Bird Dog Soars
The tech world has been blamed for a lot of things of late — worsening traffic, skyrocketing housing prices, widespread impatience, and a growing lack of civility.
But one thing we can be thankful for is that it brought us Chef Robbie Wilson and his wife Emily Wilson.
Chamath Palihapitiya, venture capitalist, part owner of the Warriors, and former Facebook executive, and his wife, Brigette Lau, also a venture capitalist and former Navio Systems engineer, met the Wilsons and were so captivated by them, they agreed to partner and invest in their restaurant — as long as it opened in Palo Alto, the city where the influential tech couple lives with their kids.
Bird Dog opened last winter in downtown Palo Alto. The name refers to pursuing something with unwavering, laser-focus and determination, which is appropriate for a restaurant that’s been a hit since the doors opened. I had a chance to visit a few weeks ago when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant.
Robbie Wilson trained under some of the best: Michael Troisgros at Maison Troisgras; Tom Colicchio at Craft in New York, Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, and Nobu Matsuhisa at Matsuhisa in Aspen. Emily Wilson, who worked in luxury real estate development sales, is a gracious presence at the restaurant, darting from table to table, to welcome and chat with guests.
The modern, minimalist restaurant with its open kitchen, wooden ducks hanging from the ceiling, painted concrete floors, slab wood tables and smooth, charcoal-grey plateware would be right at home in San Francisco. The bathrooms offer a quirky surprise: the voice of the late-great Julia Child piped in for an extra dose of fun.
Bird Dog’s menu is made for sharing. Sommelier Brent Jones is on hand to recommend the perfect wines for whatever you choose.
Instead of bread, you are presented with a pedestal cake plate holding a freshly-made roti, flaky, charred, and buttery. Tear it with your fingers and enjoy as you peruse the menu.
A must-order is the famed wood-grilled avocado ($14), which is a dish Wilson can probably never take off the menu now because it is so popular. Tw avocado halves are grilled, then filled with ponzu, and garnished with a little bit of grated fresh, real wasabi. It’s so simple and so much more than the sum of its parts. The ponzu adds a jolt of umami meatiness to the lush, buttery, smoky avocado, and the wasabi adds a quick-to-dissipate hit of floral heat to it all. It may very well supplant guacamole as the best use of an avocado.
If you’re a fan of crudo like I am, the ocean trout ($16) will dazzle. Resembling salmon with its silky, rosy-orange flesh, it’s garnished with eye-catching squid-ink chips that will remind you of shrimp chips. Buttermilk and a bit of horseradish compliment rather than overpower the luscious fish.
Kampachi ($18) also is served raw with grassy matcha and grapefruit that has been smoked to tame its bitterness and deepen its fruitiness. Pork chicharrons add crunch much like the squid-ink chips in the previous dish. White soy, lighter in color and sweeter than regular soy sauce, ties it all together.
Asian influences run though many of the dishes, including grilled hydroponic lettuces, charred but still crisp, dressed with tamari and rye bread crumble.
The fried chicken thighs $18 (three to an order) are like a sophisticated riff on Japanese karaage chicken. Dusted in rice flour and panko, the chicken has an ethereally airy, light yet crunchy exterior. The thighs are dredged in green curry for a sweet earthiness. A swish of smoked uni aioli decorates the plate. It’s not enough to really dip the chicken into. And you don’t necessarily taste the uni. But the chicken is so good on its own, you don’t really need it, though, it adds an artful touch to the dish.
The Wagyu striploin ($31) is flecked with sea salt and gets a swoosh of burnt satsuma sauce on the side. It’s not a hefty portion, but at a high-end steakhouse you’d pay probably three times the price for a good-sized Wagyu steak. Because you’ve had other dishes, and you’re sharing, it’s actually more than enough to satisfy, especially because this beef is so incredibly rich.
Farro ($12) is done up like risotto — Japanese-style, with miso and the crowning touch of a poached egg. The oozy yolk makes like a sauce, enriching the hearty grain.
Heirloom carrots ($14) are made into something extra special with the additions of tamarind, red curry, and orange, which wake up the humble root veggies with a sharp fruity tang.
For dessert,”Leche Flan” ($12) is a slender brick of dulce de leche flan that tastes deeply of vanilla and is thick and stiff enough to sit atop chocolate-buttermilk cake. The chocolate sorbet almost steals the show with its incredibly intense flavor, as does the milk jam that’s like thick caramel you want to spread over everything.
“Peach Melba” ($12) is re-imagined and deconstructed with compressed peaches, fresh and dehydrated raspberries, and vanilla poppy-seed ice cream. It’s a light and summery way to finish.
Robbie Wilson told me he’d love to open a French-style raw bar next year in San Francisco. He may be setting his sights northward next, but we in the South Bay and Peninsula should be grateful he decided to launch his endeavors first right here in the heart of Silicon Valley.
More Places in Downtown Palo Alto: Zola
And: Lure & Till
And: Lyfe Kitchen