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December 31, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, December 31, 2004

The classic food of a warm lodge The classic food of a warm lodge (December 31, 2004)

Reminders of rustic living at Los Altos Grill

By Diana Reynolds Roome

The aroma of wood-fired rotisserie and the warm wood interior make the Los Altos Grill an atmospheric place to eat on a cool winter day. Reminiscent of a classic lodge in one of America's great open spaces, the wide interior of the restaurant houses a U-shaped bar in the center, with a low, beamed ceiling and unobtrusive flat-screen TVs suspended from it.

The Los Altos Grill changed its name from Bandera a year ago, though it is still part of the same small chain based in Beverly Hills. The menu hasn't been markedly altered although the restaurant is now open for lunch.

The bar offers a full menu, with the advantage of slightly faster food service, as well as an extensive list of 80 wines by the bottle and 25 by the glass. The emphasis is on California's main wine regions, which are well represented, though the offerings include some distinctive wines from other countries, such as France and Chile.

For those who prefer to bring their own wine, there is no corkage charge; the Los Altos Grill believes that if people want to drink something the bar doesn't provide, they should be able to indulge their individual preferences.

Classic cocktails, such as martinis and Manhattans, are done well here. Margaritas are hand-shaken, but there's no blender for pina coladas and other frozen drinks, and this is not a bar to put to the test with outlandish requests. Though there's less emphasis on beer, the five on tap and three bottled beers represent a carefully considered range of tastes.

For larger parties or more leisurely eating, shallow steps lead up to booths with red stuffed banquettes around the perimeter. The rustic decor is carried into the details, from the old-fashioned milk-bottle style water jugs and tumblers, to the weighty flatware and steak knives, which are even used for fish.

The seats, while comfortable to lean back on for conversation, are less easy when dining -- as they seem built for a Paul Bunyan -- while adults in the five-foot range almost need a booster seat. The ambience is intimate, or at least confidential, and at night the lighting is so low it can be challenging to see what's on the plate in front of you.

The menu here is founded on classic cuts of beef (steak, prime rib, hamburger), chicken, and lamb. However, the dinner specials on the night I visited included fluke (a type of flounder), a blackened yellowtail and one special seafood starter, manila clams with a hot Italian sausage -- all at market prices. The chef buys fresh fish six days a week and tries to find unusual catches, which lend a spirit of adventure to the menu. Barbecued salmon ($21), brushed with a sweetish teriyaki-based sauce, is a standard menu item.

My dining companion and I made our choices while sharing a dish of chunky guacamole ($10) with a barely perceptible accent of chili, and tortilla chips. The grilled artichoke ($8) with remoulade was the star of the starters, tender inside but lightly charred outside, bringing out a distinctive nutty flavor that the more usual steaming doesn't evoke.

More filling is the warm cornbread ($3) that rises invitingly from its iron skillet with a crisp crust curling over the edge. Studded with pieces of whole corn and green jalapenos, it could feed four as a starter or side, though it's light enough to keep eating or to take home for later. It also warms up well in the microwave and is available to go.

After that, the roasted chicken ($15), which arrived in what looked like a large white soup bowl, seemed bland. Though acceptable (the menu states that chickens come from Foster Farms), it wasn't the perfect ideal of roast chicken that I carry from childhood memory, with crisp skin and meltingly tender flesh. And it did not have as much flavor as some gourmet supermarket spit-roasted chickens-to-go. The rice accompanying it was pleasant, with specks of spinach and a hint of cumin. But the most interesting side was the colcannon potatoes that came with the salmon. They were mashed with cabbage and scallions and resembled a refined version of the British bubble-and-squeak I grew up with.

The prime rib steak au jus ($16) was just as it should be, cooked according to the requested medium rare, with a creamy smooth horseradish sauce whose bite was distinct but not overwhelming. Each dish arrived with a vegetable side.

Vegetables take center stage in the Season's Vegetable Platter ($12), which makes an excellent lunch dish, especially because it includes half of the signature wood-fired artichoke. An unusual combination of grilled red and yellow peppers, red cabbage with goat cheese, spinach (gritty but bright green) and a chilled salad of cauliflower with red onion and zucchini kept the palate pleasantly surprised.

Also on the lunch menu are a lamb sandwich ($12) generously stuffed with tender thin-sliced roast leg of lamb and arugula on French bread, and a cheeseburger ($8) that tasted just-ground (all meats are cut in-house), though the bland iceberg lettuce wasn't helped much by the mustard on the sesame bun. Both dishes came with shoestring hand-cut fries.

Desserts are perfunctory, and the two listed on the menu sound more to the taste of kids than well-fed adults. However, we did try the banana cream pie ($8) and it was surprisingly good. A buttery oatmeal crust and chunks of chocolate lurking beneath the custard gave it an element of luxury, while slices of freshly cut banana paraded around the edge. In future visits, I would ask about dessert specials, which the restaurant has started doing more often recently.

Service was polished and helpful, with frequent but unobtrusive visits to check on us, fill water glasses and whisk away crumbs or unwanted plates. It remained as attentive at our departure, when no less than three staff members bid us adieu, as it had been on arrival.

Dining Notes

Los Altos Grill 233 3rd Street, Los Altos 948-3524, www.houstons.com
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a .m.-10:00 p.m.; Sunday, 12:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m.


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