Downtown Palo Alto has a bevy of talented chefs. But now, it also has the acclaimed Ryan Shelton, who’s the executive chef and partner of the Palo Alto Grill, which opened its doors in April.
A San Jose native, Shelton has amassed quite a reputation, having worked in Europe and Asia before becoming pastry chef at Chez TJ in Mountain View, then chef de cuisine at Baume in Palo Alto, where he helped that restaurant garner two Michelin star. Most recently, he helmed the kitchen at vintner Randall Grahm’s Le Cigare Volant in Santa Cruz.
Shelton is continuing those high standards at the Palo Alto Grill, as evidenced by my visit recently, when my friend Donna treated me to dinner for a belated birthday celebration.
The 80-seat dining room is warm and clubby with dark wood tables, exposed wood beams, brick accents and a black granite bar. On an early evening, it gets plenty of light, too, from floor-to-ceiling windows.
Steak is front and center on the menu. But there’s so much more, too.
You know you’re in the hands of a restaurant that cares about the details when the bread basket comes out. It’s filled with warm house-made focaccia and chewy pretzel sticks. Alongside is a ramekin of creamy mustard cheese sauce. You could fill up on this alone. But save room.
That’s because you have to order the avocado corn dogs ($7) under the small plates portion of the menu. There are no hot dogs in this version. But you don’t miss them. What you get instead are nuggets of creamy avocado on sticks that are breaded in the familiar cornmeal batter, then fried until golden. The sweetness of the batter plays nicely with the richness of the avocado. A chipotle mustard sauce adds smokiness and a dash of spiciness. It’s the kind of nosh all too easy to reach for in the company of a cold beer. Three come to an order. So, if there’s two of you, you may end up fighting over the last one. Just sayin’.
We were intrigued by the side of triple-cooked fries ($5). Typically, twice-fried fries are supremely crisp, so we wondered if triple frying them would make them even more so. The thick fries were crisp, but not overtly so. But they were incredibly creamy inside. They come with house-made ketchup and aioli — another nice touch.
My friend Donna made a beeline for the “Pan-Seared Southern Gentleman,” an Angus fillet mignon available in two sizes: 8 ounces for $38 (which she chose) and 12 ounces for $48.
It was juicy and nicely cooked, and served alongside a small mound of bacon-studded mustard greens. The steak also came with a trio of salts — fleur de sel, smoked Maldon and black volcanic salt — so that you could season it to your specific liking.
Because the small plates section of the menu had so many wonderful sounding dishes, I opted to order one as a stand-in for an entree. First up, grilled Japanese octopus ($14), which was as tender as can be, not always an easy feat. Fingerling potatoes completed the plate with the brightness of lemon and basil.
Next, I opted for a selection from the raw plates side of the menu: Yellowtail crudo “watercolor” ($12). It was gorgeous to behold, arrayed on a square plate with Asian characters, and arranged with edible flowers, crisped puffed rice, and sweet, thin rounds of plum. The softness of the plum mimicked the texture of the fish, but added a fresh fruitiness.
For dessert, the blackberry tart ($9) with its petite size is perfect for those who want just a morsel of sweetness to end the night. The bottom of the tart is more like a butter cookie rather than a traditional pastry round. Although nice and crisp, I’m not sure it was necessarily an improvement on the usual flaky pastry. A touch of chamomile added a floral quality that really complimented the berries.
The brioche beignets ($9) are fluffy and dusted with sugar. They sit atop macerated sweet strawberries. An espresso cup sits alongside, holding a frothy strawberry milk. It’s too thin for dunking, so we just took sips of it instead.
With food like this, downtown Palo Alto should be rejoicing that Shelton is now calling the area home.
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