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July 22, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, July 22, 2005

A twist on an old favorite A twist on an old favorite (July 22, 2005)

Allied Arts Guild Restaurant sports a new menu but still features signature dishes

By Mandy Erickson

I tempted fate one afternoon and showed up at the Allied Arts Guild Restaurant without a reservation. I lost my bet: It was 12:30 and no seating was available until 1 p.m.

I wandered the guild's three and a half acres, waiting for both a table and a late-arriving friend, and realized that luck really had been on my side. Stone paths led me to various corners of the guild's splendid grounds, where I discovered artists' cottages, formal gardens with fountains and neatly trimmed hedges and rows of carefree daylilies.

The restaurant, which operates inside a Mission-style building at the center of the property, reopened in October after a two-year renovation. It first opened in 1932, when members of the Palo Alto Auxiliary began serving 75-cent lunches to raise money for children whose families couldn't afford medical care.

Auxiliary volunteers still staff the kitchen and dining room and the proceeds benefit indigent children at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. Volunteers like to take the weekend off, so on Saturdays the restaurant is run by a caterer, Stephanie Hill.

Each workweek, the hired head chef, Mark Frias, designs a new menu. Frias said he likes to introduce new dishes, but the regular patrons jones for cold cucumber soup, Hershey bar cake and other favorites, so he frequently includes them on the menu.

The $16 three-course lunch includes a choice of one of two appetizers and one of two entrees, plus dessert and a beverage: coffee, tea (iced or hot), lemonade or milk. Sodas are extra.

Two choices of lighter lunches -- sandwiches, salad and soups -- are also available for $9. With the one-course lunches, beverages cost $1.50, desserts $4.

The week of my first visit, the restaurant was serving a fruit and green salad and shrimp bisque for appetizers. The shrimp bisque, a creamy tomato soup with fresh, whole shrimp, had a nice balance of flavors and a soothing texture.

The salad consisted of melons, strawberries and grapes atop a bed of young greens. Throwing so much sugary fruit into a green salad calls for an acidic dressing to stem the sweetness. This dressing, unfortunately, was a sweet poppy-seed vinaigrette, which rendered the salad overly saccharine.

The salmon pie, however, was a success. A dish like this one, which calls for baking fish that has already been cooked, often turns out dry, but Frias' was quite moist, with a salmon flavor that wasn't at all fishy and a crisp buttery crust. The pie was served with a dollop of cucumber sauce; made of mayonnaise and sour cream, it could have used more kick to wake up the mild pie.

The Greek chicken salad was a classic Greek salad -- lettuce with cucumbers, tomatoes and artichoke hearts in a vinaigrette -- but with chunks of grilled chicken breast instead of feta. The dressing on this salad was well-balanced, though the chicken was slightly overcooked.

Dessert that day was Hershey bar cake, a square of classic chocolate cake topped with whipped cream. Made with melted Hershey bars and chocolate syrup, it was moist and tasted as if it had just arrived from the oven.

The servers at Allied Arts were as gracious as they come. When our credit card slip landed on the wrong table, they immediately fixed the problem, gathering around our table to apologize. They were highly competent, as well, bringing each course promptly, and refilling my iced tea glass as soon as I drank it.

When I returned the next week, the famous cold cucumber soup was on the menu. It's popular for good reason: Frias makes it with vegetable stock, which lets the cucumber flavor emanate, and purees it so it's just slightly chunky. He adds curry to give it a subtle spice.

After the soup, the baked chicken with lemon ginger sauce was a disappointment. The chicken, coated in corn flake crumbs, was well cooked and pleasantly crunchy, but the sauce had too much bitter lemon peel in it and after a few minutes rendered the corn flakes soggy. It came with white rice and steamed carrots, zucchini and yellow squash.

The shrimp salad was a twist on an old favorite: shrimp and peas in a mayonnaise-based dressing atop salad greens -- plus cooked spaghetti. It was an unusual combination, but satisfying and flavorful.

A chocolate nut pie finished the meal. I found the crust to be overly salty, but the filling -- a rich gooey brownie -- was quite good. The friend who was dining with me explained to our server that he's allergic to nuts, and she offered ice cream as a substitute, without charging extra. He was promptly served a dish of Ben and Jerry's vanilla and strawberry.

The restaurant's interior is decorated in a simple Mission style, with white walls, stone floors and sturdy wooden tables and chairs. Plates on the walls provide the only decoration.

The best part, naturally, is the view. So if it's warm out, consider asking for a patio table when you make your reservation. Lunch always tastes better on a sunny day in a magnificent garden.
Allied Arts Guild Restaurant, 75 Arbor Road in Menlo Park; (650) 324-2588. Hours: Noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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