You gotta love a restaurant that offers you a perfectly crisp and light Belgium waffle with Nutella sauce — at the end of dinner.
That’s one of the joys of the new Portola Kitchen, which opened last month up in the tree-lined hills of Portola Valley.
It’s in the old Mike’s Cafe building in the Ladera Shopping Center, a little oasis of eating and shopping, where you’ll also find the wonderful Bianchi’s Market, an Old Port Lobster Shack, and the well-stocked Ladera Garden Center.
The restaurant space has been given a total redo with a rustic, warm vibe. Banquette dividers are constructed of unfinished wood. The bare wood tables, fashioned from old barn siding, still have grooves and knots in them to add character. Even the soaring beamed ceiling is reminiscent of an old barn. There’s a long bar with TVs, an open kitchen, and seating outside to take advantage of the temperate summer evenings.
Chef Guillaume Bienaime is the latest in a long line of fine-dining chefs to go more casual these days. He last headed the kitchen at the well-regarded, white-tablecloth Marche in Menlo Park.
At Portola Kitchen, he creates a menu friendly on the pocket and a variety of appetites. All the pastas are made in-house, as is the sausage. The wine list is half Californian and half Italian. There also are wines on tap to enjoy by the glass.
Earlier this month, I was invited in as a guest to try the food.
Tombo tuna crudo ($11) gets a playful treatment with the slices of raw fish accompanied by tonnato, the creamy, mayonnaise sauce that traditionally accompanies chilled sliced veal in the classic dish of vitello tonnato. The tiniest Padron peppers added a grassy note.
Batons of watermelon ($11) are served icy cold with fennel, red onion, lemon and shards of ricotta salata. The sweetness of the watermelon is a sharp contrast to the bitter baby arugula. It’s a dish that makes you want summer to go on forever.
Arugula appears again on the speck pizza ($14) with dabs of thyme crema and strands of wake-me-up pickled red onions. The crust had nice crisp edges, marred only by too much flour dusted on the underside of it, which left a raw flour taste with each bite.
Chicken rosemary sausage ($16) is total comfort. Made in-house, the sausages are super juicy and well seasoned. You can soak up every last drop of that juice, too, with the bed of creamy polenta underneath drizzled with a bright salsa verde.
Pastas are not to be missed. Torchio ($12) are big, fat curlicue spirals of pasta in a hearty lamb ragu, seasoned with tomato, mint, black olives and saffron. It’s like digging into the Mediterranean.
Agnolotti ($13) are hand-filled with fluffy ricotta, then tossed with perfect half-moons of gamboni mushrooms, a variety of porcini from Mendocino County, with a soft, fleshy cap. Sweet corn kernels, and a bit of lemon and chervil complete this delicate yet earthy dish.
If you’re weary of those dainty, four-bite desserts at so many places these days, you’re bound to welcome the substantial ones here. Each one is definitely enough to share.
You’ve already heard me rhapsodize about the Belgium waffle ($7). Oh yes, there’s Nutella sauce. And there’s banana marmalade and even a scoop of vanilla semifreddo over it all. Dig in with abandon.
Panna cotta is served in a cute mason jar with an apricot compote layered over the top. It’s sweet with just enough tart, and a good dose of vanilla added.
Before opening, Bienaime said he wanted to create a place that wasn’t stuffy or complicated, a restaurant that folks could come to on a regular basis, and not just for an occasion. I’d say his goals have been more than met.