The Palo Alto Grill in downtown Palo Alto has undergone some tweaks.
When it first opened last year, it was decidedly much more of a steakhouse with a dedicated section of the menu devoted to various beefy cuts. That has been jettisoned, leaving just one steak on the menu.
For a time earlier this year, it also featured a separate menu of Croatian specialties in homage to co-owner Luka Dvornik’s heritage. That, too, has now been abandoned.
In its place now are dishes that lean more toward Modern American that highlight plenty of local, seasonal California products, sometimes with an Asian sensibility. The whimsy also has been turned up, as evident in the plating of several of the dishes.
Husband-and-wife team Chef Ryan Shelton and Pastry Chef Yoomi Shelton helm the kitchen with a fine eye for detail. Their previous experience includes stints at Baume in Palo Alto, and Randall Grahm’s former Le Cigar Volante in Santa Cruz.
Recently, I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant for a return visit to try out the new menu.
You could easily fill up on the bread basket alone, as the offerings are superb. Shelton bakes them all in-house every hour, including airy brioche, fragrant walnut bread and a fantastic salted pretzel shaped like a wheat stalk. Alongside is a Dijon-parmesan sauce for slathering on.
Maybe in anticipation of the World Cup or just because it sounded delicious, I ordered a Brazilian Bramble ($13). Fresh blackberries are muddled with cachaca, lemon, and creme de mure (a blackberry liquor) to create a berry-licious cocktail that’s refreshing and not too boozy despite the addition of the potent Brazilian sugarcane spirit.
My favorite avocado corn dogs ($2 each), which were on the original menu, remain. There’s no hot dog inside, only creamy, rich avocado that’s coated with a golden batter that tastes of corn. The presentation has been spiffed up. It’s cutesy with little squeeze bottles that don’t hold ketchup or mustard but cilantro pesto and romesco sauces.
The playful presentation of the chicken waffle bites ($9) almost did them in, though. A syringe of maple syrup is speared through the stack of crisp chicken and waffle (ours was a little burnt on the very ends) like a toothpick to hold it all together. The idea is to squeeze the syringe to let release the sweet syrup as you down the stack in one bite. But it’s rather cumbersome as it’s more like two bites and the syringe doesn’t really deposit the syrup too well in the position that’s it in. We fared better just putting the whole thing on our plate, removing the syringe, squirting the maple syrup over it all, then eating it with a fork.
The baby butter lettuce salad ($10) brings leaves beautifully stacked and sprinkled with hazelnuts. Thin slices of apple add freshness and acidity against the creamy, rich green goddess dressing.
The salmon poke ($14) here is one of the most beautiful renditions I’ve ever seen. Thin, horizontal slices of cucumber encircle the poke that’s hidden by a fluff of seaweed salad on top. The cubes of fish are lush and get a hit of crunch from puffed rice. It was a lovely dish, but I only wish the Sriracha-like sauce in a pool on the bottom of the plate had been squirted dots instead as the ample amount nearly overwhelmed the fish.
Steamed mussels ($10) got a kick with chorizo. Hominy floated in the broth, adding temptation to pick up a spoon to slurp up spoonful after spoonful.
For the main courses, my husband couldn’t resist “The Everything Better” ($25), a plate that arrives with its own banner proclaiming the dish’s salute to bacon. It’s jerk pork belly with bacon-wrapped loin, served with plantains and a carrot-leek slaw. The pork was quite juicy with a nice sweet-spiciness from the jerk seasonings.
My masala-rubbed scallops ($22) were seared beautifully and smeared with a warm, earthy masala paste. The edamame hummus alongside was wonderfully nutty with a natural subtle sweetness from the soybeans.
A side of Brussels sprouts ($7) arrived in a mini cauldron, the leaves fried crisp, sweetened with a touch of brown sugar and sprinkled with crunchy, buttery pecans.
For dessert, we put ourselves in Chef Yoomi Shelton’s hands.You have to love a chef who puts this definition of “dessert” on the menu: “the fourth mandatory meal of the day, following breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
She created a sampler that included the “All About Chocolate” ($10), a wedge of triple chocolate cake served intriguingly with a cube of burnt almond ice cream. Yuzu caramel accented the fudgy, moist cake, lifting it from its evident richness. Micro fennel added the same brightness to the ice cream.
Yoomi Shelton likes to add fresh herbs to her desserts. That’s no more evident than with her mango pearl cheesecake that sat in a glass covered with a cinnamon crisp that had a pea tendril threaded through it. It was almost like an edible flower vase. The texture of the cheesecake was so smooth and the layer of fresh mango cubes so juicy.
Just when you think you’re done, the evening ends with a small plate of marshmallow twists. White and tied in a knot, they tasted of lemon iced tea, of all things.
With that, you can’t help but leave with a smile on your face, particularly after experiencing the handiwork of two talented chefs who are really starting to come into their own here.
More Downtown Palo Alto Places: Lure + Till
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And: Amber Dhara