The space has been invigorated with black chairs and tables laden with crisp white tablecloths. A long banquette occupies one wall, and well-spaced tables fill the remainder of the dining room. A handsome granite bar anchors the rear, and red pendant lamps dangle over tables.
On my first visit, a basket of delicious house-made focaccia, fresh and soft and still slightly warm, arrived at our table along with a dish of herbed dipping oil, which fostered a genteel perusal of the menu.
On the dinner menu, though, several items had been hastily scratched out with a ballpoint pen, and changes of ingredients had been coarsely scribbled above other items. This made no sense to me. The restaurant offered a separate page of daily specials, why not just print up fresh menus as well?
Appetizers included eggplant involtini ($8.95) — aubergine stuffed with goat cheese, bell pepper, fresh basil, roasted and served under a cozy blanket of marina sauce. It tweaked the appetite.
Fresh-tasting, crisp calamari ($9) was a generous portion for the money. The aioli was shy of garlic, however, which dulled its luster. A little more zing and the dish would have shined.
My dining partner disagreed with me about the crab cakes ($10). She thought them delightful. My problem was that the cakes were covered with a lobster bisque marinara that had no lobster flavor. A cream sauce would have been better.
Main courses and pasta fared better. One evening, the special pasta was smoked salmon ($17) in a delicious tomato cream sauce. The flavors were terrific and perfectly keyed to the pasta.
In fact, we wanted to share it as a first course, and the kitchen obliged by splitting the dish for us: Loads of pink, smoky salmon and barely-cooked-through pasta, with just enough sauce to bind the dish.
The penne arrabiata ($11) with grilled chicken breast was served in a lip-smacking marinara sauce. The piquancy of the dish was as good as it was unexpected.
Lobster-stuffed ravioli ($18) in cream sauce was rich, perfumed and revelatory. The house-made pasta retained is firmness under the heavenly sauce, and lobster flavor took center stage as it should.
The pan-seared petrale ($18) was meaty and clean tasting. Served over sauteed spinach and under a toasted almond sauce, the generous portion was nutty, peppery and not one bit fishy.
Veal piccata ($18) was a generous, tender portion of delicate, pale pink meat. The lemon, caper, white wine and garlic sauce was zesty and garlicky, which livened the dish.
The heavily herbed Cornish game hen ($16) was meaty and juicy. The bird had been halved and flattened for easy eating. There was a tad too much rosemary, a taste that lingered with me long after the dinner. The not quite creamy polenta was the perfect accompaniment.
Desserts were all made in-house. I thought the bread pudding ($7) particularly good. The rectangular serving was soft, warm, eggy, buttery, and cinnamony. The poached pear ($7) was nicely spiced with cinnamon and came with a dollop of ice cream on the side.
At times the waitstaff seemed lackadaisical — all hovering in the bar area. At other times efforts were duplicated within a minute. It often took considerable patience to get refills of water, or ice tea, or the check.
When plates were brought to the table, the servers should have covered their fingers with a napkin. It was not very appetizing to see greasy fingerprint smudges reflecting off our plates.
One evening, there was a burned-out bulb in the light fixture directly over a table. Sometimes the music is jarring — not in volume, but in selection.
There are no hours of operation posted on the door, none on the Web site, no voicemail providing hours or directions should a person call when the restaurant is closed.
These might seem like small issues, but they add up to a tipping point between an enchanting evening or just another place to eat. So far, there just doesn't seem to be a passionate commitment towards success in the dining room. But if the front of the house gets its act together, this could truly be a neighborhood jewel.
827 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park
Lunch: Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday 5-10 p.m., Sunday 5-9 p.m.
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