topped with finely diced Applewood smoked bacon, caramelized onions and a decadent fromage blanc cheese sauce, the flour-and-water crust is a little crunchier than puff pastry. Pham's husband told me that kids love this dish. Cijjo is kid and family-friendly ? a big plus for me because I usually feel awkward bringing my toddler to local restaurants.

Currently offered only on the lunch menu, the Columbian pulled pork arepas ($10) is another stand out. The pulled pork is marinated overnight in a coffee and spice rub and then cooked slowly. It is heaped on tender corn cakes and topped with pickled onions that give the dish a sharp zesty quality.

One of the most popular items on the menu is the Spicy ahi tuna cone ($11). My friend and I loved these. The trio of tuile cones are made of Japanese red miso, baked in-house and rolled immediately. The cones are filled with tuna, wasabi, and daikon sprouts.

Another seafood standout is the Shrimp Bruschetta Romano ($11). I expected more bread, based on its name, but what I got was much better. Plump shrimp is poached in prosecco and butter and served over a flavorful tomato "vinaigrette," which is actually made of tomato and olive oil, but no vinegar.

One of my favorite dishes was the gorgeously presented and unusual South American Passion Fruit Ceviche ($12). Unlike most restaurants, Cijjo brings in fresh seafood every day and takes care not to use yesterday's fish.

Compared to some of the more creative dishes, the Sao Paolo Hanger Steak ($14) may seem more straightforward, seasoned with smoked paprika and sherry vinegar and served with a Chimichurri sauce. But it is divine.

In contrast to Spanish tapas bars, you do not need to be a meat-eater to enjoy Cijjo, though the menu is currently slanted towards adventurous palates (those inclined towards roasted bone marrow, for example). I investigated vegetarian options because my husband is vegetarian.

The Vegetarian Tower ($12) is a lovely, small stack of meaty portobello mushrooms, a red pepper confit, eggplant, squash and zucchini. It is served with a miso-flavored corn and mushroom salsa strong in umami. It's topped with lightly fried leek shavings. There is also a delectable Humboldt Fog goat cheese sandwich with quince paste and honeycomb ($9), and a wide variety of salads.

To my surprise, the chefs can make the Alsatian Tarte Flambee vegetarian upon customer request by using mushrooms instead of bacon. I'm advised this is not quite as heavenly as the bacon version, but I'm very impressed at the chef and the owner's willingness to spontaneously accommodate dietary preferences at this caliber of restaurant.

The dessert menu is not quite as unique as the tapas menu. They are solid choices with unusual flourishes. For example, I tried a Chocolate-Cointreau Mousse Torte with a subtle, elegant crust. Chef Ira Siegel advised that the crust is made of ground pistachios and black currants. Another that was quite good was the Bahamian bread pudding, includes currants, coconut milk and caramel rum sauce.

My favorite, the Louisiana Style Beignets, are relatively plain, a set of three beignets served with chocolate, caramel and fruit sauces, but my friend and I both loved them. They were pretty close to the kinds you can get at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans, but without quite as dizzying a cloud of powdered sugar.

The wine and beer list was created with the help of a sommelier and it has unusual entries, forgoing the standard California wines for exotic international labels. Every Wednesday night, Cijjo offers half off bottles of wine for those that dine-in.

There are currently three wine and beer-based "cocktails;" Cijjo does not have a liquor license and wants to focus on drinks that enhance the flavor of the food. Mission accomplished. The Cijjo Tonic ($9), made of Orange wine, Fever Tree Tonic Water, orange, rosemary and usually topped with edible flowers tasted like a faintly herbaceous gin and tonic. Quite refreshing.

To accompany the desserts, try the Neige Canadian, a crisp apple ice wine that blew my mind, or the fuller-bodied Blandy's 5 Year Old Alvada from Madeira Portugal, which called me back to a night drinking port and stargazing on a roof in Granada with my friends more than a decade ago. What sets Cijjo apart from its competitors is the evocative nature of its small plates: all of the dishes I've tried so far have had that Proustian ability to conjure fantastic culinary experiences I've had abroad, while putting a Northern California spin on them.
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Posted by Jay Park, a resident of Jackson Park,
on Jan 24, 2014 at 7:36 pm

Two *major* faults with this post.

First, you don't mention anything about the restaurant venue itself (decor, etc.). Yes, I can walk by and peek in, but I can't tell everything just by looking through the front window (things like noise levels, cleanliness, plates/utensils, etc.).

