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September 17, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, September 17, 2004

Mama is in Silan's kitchen Mama is in Silan's kitchen (September 17, 2004)

Homemade cooking at Italian eatery

By Aimee M. Male

A family restaurant honoring the spirit of "Cucina Mama," Silan shines brightest when it focuses on the basics, like its homemade bread.

Each guest is greeted with a pre-cut round, wafting an intoxicating perfume of fresh yeast and smoke. I was lucky to get a loaf straight from the wood-fired oven and every piece of bread was dusted with ash and browned warmly along its crusty edges. Dipping a piece into the accompanying dish of roasted garlic and olive oil, I almost considered skipping dinner altogether.

Owner Ismail Unlu and Executive Chef Ramon Bernal have created a menu that draws inspiration from homemade, rustic dishes cooked with fresh ingredients -- like an Italian mama would make. In addition to the bread, pizzas and calzones made by hand, Chef Bernal and his team make many of the desserts, including tiramisu and cheesecake, from scratch.

"It's homemade cooking...that's my cooking style. That's where I came from," Unlu said.

While Mama's cuisine isn't perfect, it is earnest and wholesome. There is definitely something for everyone -- even a child's menu, which doubles as a list of side dishes for adults. Entrée options read like a hit list of Italian standards, ranging from some curious offerings such as lasagna with "pink sauce" to the more traditional eggplant parmesan with penne pasta.

Unlu's oasis in Los Altos transports one from downtown First Street to a mythical -- if not at times theatrical -- Italy. Terra cotta lion heads roar alongside water-bearing nymphs and antique lanterns. Thick braids of garlic hang from the ceiling. Every flat surface is painted in Tuscan twilight tones.

A heart-wrenching aria filters down among dining room conversation; thankfully the waiters aren't expected to affect an Italian accent.

Silan (SHEE-lan) is a Kurdish word that means "rose hips" in Unlu's native tongue. He was just eight years old when he left his home to travel to Istanbul to work in restaurants. As a young man Unlu moved first to England then on to America, where his love for food led to a series of restaurant ventures.

Unlu's knowledge and passion for Italian cuisine baffled many of his business partners, he said. But it was only after years of cooking that he noticed the parallels between Italian food and his own Kurdish cuisine.

"Where I grew up, our neighbors made homemade pasta ... and dishes that were like risotto, only with grains, such as barley, and cooked in a clay pot overnight," he said. "I figured out the connections later."

A true Silicon Valley food entrepreneur, Unlu also owns La Scala in Burlingame and Café Silan in Menlo Park, which specializes in Kurdish cuisine.

Unlu said he plans to renovate La Scala, now celebrating its 15th year in business, to better appeal to the cosmopolitan spirit of the growing downtown Burlingame area. Now five years old, Silan in Los Altos occupies the same spot where the Black Forest Inn, a German restaurant with a loyal local following, did business for decades.

"I like changes, I like innovation. If you don't love (the business), you can't run four or five places at once," Unlu said.

Silan's salads are bountiful and a meal in themselves. A kind waitress talked me out of ordering the insalata gamberi ($9.95) as a "small" starter for lunch. I watched (with both envy, and relief) as a diner at another table was presented with an enormous plate of tossed baby greens piled high with gorgonzola and toasted almonds, ringed with plump grilled shrimp.

On a dinner visit my friend and I wisely split the insalata Silan ($5.95), a tangy mix of spring greens and more gorgonzola. Thin slices of apples gave the salad crunch, but a heavy toss of citrus dressing wilted some of the more tender lettuce.

An appetizer plate of carpaccio ($6.75) served with a mound of arugula and a scattering of capers and grated Parmesan, begged for a squeeze of lemon to lend it a little flair.

Service at Silan alternates between efficient American and languid Mediterranean. At dinner the young waiter was attentive -- I had to giggle as I caught him bouncing on tiptoe a few tables away to see if we had finished our salads. Yet during a lunch when outside temperatures were soaring past 95 degrees, I had to ask the waitress twice for ice water before it was brought to the table, and only after I had ordered my meal.

Although the menu is organized in the Italian style, which encourages a beginning pasta course and a second entree course, portions are sufficiently generous and ordering one dish is more than enough for any hungry guest.

Cheese lovers will revel in Silan's wood-fired mozzarella pizza ($10.95). A substantial pie, the chewy crust was piled thick with cheese, chunks of tomato and fresh basil. After three slices I was stuffed, and made a mental note: next time, share.

A plate of linguine with clams ($14.95) shone in its simplicity. The clams were fresh and tender, the garlic pungent but not intimidating, and the thin ribbons of pasta light but just a few teeth past al dente.

Veal sautéed with artichoke hearts, fresh tomatoes and black olives ($16.95) was a hit, cooked fork-tender. The three cutlets were covered with a butter-rich pan sauce that begged to be sopped up with the remaining homemade bread.

I pushed to the side of my plate, however, a large pile of under-roasted potatoes with rosemary along with a sloppy mound of over-salted sautéed spinach and tomatoes.

Silan offers an extensive dessert and aperitif menu, with a number of traditional Italian liqueurs such as limoncello (a lemon-flavored liqueur), vin santo (a sweet dessert wine) and grappa (an Italian brandy).

Hazelnut biscotti ($5.75) cookies were fragrant and finger-sized, just perfect for soaking in a sweet wine such as the house vin santo. A poached pear in port wine ($7) was refreshing, richly perfumed with cloves and cinnamon and paired with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream and sliced strawberries.

Silan is open for lunch and dinner, and is available for private parties with advance notice. In October, the restaurant plans to offer a seafood brunch on weekends, and will change its operating hours accordingly.

Dining Notes

376 First St., Los Altos
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. for lunch, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. for dinner.
Sunday for dinner only, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.

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