Portola Kitchen [Portola Valley]
We stopped by chef Guillaume Bienaime's (ex- Marché, Menlo Park) new place the other day (Portola Kitchen on Alpine Road just west of 280). "Rustic Italian", but really well executed with top-notch ingredients and Guillaume's deft instinct for balance. Definitely not a fine-dining experience, but for those of us who care more about the food than getting a fresh napkin every time we visit the bathroom it's well worth a visit. In particular, the pasta is not to be missed.
Finally went. This place will not get into standard rotation for us.
Wine list - OK, not as good as hoped. I would hope for a better chosen selection. My bar for casual italian wine list is now Vesta in RWC, this wasn't as good. When I asked for a fruity red to finish the meal, I was still given something austere, I think simply because the owner doesn't go for that fruity CA kind of thing (which I can get into a mood for on a friday). But I remember my one time at Marche (a few weeks before they closed) getting some great wine at the bar - they might have been going through some "good stuff" before closing.
Pasta was OK. We got a ragu with macaroni-style pasta, likely housemade, had some chew but nothing exceptional. No single taste shouted out, but it was good. Soup - a very nice rustic italian bean soup. Pork chop - fun, done schnitzel style, enough for the entire austrian army. Desert was a chocolate pot which was quite good.
Overall, good, not great. Feels a little like Buck's, and I like Buck's, I just don't go there much. Very pleasant casual atmosphere.
I will temper my results in one way - I've been fighting a light head cold. Maybe the tastes were subdued because of my palate, not the food itself, but overall the tastes just needed a kick - like more salt. Fans of less-salt cooking might like it.
If I lived in portola valley, it would be a good choice instead of going "down the hill" to PA or RWC, but for those of us near 101, it's not a destination like Station 1 or Village Pub.
We tried this a couple weeks ago and it was very good. Unlike a place like Vero in Palo Alto, this is definitely Cal-Ital rather than tasting like Italy, but it's done very well. We had the saffron torchio and veal scaloppini as entrees and both were delicious. We're still trying to figure out how they made those wonderful crispy fingerlings that accompany the veal - veering close to french fries in crunchiness; maybe some high-temperature oven roasting? Appetizers for tuna crudo and watermelon salad were also good.
As an American place with Italian influence, this fills quite a gap in the area - there aren't many good places doing Cal or Cal-Ital at this more reasonable price point in our area. Scratch and Mayfield have good California menus but prices are quite a bit higher than here. The place is deservedly popular.
I've been looking forward to the Marche chef opening; look forward to this place.
On a related note, we ate at "Menlo Hub" last week (on ECR across from Barone / Kepler's), and were pleasantly surprised. The place is developing a cursed reputation, and deserves a second look. They have a wide selection of bruchetta, and they did a pasta with shrimp that was fresh and divine with late-season cherry tomatoes. I've eaten there two names ago, and was very underwhelmed.
That being said, we had actually ordered another dish (a rice / scallop thing) but we liked the fresh pasta so much we stuck with the mistake - I didn't tell the waiter until she had cashed us out.
It's a hard call whether we'll go to Menlo Hub much more --- it's kind of expensive for what you get --- but could sneak into the regular rotation because of the music (decent piano player that night).
Rumor has it BBC is going to switch to a full restaurant, they're doing full remodel inside, no news on the concept, probably another 4-5 months minimum.
Thanks for the heads up that Portola Kitchen has opened. Several friends on the Peninsula have been fans of Chef Guillaume's work but I've not had the pleasure myself. What type of pasta did you have?
No menu or hours on the website yet.
Edited to add: more info on seatme.com, reservations accepted starting Monday, 8/6.
re: Melanie Wong
We asked Guillaume to pick for us for the whole meal. For the pasta course, he sent out some sort of small ravioli with ricotta, and some thick-ish stubby stuff with lamb. Both very fresh and perfect texture.
We'll try the pizza next time; we're big fans of Osteria Coppa's pizza (please no pizza flame wars, it's just an individual preference). Since Guillaume is a protégé of Howie Bulka (Howie's Pizza, which we also like), we wonder if he has copied Howie's style.
Fun trivia fact: all three ex-Marché chefs (Bulka, Vazzoler, and Bienaime) are now cooking Italian (Vazzoler is doing rustic Italian at Simi Winery). And ex-Marché Sommelier John Sanders is now managing the wine and cocktail program at Osteria Coppa.
A word of caution for drivers - wines by the glass at Portola Kitchen are definitely "generous" pours. Again, I demonstrate my utter lack of chow-cred and don't recall what we drank (I made my wife drive me home - hah!).
The funny thing is that I have spent years being distinctly cool towards Italian food, but now Osteria Coppa and Portola Kitchen have schooled me big-time.