For a birthday celebration my husband and I went to Flea Street Café in Menlo Park last night and enjoyed their all-organic/seasonal/sustainable food. We had:
Seasonal soup, last night a pumpkin with crème fraiche and spiced walnuts
Beet & arugula salad with pistachio-crusted goat cheese
Plate of 5 veggie sides
Niman ranch steak
Chocolate espresso cupcake
The soup was amazing, pumpkin taste was fully there but not overpowering. Served very hot, a nice touch. Beets & arugula are one of my most favorite combos in the world. It was good here, but the beets seemed sweetened with sugar. Pistachio-goat cheese was a nice twist on the usual bread crumb crusted goat cheese.
My halibut, the appetizer special of the night, was generous and I was glad I went with this as my entrée instead of the halibut entrée (last nights fish special). I knew I was risking it being more of a summer dish than an autumn one, but somehow they got some flavorful red & yellow tomatoes for this dish. The combo of kalamata olives, feta, tomatoes and basil is a nice classic.
The plate of veggie sides was good but I was expecting great. The baby bokchoy, baby turnips, and cauliflower were very simply steamed/braised. The gratin of potatoes, onions, butternut squash and asiago was creative but a bit bland. The ginger mashed sweet potatoes was a big hit, comforting but exciting at the same time.
The steak was a little disappointing to me. I dont know what idea I had in mind of Niman ranch meats, but it didnt seem to live up to the hype in my head. They seared it with a very nice char taste, but besides the char I couldnt detect anything different than the steaks I make at home with Safeway beef. Actually Im not sure it was Niman Ranch, maybe it was Heritage Farms (the menu says a Niman Ranch or Heritage Farms Beef Special is offered nightly, and I wasnt paying close attention when our server had recited the specials). Also, I know this might be due to the cut and some people might like this, but the steak was very gristly. Im not expecting filet mignon, but some trimming wouldve been nice, or maybe I just like a different cut.
The cupcake had a pleasant chewy crumb, and was nicely moist and dark, with the very center almost syruppy (as if they sliced off the top and poured sauce into the middle). But I couldnt detect any espresso taste.
I couldnt help comparing this place to the Chez Panisse Café. Both start with top-notch ingredients and have the same mantra of seasonal & sustainable. But the execution at CP Cafe seems more top-class. Here, there were small things that did not show as much attention to detail, like the stray piece of ginger I bit into in the sweet potatoes, or the halibut being a tad mushy (not the delicate flakiness like the halibut at CP Café), or the cauliflower florets not being the same size (so the small ones were almost mushy while the big fat one was crunchy), or the lack of salt on their simply prepared veggies. Actually I think all the dishes were light on salt. My halibut was the only well-balanced dish in saltiness but thats because of the olives & feta in the mix. Oh, but one thing Flea Street has an upperhand on CP Café is the bread. There were what seemed like house-baked biscuits that were tender flakey but not greasy, and with a heavenly doughiness. And the crusty bread reminded me of the bread at CP Café, but here the crust was less hard, the crumb more chewy, and there are bits of nuts & grains, so much more satisfying than just bread in a basket. And served hot! I can imagine coming here just for soup & bread!
Service was very nice, but not special enough to feel like its an upscale restaurant. There are 3 (4?) small dark wood-paneled rooms and lighting was dim (but not too dark), so it wouldve felt romantic if the tables were not so close (the room was full when we sat down at 7:15).
Our total before tip came to $93 (no alcohol), and at those prices I was expecting a bit more creativity and overall feeling of specialness than what was delivered. I enjoyed the food and I picked this place because of their strict attention to organic & sustainable, something I am willing to pay extra for, but this price point makes it a once-in-a-while dinner while the food & service seems like an everyday meal. While I love superb ingredients prepared simply, the whole experience just seemed more simply good than superbly great.