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Flea St. Cafe Marks An Extraordinary 30 Years

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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