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Report on Stoa in Palo Alto (long)

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Report on Stoa in Palo Alto (long)

eel | Aug 11, 2004 08:03 PM

I took a friend out to dinner last week to celebrate his birthday. He just happens to be vegan, and I wanted something upscale and special, so it was a choice between Millennium in SF and Stoa in Palo Alto. Based on reports on this board, I chose Stoa and I’m glad I did.

Stoa is a vegetarian restaurant, and will happily and very skillfully make most items vegan if you wish (everything on the menu except 1 app. and 2 mains could go vegan). But don’t stop reading! It was very good, maybe great, and I will go back. And I’m not vegetarian.

Stoa is unfortunately located right next to the 101 in Palo Alto. Once inside, however, it’s easy to forget the questionable site. The room is calm and pleasant (they’re making the most of an ugly building), and I don’t remember being able to hear the traffic.

The menu is broken down into salads, app’s, entrees, and additions. While we perused the menu, we were offered Acme bread with a ramekin of English pea spread (a puree of fresh peas, garlic, walnuts, olive oil and (gasp) soft tofu, but you wouldn’t know it was in there). It was delish—a very fresh green taste.

We shared a fig and arugula salad with strawberry balsamic vinaigrette, cracked pepper and fluer de sel. I wanted it because I love figs and arugula. Turns out that the star of the dish was the strawberry vinaigrette—fresh strawberry taste, perfectly balanced with the balsamic, not too sweet or heavy. I didn’t expect it to shine like it did. I saw a salad nicoise go by—beautifully presented in a tower configuration (minus the tuna, of course). In fact, the presentation throughout the meal was excellent.

We got two app’s: spaghetti squash spring rolls and coquilles au poivre. The spring rolls were really neat—crisp, not greasy skins full of seasoned strands of spaghetti squash, served with a wonderful golden raisin and saffron chutney and a little pile of roughly chopped roasted almonds. Nice combination of tastes and textures. The coquilles were a surprise—ovals of firm tofu, encrusted with cracked pepper and seared over high heat. The dish was presented with morels, corn, lima beans, roasted garlic, and sauced with creamy, citrusy, slightly thick sauce. Again, wonderful and unexpected flavors. I hate to repeat a marketing slogan, but I can’t believe it wasn’t butter. It wasn’t, they assured us, as we had ordered everything but my entrée vegan. Even the tofu coquilles were tasty. This dish was so good that I gave up my right to half the spring rolls so I could have most of it.

My entrée was sweet corn “risotto” with caramelized pearl onions and Oregon summer truffles. No rice to be seen—the corn took the place of rice. As excited as I was about the truffles, their aroma and flavor just didn’t hold a candle to the European truffles I’ve had. They were, however, generously shaved onto the top of the dish. Contrary to the other dishes, this one was very rich. It was also very sweet (due to the great local corn). While I really relished this, an appetizer portion would have been sufficient. I actually couldn’t finish the whole serving, and that, for me, is rare when the food is this good.

My friend’s entrée was summer tajine of fava beans, dried tomatoes, potatoes, bluefoot mushrooms and couscous. Each vegetable was distinct and appeared to have received individual treatment before being combined. It was sauced around the outside of the plate something vaguely Indian or Moroccan tasting. I was hardly able to get a bite of this dish as my friend loved it.

Choosing an entrée was not easy—several of the offerings read great. For example: I’ll go back to try the chevre panna cotta with grilled stone fruit, spinach, cipollini onions with lemon thyme sauce. The folks at the table next to ours raved about it.

The additions section of the menu had vegetable side dishes such as spinach with fennel pollen, fava bean ragout, Kennebec crispy fries with remoulade. We didn’t try any of them.

We decided to skip dessert despite a nice selection of items. My friend was brought a big scoop of strawberry champagne sorbet with a candle for his birthday. It was awesome—the essence of berries.

The wine list was okay but the service was excellent. Our server knew the menu and the wine list in detail, had great timing, and knew when to fade into the background.

Cost was arount $60/person with 1 bottle of (not very expensive) wine.

All in all, a surprisingly enjoyable experience. I can’t think of the last time I was this impressed with a meal on the Peninsula.

Stoa has live jazz a few nights a week, and a early special (5:30-6:30) of any salad or app, any entree and any dessert for $29.95.

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