Dining At the New Che Fico Parco Menlo
For those of us who live on the Peninsula and South Bay, we couldn’t be happier that it’s been a boom time of late for new restaurants opening in this region, including outposts by celebrated San Francisco chefs.
It debuted at Springline, the splashy new residential-restaurant mixed-use development off El Camino Real.
Last Thursday night, when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant, the place was buzzing. Nearly every table was filled in the well-appointed, covered and heated outdoor patio that sports tufted banquettes and cozy pillows.
Same with the main dining room, where it was standing-room-only at the bar as patrons waited for tables to open up. A retro soundtrack of Earth, Wind & Fire, Al Green, and the Clash played in the background.
With terrazzo floors, deep red banquettes, and double-decker shelves of potted plants galore, the effect is almost modern Baroque in style. Add to that luminous Murano glass chandeliers chosen for their resemblance to certain pasta shapes, and you have a playful setting that certainly makes a statement.
The lighting is on the dimmer side, and with the type on the menu printed in thin font, you may be tempted to turn on the flashlight on your phone to read it more easily, which I saw a few people actually do.
A lot has been said about the restaurant’s 10 percent dine-in fee, which Nayfeld added in Menlo Park and San Francisco in order to more equitably pay employees. It is not necessarily considered an automatic gratuity, so diners can weigh tipping on top of that.
If that gives you sticker shock, just know that the dishes are meant to be shared family-style, and they are generously sized.
A Blood Orange Spritz ($20), garnished with a green olive and big slice of orange, will transport you to the Amalfi Coast with one sip. It’s light and refreshing, a blend of blood orange juice, blood orange Mommenpop made with Barbera rosé grapes, bergamot liqueur, and soda.
The Menlo Park location features some dishes not available at the original San Francisco restaurant, including the Parmigiano fritti ($16). A treat for true cheese lovers, this saucer-like pinwheel creation comes to the table hot, crispy, and showered with finely grated Parmigiano. Made with delicate choux (cream puff dough) and plenty of 24-month-aged Parmigiano, this fried specialty reminded me of the epitome of the world’s best hash brown in texture — deeply crunchy all over, then tender and a little chewy inside. The taste is sharp, nutty, and salty in the best of ways.
Insalata Invernale ($24) brought a bountiful bowl of radicchio, castelfranco, and red endive leaves, their bitterness contrasting nicely with pickled persimmons, golden beet slices, and toasted hazelnuts in a balsamic vinaigrette with a flurry of Parmigiano overtop.
Pizzas shine here. Made with naturally fermented dough, the crust is a marvel. It has a delicious fermented tang to it. But more than that, it has an unexpected lightness to it. The center is stretched quite thin, giving way to a much thicker, puffy, delightfully chewy-tender rim that sports some dramatic air holes.
The Amatraciana ($29) is adorned with sweet San Marzano tomato and Che Fico’s own guanciale, along with plenty of black pepper and Pecorino. Take a bite and it’s at once a little fatty, salty, spicy, tangy, and plenty porky sweet. The edges of the thinly sliced cured pork jowl get crispy while its fat takes on a melty quality almost like lardo.
Pasta are all made in-house. The gargati $34) are chewy, ridged short pasta tubes that are tossed with a milky tasting pheasant ragu with rich dark meat poultry taste, and finished with Parmigiano Reggiano.
The gnochetti sardi ($34) are firm, rolled, ridged shells tinged with saffron in an herbaceous sausage ragu and San Marzano tomatoes and showered with Pecorino.
The seared octopus ($45) is one of the best I’ve ever had — wonderfully smoky tasting, with the edges of the tentacles crisped up, and the flesh so plump and tender. It was dressed with an herby and slightly spicy tomatillo salsa verde and came with creamy little potatoes.
Desserts are mainly variations on soft serve. The panino gelato ($12) is perfect for sharing because it’s comprised of two Italian-style ice cream sandwiches. Thin, delicate pizzelle cookies bookend a filling of milky, floral tasting fior di latte gelato that gets garnished with salted toasted pistachios.
The check arrives with a last bite of chewy, nutty cookies.
The dining scene may be awash in Italian restaurants, but Chef Fico Parco Menlo is definitely a newcomer worth checking out. In late February, it’s also expected to open the nearby Che Fico Mercato, which will sell house-made sauces, frozen pastas, sandwiches, coffee, and gelato.