Few restaurants anywhere reach a 40-year milestone.
That such a momentous achievement happened during the height of the pandemic last year for Menlo Park’s Flea Street might have put a slight damper on the festivities that had to be held over Zoom.
But it’s a testament to this restaurant, whose doctrine of organic and sustainable has been woven into its fabric since the beginning, that after the unprecedented challenges of a pandemic it’s come roaring back.
When I dined there last week as a guest of the restaurant, every outdoor table was full of smiling patrons, clinking glasses of festive cocktails, and chatting with Chef-Owner Jesse Cool as the made the rounds. The indoor dining room is undergoing a refresh, complete with a new ventilation system, and should be ready to welcome back diners soon. Executive Chef Bryan Thuerk, all of 23 years old, couldn’t be happier to be cooking for diners in-person again, after months of doing takeout, which the restaurant had never done before.
The outdoor dining has the air of a celebratory backyard get-together with bales of hay topped with cushions for bar-service only, and wood-slatted fencing in the dining area.
Indulge in a cocktail by bartender Eloy Martinez, who’s been with the restaurant for more than 15 years. The Apricot & Sage is a blend of brandy, apricot, sage, Contreau, bitters and lemon juice that get garnished with a fresh apricot half and sage leaf. It’s fruity with a nice bitter edge and a touch of menthol.
The welcoming amuse is always a taste of the garden in season. On this day, it was perfect cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, Padron peppers, figs, and fresh peas still in their pod to dunk into a creamy cauliflower dip drizzled with herbal olive oil. There are also Flea Street’s famed sesame-flecked biscuits, based on the original recipe by Cool’s father.
One of the things my husband most missed with takeout was consuming fried foods while they were still hot and crisp. The Monterey Bay Crispy Sardines ($23) were such a treat because they were all that in a crisp yet airy-light batter. Like big fries, you could pick them up with your fingers and eat the entire thing, too, with a sprinkle of black garlic sea salt.
Fried green tomatoes ($18) are a staple here. The Southern classic is done California-style with the fried disks of tomatoes arranged over avocado mousse, grilled corn pico de gallo, and smoked bacon chipotle crema.
On a warm summer night, the cold, creamy cucumber avocado gazpacho ($18) hits the spot. It arrives with garden pico de gallo with crunchy slices of radish, jalapeno and a sprinkle of chili powder arrayed artfully off to one side. Stir everything together before dunking your spoon in to enjoy the smoothness of the soup with crunchy bits of freshness.
Another light starter that plays up summer ingredients is the compressed melon salad with diced melon served with a smear of creamy goat cheese and sweet-tart-winey Seka Hills balsamic.
Clean and delicate is the name of the game with the Albacore tuna tataki ($26) that’s topped with fava beans and slices of Fresno chili. A sweet soy sauce dressing is alongside for you to add as much as you like.
Thuerk’s take on a gluten-free carbonara ($39) is inspired and potent with porky flavor thanks to both bacon and guanciale. Instead of pasta, it’s made risotto-style with rice, which might even be better because it soaks up all that rendered pork fat beautifully. Stir in the egg yolk in the center to make everything even creamier. Plump spring peas add color and a natural, light sweetness. Risotto can often be clumpy and heavy. This was loose and al dente, as it should be.
The Vegetarian Tasting ($42) always presents a creative way to enjoy a meatless entree. In the center of the plate was an individual buttery, flaky tart with a filling of figs and olives that was topped with a poached egg. Alongside were ricotta gnocchi in tomato sauce; perfectly crisp-tender carrots, pencil-thin asparagus, and yellow squash; and a small bowl of creamed corn that packed some heat. I really appreciated that this cream corn was more corn than cream, too. It wasn’t drowning in cream, but just barely coated in it so that the sweet-fresh taste of the kernels could still be appreciated.
On weekends, the half-smoked duck ($75) often sells out. Because we were there on a weeknight, we thankfully managed to snag one of the last few orders of the night. It may seem like a splurge, but the price is about the same as two entrees at Flea Street, and two people can easily share the duck and still probably have leftovers to take home.
The skin is sweet and crisp, the meat succulent, rich and deeply satisfying thanks to its 3-day curing process that concentrates its flavor. Little crispy rice cakes — like the best part from the pot you scrape off when cooking rice at home — are alongside with bok choy, and a sauce boat of blackberry-balsamic sauce.
Flea Street’s charming take on mignardise arrived next — two tiny, sugar-topped blueberry muffins that took a refreshingly simple comfort spin on what are usually haute last bites.
After that feast, we were actually too full for dessert. But we took home four frozen cherry turnovers ($22) to enjoy later that weekend. Baking directions are included, along with a container of thin cherry glaze to drizzle over after baking that you may or may not need, depending upon your preferred level of sweetness. Flaky and golden, and full of jammy red cherries, the turnovers were a definite treat on a Sunday morning.
Coming on the heels of that engaging time at the restaurant, it was like a warm hug that lingered.