The name, Borrone MarketBar, sounded ominous. What's a "marketbar?" Please, please let it be not another pricey, erratic new eatery that's trendier than thou and louder than garbage trucks backing up.
Rest assured, the restaurant that opened in Menlo Park early this year is none of the above. In fact, it may be the best food news in the city since Roy Borrone moved his cafe from Redwood City to Menlo Park, next to the bookstore started by Roy Kepler. That was 25 years ago. Cafe Borrone is still thriving, with MarketBar as its new neighbor in the restaurant space next door.
MarketBar squeezes more than two words together. Much of the square footage that used to be an Italian restaurant's dining area is now the kitchen, and the remaining space is jammed with possibilities. You could go for coffee and pastry, a seasonal cocktail and oysters, a full dinner with terrific service or takeout items ranging from rotisserie chicken to quinoa salad. (Important note: It's open only Wednesday through Saturday.)
The market part of the name signifies fresh ingredients and in-house preparation. Chef and co-owner Josh Pebbles studied with master butchers in Italy and now turns three pigs per week into sausage, ragu and meatballs. Pastas and pastries are made fresh daily. Trout is smoked in-house.
Pebbles and his wife, Marina Borrone, opened MarketBar in February. If there were kinks at the beginning, they're gone. On a recent weeknight, our only issue was where to enter. It seemed logical to go where the tables were, outside. When that proved a dead end, we went into the deli area, where a helpful counter person directed us to the friendly staffer who would seat and serve us.
We started with a dry rose wine ($9 a glass, $32 a bottle), a well-made martini ($11) and two flavors of the complementary focaccia. One was a little under-baked. The wine list is small but well suited to the menu. Prices favor buying a bottle. Seasonal cocktails and non-alcoholic "mocktails" play with fresh fruit and herbs.
The market salad that day ($12) was a bed of julienned spinach and shaved fennel topped with avocado, creme fraiche and smoked trout (watch for bones), sprinkled with black sesame seeds and brought together by a simple vinaigrette.
We told the server we were splitting everything, and got two lovely extra plates (from San Francisco's Heath Ceramics) with each course at no extra charge. She suggested the meat ravioli ($16) as a favorite. That's a lot for ravioli, but these were plentiful, hot, not lumpy or pasty, with a meat-and-spinach filling to enjoy with or without the luscious pork ragu.
Moving on to an entree of day boat scallops ($24), we beheld four fat, glistening specimens, just-cooked so that the tops and bottoms were slightly crispy but the meat was sweet and moist. On either side were purees, one yellow squash consomme and one spicier romesco. Livening things even further were four tempura-coated, deep-fried padron peppers and a sprinkle of heated and softened red currants.
We ended our little four-course festival with a rectangle of banana cream/chocolate tart. This is not a pie-throwing banana cream pie. No bland filling or whipped fluff, but a buttery crust topped with hard chocolate (which keeps it from getting soggy as well as contributing flavor), fruit-forward filling, and a few dollops of whipped cream.
With tax and tip, we spent close to $100.
I would go back for items too numerous to mention, including starters such as ceviche with guacamole. And for the happy feeling we had when we left. Service was great, with different staffers pitching in where needed. Also pleasantly unobtrusive were the sourcing announcements. Entrees are "caught on the line or raised on the ranch." If you're interested, I'm sure they'll tell you more.
1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park.
Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, dinner and takeout: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; coffee: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Sunday-Tuesday.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: underground parking lot
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: yes
Party and banquet facilities: no
Noise level: medium
Bathroom cleanliness: good