Dining Outside at the New Sekoya
If you get the inkling that Sekoya, the newest restaurant to open on California Avenue in Palo Alto, might be named for the majestic, hardy, and giant tree, you’d be correct.
From the English elm and walnut tables in the lounge, and the dramatic, curving, live-edge dining table by the bar to the plates that mimic cross-sections of trees, it’s clear that sequoias and their ilk are an inspiration for this bar, lounge, and restaurant that opened in mid-August.
It’s the latest restaurant by Steve Ugur, co-owner of San Mateo’s Pausa with Chef Andrea Giuliani, who also happens to be director of butchering at his father’s San Mateo restaurant, Porterhouse. Unlike the former, which is Italian, and the latter, which is a classic steakhouse, Sekoya draws from many global influences, primarily French and Mediterranean.
As Ugur explained when I was invited in to the restaurant as his guest a week ago, Sekoya is designed to provide a variety of dining options. Patrons can take a seat solo at the bar with its cool, neon coil draped above for a cocktail and a nosh, join colleagues after work for a drink in the lounge outfitted with sofas and upholstered chairs, or enjoy date-night in the outdoor dining spaces at the front and rear of the restaurant. The restaurant is open every day except Sundays, and stays open late by Palo Alto standards — until 11 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
Dining outdoors on a Friday evening on California Avenue makes for an especially festive time. With the street closed to car traffic now, most restaurants have set up tables on the sidewalks and in the street, giving it a rather European outdoor vibe. I dined at a table at the front of the restaurant, set into the entryway, which provides shade from the sun, and makes for excellent people watching.
Most of the original cocktails are named for California mountain ranges. I went with the Bear Divide ($18), named for a narrow pass in the San Gabriel Mountains. It’s a potent, boozy blend of honeycomb cereal-infused bourbon, barenjager honey liqueur, and orange bitters. Garnished with an orange twist and a piece of honeycomb cereal, it tastes toasty with sweet vanilla and has a vivid sweet-bitter citrus peel finish.
My friend Charlen and I shared everything, beginning with the Kona Kampachi crudo ($20), with slices of the firm, sweet flesh arrayed in a light, chilled coconut broth. Pickled celtuce added a piquant note, and chili garlic tempura bits were deliciously crunchy and airy.
More crispiness came by way of double-fried tempura mushrooms ($16). Shimeji and maitake pieces were battered and fried to a deep crunch. Tofu whipped with sweet soy sauce and yuzu created a creamy sauce to dunk into. It’s a dish that’s as addictive as chips and dip.
For something really out of the box, there’s chicken liver mousse ($18) that’s served surprisingly with banana bread doughnuts. Yes, you read that right. It’s not as farfetched as you would imagine, not when you realize that pate is often served with a sweet fruit component such as a compote or mostardo. A smear of the mousse covered the bottom of a bowl with spiced blackberries. The sugared doughnut holes were arranged over the top. Drag one through everything and get a bite of sweet, pillowy doughnut with a creamy center of banana cream along with the rich, minerally mousse.
I thought it was a fun, unexpected bite. My dining companion, though, missed the contrasting crunchy texture that crostini would have offered instead.
If you devour the doughnuts and still have mousse left over, save it to spread on the Parker House rolls ($12) that also come with soft cultured butter. The rolls are crusty, deeply caramelized, and delightfully soft and tender inside.
Sekoya sports a Japanese binchotan grill, which it puts to use on a selection of skewers. We tried the Spanish octopus one with chorizo ($16). The morsels threaded on the skewer were tender and spicy, but a bit salty.
Summer green and yellow beans ($12) also get a turn on the grill, turning them smoky and al dente on a shallow pool of whipped ricotta. If you have kids or anyone not enamored of heat, you can ask for the chili-garlic oil on the side, as we did.
The roasted half seasonal fish ($36) — rock fish that night — was finished in brown butter. It was quite moist and flavorful, but the lovely green spread of crispy herbs all over the top suffered from a heavy hand with the salt.
For dessert, there is the OG butterscotch pudding ($16), crowned with whipped lemon mascarpone and crunchy spiced almond crumble. It has a mild butterscotch taste and a nice velvety texture.
For many years, Ugu’s uncle was the co-owner of nearby Cafe Pro Bono. No doubt the passion for hospitality runs deep in his family — and it shows.
More: A Visit to Porterhouse
And: A Visit to Pausa