A&E

Happy camper

Chef-driven Camper brightens the Menlo Park dining scene

In case you haven't heard, no insect repellent is needed at Camper restaurant in Menlo Park. They don't serve s'mores or roasted weenies and patrons need not arrive in Airstreams.

It's not that kind of camper. In this case, Camper is a homonym for "happy camper" -- the convergence of experience and skill and making diners happy. That's the restaurant's goal, according to chef-partner Greg Kuzia-Carmel and managing partner Logan Levant. On each of my visits, I left a happy camper.

Camper is the latest incarnation of 898 Santa Cruz Ave. LB Steak preceded it and Marché before that -- all good restaurants but a bit too formal and pricey for everyday consideration. Camper isn't inexpensive but it is in step with today's prices for casual-upscale dining and has a neighborly vibe.

The idea for Camper germinated at a mutual friend's dinner party where Levant and Kuzia-Carmel met. Add Roland Passot of the Left Bank restaurants and La Folie in San Francisco as a silent partner, who had an interest in the departed LB Steak, and the enterprise was born.

Kuzia-Carmel, who grew up in upstate New York, started cooking to earn some extra money while in high school. He discovered his calling and has since cooked in Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain, Per Se in Manhattan and Quince in San Francisco.

Levant's background was in public relations, but for over 10 years she owned and operated the acclaimed Buttercake Bakery in Los Angeles. She also co-authored the cookbook "The Kitchen Decoded."

They overhauled the 4,000-square-foot space into an efficient contemporary restaurant with 72 indoor seats, about 100 on a patio and a private dining room that seats up to 50. Spare but not spartan, industrial hard surfaces of wood, metal, and quartz were softened with pillows, pendant lanterns, a colorful backlit bar and outdoorsy artwork on the walls. Camper is inviting, a glowing gem box on the corner of Santa Cruz Avenue and University Drive.

For starters, the chicken and dumpling soup ($11) featured floating gnocchi, dill, carrots, celery and Cipollini onions. The broth was flavorful, the gnocchi yielding and luxurious.

The creamy burrata ($17) from family owned Di Stefano Cheese was surrounded with braised artichokes, sunchokes, dried chicories and speckled lettuce.

Pork and duck terrine ($9) with toasted pistachios was a nice balance of fatty and meaty, served with toast, coarse mustard and pickled vegetables.

La Quercia acorn-fed jamon ($12) was a handsome plank of the best Iowa ham, possibly the best in the U.S. Not quite Iberian quality, but Menlo Park is much closer than Barcelona.

Chef-driven restaurants are obsessed with finding the best quality ingredients. Kuzia-Carmel has used his relationships with specialty growers in Northern California to source the freshest and finest, and because of that, his menu is ever evolving.

Of the main dishes, I loved the suckling pig ($37) with butter beans, fava beans, Cipollini onions, dandelion greens and pear. The pork was fork tender and the beans mimicked the creamy texture of the meat.

The skewered Rosa Bianca eggplant (a rosy-lavender Italian heirloom globe-shaped eggplant) was accompanied with babaganoush on a bed of quinoa and flavored with mojo de ajo za'atar -- like a salsa verde with more herbs ($22).

The housemade squid ink tagliatelle ($24) with Dungeness crab, ginger, chili and tomato cream was a luxurious layering of earthy and elastic, silky and savory.

The overnight braised and smoked Tuscan-style short rib ($40) with creamy red corn polenta, spring onions and carrots was bit chewier than I expected but succulent, and the polenta was dreamy good.

No toasted marshmallows but Camper's desserts were worth saving room for. The brûlée sweet corn grits with roasted fruit and sweet cream gelato ($9) was a tad too grits-y for my companion but she loved the fruit and ice cream.

The caramelized milk jam pudding with Chantilly cream and pecans ($9) was so good I considered ordering a second. The apple crisp ($9) with oat crumble and sweet cream gelato was a delight. Black walnut and chocolate gelatos ($10) were dense and buttery.

In all, Camper offers a focused menu that still allows for plenty of choices for vegetarian and gluten-free diners.

While there were several cabernet sauvignons, the wine list tilted toward less ponderous varietals such as pinot noir, sangiovese, zinfandel, merlot and Rhone blends that pair well with the chef's fare.

Service was excellent on my visits. I commend the restaurant for their strong staff in these days when staffing is a major issue in restaurants everywhere.

Camper is another welcome, chef-driven, high-quality addition to the local restaurant scene. It is easy to foresee Menlo Park and environs filled with happy campers.

Camper

898 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park

650-321-8980

campermp.com

Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Closed Sunday.

Reservations: yes

Credit cards: yes

Parking: city lots

Alcohol: full bar

Happy hour: no

Corkage: $25

Children: yes

Takeout: no

Outdoor dining: yes

Noise level: high

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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