Vina Enoteca, Palo Alto
Handmade pastas you can’t wait to twirl a fork into. Pizzas that make you lunge for a slice. An impressive Italian wine list. And creative cocktails that always put you in a peppy mood.
Vina Enoteca has long been one of my favorite Italian restaurants because it offers all of that with aplomb.
Ordering online is a breeze, as is parking when you pick up your order. These days, there’s plenty of open parking slots in the adjacent lot behind the Stanford Shopping Center. Walk up to the host stand outside to pick it all up.
My husband can never resist a pizza topped with prosciutto. The Pizza Emiliana ($22) is like the super-model version of that.
It’s a stunner all right, with the paper-thin slices of prosciutto rolled up into pretty rosettes all over the pie that is also strewn with peppery arugula and Parmigiano Reggiano. This pizza is not merely good lucks and no substance. Not when the crust is wonderfully chewy on its puffy edges, and crisp in the center, and boasts yeasty, developed flavor through and through.
The Terra Mia ($24) pizza is equally delicious in a whole different way. The crust is painted with a sweet, sunny yellow tomato sauce, topped with milky fresh buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil leaves, olive oil, and plump shrimp. Even my husband said he never imagined a shrimp pizza could have so much flavor. The natural sweetness of the shrimp and the yellow tomatoes makes for an absolute winning combination.
Grilled octopus is as tender as it gets with a wonderful smoky taste. The Polipo ($18) is served with a chickpea puree, and shards of torn, airy bread made with squid ink, enhancing the taste of the sea in this dish.
The restaurant goes the extra mile again with a dish as simple as Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe ($16). The buttery, cheesy, peppery strands come garnished with a frico or Parmesan crisp. It may get a little soft in transit to your home, but you can always reheat it in a toaster oven if you want the perfect crunch.
The Tagliatelle alla Bolognese ($24) is a meat lover’s dream of a pasta. House-made spinach pasta gets tossed with a Rancho Llano Seco pork ragu that’s so thick and hearty that it’s like ground pork with just enough tomato sauce to moisten it.
For a little spice, there’s Lumache all’Amatriciana ($18), big shell-shaped pasta, bursting with sweet tomatoes, porky guanciale, and a quite peppery San Marzano tomato sauce.
Pop a stout, green Tortelloni Verdi ($22) into your mouth, and the filling of sweet fresh summer corn will burst forth blissfully. The sauce is a simple one of butter and mint, all the better to let the peak-season corn star.
Pro Tip: When accessing the restaurant’s web site to order online, do spend a moment to really look it over, because Vina Enoteca offers a lot of fun things right now besides just its regular menu of standout dishes. It just launched a monthly wine club, with each delivery encompassing three top-rated Italian wines ($95 per box for 12 boxes per year). There are Zoom wine tasting classes and cooking classes, in which you pick up the wines or ingredients the day before at the restaurant. There are frozen versions of the restaurant’s pizzas ($12 to $14) to stash handily in your freezer. There’s a pasta box ($85) ), so you can cook three house-made pastas with three house-made sauces in your own kitchen. And there are 4-packs of ready-to-bake croissants ($9 for butter; $12 for chocolate) that are imported from Italy. I can attest that if you bake them accordingly at 325 degrees for 25 minutes, you will end up with flaky, buttery, dreamy croissants that will start any Sunday morning off just right.
Bird Dog, Palo Alto
For most of us, traveling is not in the cards now. But you can still traverse the world in a most delectable way — through the ever-changing, family bundle to-go offerings at Bird Dog.
Rather than offering a la carte items, Bird Dog offers just one family-sized meal each week, which typically serves about 2 people, all packed in a cute, handled, cardboard box to tote home.
There’s a different part of the world highlighted in each week’s complete meal — from Tokyo to Cape Cod to Mexico to Argentina to Thailand to West Texas, the latter an ode to Chef Robbie Wilson’s childhood.
The family meals are available Wednesday through Sunday. Put your order in early, as they almost always sell out. The new menus are announced on Tuesday on the restaurant’s newsletter. But you can sometimes get a jump on that, as the restaurant’s web site will often list that week’s offering as early as Monday.
Not many restaurants can do such a wide variety of cuisines so well. But Wilson is more than up to the task, having honed his chops at Michelin-starred restaurants in France, Tom Colicchio’s Craft in New York, the French Laundry in Yountville, and Matsuhisa in Aspen.
