Flea St. Cafe Marks An Extraordinary 30 Years

First of the season, wild Coho salmon at Flea St. Cafe.

The first things set before you in the dining room at Menlo Park’s Flea St. Cafe are telling.

The famous housemade, sesame-seed-topped biscuits, served since day one at this now 30-year-old establishment, which are based on a recipe by Chef-Proprietor Jesse Cool’s late-Dad and still stirred up in the same mixing bowl he once used.

The “Taste of the Season,” an amuse bouche that’s as spare and lovely as it gets — just a few simple veggies straight from a local farm, their fresh, bright flavors unadorned by anything else.

The former shows how comfort and family take precedence at this restaurant, where Cool’s two sons worked when they were growing up, and her Mom used to water the plants and arrange the dining room just so.

A meal isn't complete without the famous, housemade biscuits.

The amuse of carrots and potatoes in a "Taste of the Season.''

The latter points at the legacy of Cool, who for decades has championed local, sustainable and organic ingredients long before it became a standard of our cultural lexicon.

Recently, my husband and I treated ourselves to dinner here. We sheepishly admit we hadn’t been in years. Even after all these decades, it was so nice to see the dining room still bustling on a Saturday night.

I’ve known Cool for years, having interviewed her many times and even edited some of her stories when she wrote a recipe column for my former employer, the San Jose Mercury News. When I sat in on her cooking demo at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite in January, she introduced me to Carlos Canada, her executive chef — and the only chef to work for her whom she has ever relinquished that title to.  So, you know she’s especially proud of the food that’s coming out of the kitchen these days.

The “Taste of the Season” that evening was a little plate of tiny carrots and potatoes from Full Belly Farm.

The biscuits were every bit as good as I remembered them — tender, buttery and crunchy from the topping of toasted white sesame seeds.

Forget french fries when you can have tempura-fried fresh sardines instead.

We started with one of the restaurant’s most popular appetizers: crispy local sardines ($10). A light, lacy, perfect tempura batter enveloped some of the meatiest, plumpest sardines I’d ever had. Fiery cayenne salt is offered on the side if you want to kick it up a notch.

Next, a special that night of sake-cured salmon sashimi ($14), the rich flesh brightened even more by garnishes of lemon, radishes and chives.

Salmon sashimi -- simple yet sublime.

When wild salmon is in season as it is now, I simply can’t get enough of it. So, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that my entree was salmon again. This time, a lovely fillet of Coho, its skin nicely crisp and its flesh moist and substantial in flavor like only wild salmon can be. Alongside were asparagus and tender, creamy white beans.

My husband enjoyed a staple: meaty Marin Sun Farms braised grass-fed short ribs ($34) with a generous dollop of pungent horseradish cream to smear every forkful with.

The signature short ribs with the kick of horseradish cream.

Dessert brought a warm, buttery bread pudding ($9), studded with currants and candied orange peel. Other bread puddings may be so dense that they sit in your stomach like a brick. This one was pleasantly fluffy, custardy and just the right size to satisfy.

Airy, custardy bread pudding with candied orange peel.

A last bite of chocolate truffles.

Soft, cocoa-dusted, handmade chocolate truffles ended the evening with a homey touch.

Even after 30 years, Flea St. is still a place that continues to do your soul and body good.

More: Scenes from Jesse Cool’s Cooking Demo in Yosemite

More: My Q&A with Jesse Cool

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Date: Friday, 8. July 2011 5:25
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Chefs, General, Going Green and Sustainable, Restaurants

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12 comments

  1. 1

    Menlo Park has such a wonderful mixture of really good restaurants and cafes with a European flair, it is a wonderful town.

  2. 2

    I’ve never been here but have certainly heard of it. Will have to make a point to go. The biscuits look fab as do the crispy sardines!

  3. 3

    Food looks great and definitely seems to go beyond the name. It doesn’t look like cafe food. But not sure why they went with “Flea Street.” Just makes me itch just thinking about it. LOL

  4. 4

    Single Guy Ben: Actually, there’s a simple explanation for the name. The restaurant is located on Alameda De Las Pulgas, which translates from Spanish into “alameda of the fleas.” ;)

  5. 5

    “…Alameda De Las Pulgas…” which, by way of further explanation was the route required to be taken by the servants and peasants “back in the day” as opposed to “El Camino Real” (The Royal Highway) Hence, fleas to be found in abundance on the Alameda, but presumably not on El Camino :-)

    FS Cafe is where our local “kids” treated my Meat Man and me to a wonderful surprise 40th anniversary dinner a few years back with some very dear friends. We were honored to have Jesse herself stop by the table to assure that all was well, and to answer a pressing question (the gist of which I have of course now forgotten) about mushrooms.

    A great place for both making and marking memories, that’s for sure :-)

  6. 6

    Man, that salmon sashimi looked so pretty! :)

  7. 7

    Carroll: Thanks for sharing that factoid about Alameda De Las Pulgas. Totally fascinating!

  8. 8

    That bread pudding is enough to lure me in, but everything else truly looks delicious!

  9. 9

    oh wow! this is picture perfect!

  10. 10

    It looks like a wonderful meal and consistency like that over so many years is great to see. I wonder if you with your persuasive powers could obtain that biscuit recipe? It sounds divine! :)

  11. 11

    Looks like a really fantastic meal and I’m happy to here that’s it’s been around for so long. The tempura sardines look great — and I’m usually not even one for sardines! ;)

  12. 12

    This food looks absolutely delicious! What a wonderful restaurant to have access to.

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