Chef Simona Oliveri’s Unexpected Journey to Oak + Violet

Italian-born Executive Chef Simona Oliveri.
Italian-born Executive Chef Simona Oliveri.

It was just like any morning at Oak + Violet restaurant in the Park James Hotel in Menlo Park. Until it wasn’t.

Three months into the job in December 2018, Simona Oliveri, arrived at the restaurant for her usual sous chef shift, only to find the executive chef had quit abruptly.

Faced with a full dining room later that night, Oliveri, the only woman on the culinary team of 16, did the only thing she could think of — she immediately called up all her vendors to start placing orders for the ingredients that would be needed that day.

And with that, she became the head chef of the restaurant, as well as the entire 63-room boutique hotel.

The bar at Oak + Violet.
The bar at Oak + Violet.

“I never imagined I would be doing this,” Oliveri, 42 says. “I’d never worked for a hotel before or run a restaurant before. But I know how to feed people.”

Indeed, she does. She grew up in Sicily, where she worked in restaurants and catered museums events. After moving to Menlo Park to join her engineer husband, she started a catering company and also worked as a private chef.

The contemporary dining room.
The contemporary dining room.
The lounge-y courtyard with fire-pit and heaters is a popular place to hang out.
The lounge-y courtyard with fire-pit and heaters is a popular place to hang out.

Every day, when she picked her son up from school, she would drive by the site that the Park James was being built on, monitoring its progress and wondering what it would be like when completed.

She was so enticed by it, that she answered an ad on Craig’s List for a sous chef job.

Now that she’s head chef, don’t expect the menu to turn completely Italian at this year-old restaurant. “I like to take people on a journey with their palate,” she says. “I want to celebrate not just Italy, but Peru, Africa, Europe, and of course, California.”

The El Camino.
The El Camino.
The Southside.
The Southside.

Indeed, the menu takes influences from many areas around the globe, as I found out when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant recently. As befits the restaurant’s name, the modern dining room is done up with light wood and lavender curved chairs.

Specialty cocktails are $14 each. The El Camino is served in a pretty vintage glass. It’s a smoky yet bracking pine-tinged cocktail of mezcal, grapefruit juice, Aperol, lime and rosemary simple syrup.

The Southside is tinged pale lavender, owing to the blue butterfly flower syrup that gets blended with gin, lime, mint and a touch of salt. It’s tangy and herbaceous.

Parker House rolls.
Parker House rolls.
Signature wings.
Signature wings.

Being the carb lover that I am, I can never resist Parker House rolls ($6). Golden, tender and poofy, they arrive warm in their own little cast-iron pan, draped with fragrant fresh thyme. There’s lemon poppy-seed butter on the side, which is a nice touch.

The signature lollipop buffalo wings ($14) are dainty, making use of the smallest part of the chicken wing. They are vinegary and a touch spicy rather than sticky sweet. There’s blue cheese dipping sauce to cool things down, as well as shaved slices of carrot and cucumber dressed with a little olive oil to cool things off, if need be.

The heavenly combination of uni and bone marrow.
The heavenly combination of uni and bone marrow.
Spanish octopus with chorizo.
Spanish octopus with chorizo.

Bone marrow plus uni ($20)? Why, yes. The bones, split lengthwise, are crowned with lobes of uni. Dig out some of the unctuous, fatty marrow, spread it on the grilled bread, and top it with the creamy, sweet-briny uni. It’s creaminess upon creaminess, and utterly decadent. Oliveri pulled from her heritage for this dish, noting that in Sicily, pairing meat together with seafood is a tradition.

Spanish octopus ($20) is cooked sous vide, then crisped up with nubbins of spicy chorizo. They get gently tossed into a salad of fingerling potatoes, arugula, and mint salsa verde. The octopus is supremely tender, and glistens with the delicious oil from the chorizo. It’s a generous-sized dish. In fact, if you wanted a light meal, you could happily dive into just this with a nice glass of wine.

The petit filet mignon.
The petit filet mignon.
An outstanding branzino.
An outstanding branzino.

Among the large plates, the 8-ounce petit filet mignon ($39) was cooked just right at medium-rare in the center. Blue cheese melted all over the top. A swoosh of celery root puree, along with roasted shallots and fennel lay underneath.

Definitely order the stuffed whole branzino ($34), one of the best renditions of this fish I’ve had of late. The skin is wonderfully crispy. Its cavity is stuffed with fennel, onions and peppers before cooking, and you can really taste how those ingredients perfume the flesh beautifully. Off to the side is a delicious jumble of green olives, red peppers and fennel. The only minor thing I would fault about this dish is that while it’s a whole fish, it’s served with the head cut off. For people like me who prize the cheeks, the silkiest part of any fish, it’s a disappointment not to be able to dig out those coveted morsels to enjoy.

Japanese eggplant with black garlic.
Japanese eggplant with black garlic.
Brussels sprouts glazed with balsamic vinegar.
Brussels sprouts glazed with balsamic vinegar.

For sides, we tried the Japanese eggplant ($9). It’s cooked whole in the wood-fired oven until it gets charred on the outside and collapsed inside with a custardy texture. It’s lashed with black garlic and chermoula, giving it a big savory punch.

The crispy Brussels sprouts ($9) get that classic sweet-sour Italian treatment with balsamic vinegar and toasted garlic. Chopped hazelnuts strewn over the top add a nice roasty-toasty nuttiness.

We shared the chocolate mousse ($8) for dessert. It’s a straightforward rendition, light, fluffy and deeply cocoa-tasting. But it was dressed up with chopped chocolate-covered almonds and fresh flower petals to make it stand out from the crowd.

Chocolate mousse taken up a notch.
Chocolate mousse taken up a notch.

While prices are not inexpensive here, they are surprisingly reasonable for a hotel restaurant.

Oliveri may have wound up as head chef unexpectedly. But it’s proved serendipitous.

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