My to-go order two weeks ago was a “Bird Dog Road Trip to Singapore” ($165).
Admittedly, I was drawn to this one in particular because I’m a sucker for Hainan chicken. Bird Dog’s “Organic Hainanese Chicken” did not disappoint, either. The half chicken, juicy and tender, came with three sauces to use at will: a sweet thick soy sauce; a light soy sauce with garlic, lime and chili; and a fruity, fiery pineapple sambal. A container of crunchy, refreshing heirloom cucumbers, dressed ever so lightly with fish sauce and herbs, helped douse the flames if you over do it with the sambal.
Hainan chicken wouldn’t be complete without jasmine rice. This rendition was cooked with schmaltz, the chicken fat adding a richness and crisping up the grains here and there. A small container of chicken broth was included to pour over the rice, if you wanted. I’ve made Hainan chicken and had it at several restaurants over the years. Honestly, most of the time, this broth tastes rather weak. Not this one, which was shockingly concentrated in chicken flavor. I longed for a bucket of it to make chicken noodle soup with.
Also included were four giant head-on, shell-on prawns, grilled with a sweet-spicy glaze of tomato, ginger, garlic and Fresno chilies to mimic Singapore’s iconic chili crab. Yes, this was messy to eat. But who cares when it’s so finger-licking delicious? The restaurant offers add-ons with each meal, so thankfully, I had the foresight to add on four more of these devilishly good prawns ($24).
Two skewers of pork belly satay were included in the meal. These were incredible — succulent, smoky, and just fatty enough in all the right ways. If there were an option to have added on more pork belly, I surely would have.
Instead, I added on four skewers of Wagyu skirt steak satay ($60), potently minerally and beefy tasting, that went especially well with the garlic-lime-chili dipping sauce.
Included are directions for reheating everything. But truth be told, Singaporean food like this tastes just fine at room temperature, so I didn’t bother doing that when I brought everything home.
To end the meal, there was dessert in drinkable form — two mango and makrut lime lassis, tangy and tropical tasting, as thick and creamy as old-fashioned milk shakes, and just as sweetly satisfying.
This is not a budget meal by any means. But one taste and the quality and talent behind it are readily apparent. In fact, why Bird Dog has yet to garner a Michelin star remains baffling.
Pro Tip: Try the Japanese beer that so many celebrated chefs fancy, Hitachino Nest White Ale. Brewed with wheat malt, and flavored with coriander, orange peel and nutmeg, the straw-colored ale is very clean, crisp and light tasting, and boy, does it go down easy. A 332ml bottle is $10.
Crispian Bakery, Alameda
Anyone who knows me knows I have a serious weakness for well-made baked goods. So when I first heard that Crispian Bakery was started by two veterans of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery in New York, I knew I had to check it out.
It’s been a favorite ever since. Beth Woulfe is the pastry chef, and Christian Fidelis de Goes is the bread baker. Together, they make irresistible treats, all crafted by hand in small batches.
With indoor dining verboten now, you can’t just step inside the bakery to ogle everything in the case, unfortunately. Instead, you walk up to the window on the sidewalk, where a bulletin board has photos tacked up of the items for sale that day.
The huge sticky bun ($5.50), with a big toffee-like taste, is crowned with a generous amount of sticky walnuts. The filling for the danishes ($3.75) varies with the seasons, with a recent one featuring plump raspberries in a thin, creamy cheese layer. The croissants ($3.25) are crisp, with a nice little touch of salt, and so flaky that they leave shards all over you upon the first bite.
I can never resist the chewy ginger cookies ($1.25) or dainty chocolate chip cookies ($1.25). For a taste of nostalgia, get the Mallow More ($3), a smooth dome of hard chocolate shell that gives way to a fluff of marshmallow atop a buttery shortbread cookie.
The breads are first-rate, starting with the baguette ($2.75) with its formidable crunchy crust and long-developed flavor. One of my other go-to loaves is the black pepper-Gruyere ($8.50). You taste the nutty cheese and the piney, sharp peppery taste in every wonderful bite. The English muffins ($2 each) have a sturdy character and a true taste of grain.
Pro Tip: Go early for the best selection. Even when the bakery had normal hours, it would often sell out of favorites long before closing. Now, it’s only open on Wednesdays, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for coffee and cookies; and Thursday through Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. If you’re planning to go on a Saturday or Sunday, Crispian allows you to pre-order items online for those two days only, which you should definitely take advantage of to ensure you get everything you desire.