Second, and perhaps more importantly, you mention *NOTHING* about service. You can have super food, but if your service sucks, I won\'t come back a second time.

Remember, a restaurant meal is much more than the food on the plate for many patrons.

Posted by Jay Park, a resident of Jackson Park,
on Jan 24, 2014 at 7:43 pm

So I don't sound like a total ingrate, thank you for your post.

I'll hold off on visiting this restaurant until I read a more complete review and then wait 6-12 months. Many restaurants tweak their concept a bit after the first few months, and there is often high turnover in staff.

If this restaurant is really good, it will last for years. So many times I've been to a Mountain View restaurant once once, never to return again, then see it shutter later. The Workshop Burger is a prime example of a restaurant whose pathetic service destroyed any hope for it as a long-term operation.

Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jan 25, 2014 at 7:45 am

Max Hauser is a registered user.

Some background info about why I reported early and enthusiastically, both in private emails and in a January-4 Town Square posting here Web Link about Cijjo -- given that this new restaurant had barely opened. After a few early visits, I thought Cijjo showed what I'll call the 1517-Shattuck Syndrome. Also, its "small-plates" format lets diners, especially in groups or at the happy-hour bar deal, get light samples of Cijjo's fare, and a glass of beer or wine, for $10 or $20 per person, without committing the money or time for a full dinner. That itself is a winning formula, proven in many locales, but rare around here.

If you have a certain obsession with food and some experience of restaurants, it's sometimes possible to spot a real edge of talent or concept early. 43 years ago when a light, fresh take on the US French-restaurant genre opened in north Berkeley at 1517 Shattuck, offering fixed daily fare at a modest set price (which by the way is how most people eat at most restaurants in Europe), it became quickly obvious to anyone interested that the place had potential. Within 10 years that restaurant, Chez Panisse -- despite unostentatious, fresh-seasonal cooking -- got such fuss that it was as hard to "get into" as The French Laundry became 20 years later (and far cheaper). 19 years ago when David Kinch surfaced in the South Bay at a hole-in-the-wall Saratoga restaurant, I'd had enough experience to know that here was genius, well outclassing any other South-Bay high-end kitchen I'd tried -- for that matter, most in the US. I told people who were interested that he would put this region on the gastronomic map. (10 years later, the SF Chronicle independently reported "David Kinch ... has put the South Bay on the map, gastronomically.") Three years ago, Kostas Eleftheriadis took over a little restaurant with a wood-fired oven in Mountain View, and set about practicing a longtime obsession with making fiercely authentic, classic Naples pizzas. You didn't have to be from Italy (though many of his regular customers are) to appreciate the quality. Napoletana Pizzeria became the fourth current Northern-CA pizzeria accredited for authenticity by Naples's Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, and now, everyone else is trying to make Neapolitan pizzas too. (Be it noted, personnel from many later aspirant restaurants have been seen, sometimes frequently, dining at Napoletana.) I continue telling interested people about promising restaurants (among other things, this has prompted many journalistic reviews in the Peninsula and S. Bay since the 1990s).

When I first tried Cijjo just a couple of days after it opened, fellow diners noted the residual fresh-paint smell, which soon faded, and the not-yet-remodeled storefront window. I thought it was more remarkable that that most servers, though of course new to Cijjo, were clearly more experienced than average for a new Castro-St. opening, and that the kitchen was strikingly impressive and creative. I think Cijjo is noteworthy precisely _because_ of the unusual cooking quality and overall sensibilities clearly discernible even in its infancy.

Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Jan 26, 2014 at 1:17 pm

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

Jay, Cijjo has excellent service. I typically receive very good service at restaurants because I treat servers as human beings and I don't assume that my personal demands regarding a restaurant (or a blogger's post), should be the center of their universe.

Thanks Max for your comment. I agree. It's the unusual cooking quality that sets Cijjo apart. I posted this because I'm sure other foodies would like to know about this wonderful restaurant's menu before it gets so popular it is hard to get a table.

Posted by JeffM, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jan 29, 2014 at 2:57 pm

JeffM is a registered user.

Apparently Jay is so cranky that he did not actually read the review, which does cover what he says is missing and in several respects explicitly ties these matters to the fact that the hard opening is still to come.

Nicely done, Anita - with Max's abiding, expert attention and now your efforts joining the scene, we are treated to a high level of restaurant news, criticism, and insight.

Jeff Muscatine

Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Jan 30, 2014 at 8:50 am

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

Thanks for reading and for your encouraging note, Jeff.

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