Cibo is attached to the Creekside Inn hotel. Paul Khaki and wife/chef Anna Jamei have owned the restaurant for eight years. Previously, they were restaurant operators in San Carlos. "Many years of family experience," Khaki told me.
The space itself looks as if it had once upon a time been a coffee shop. Stools long removed, the counter is now an expansive wood-top service area. The ceiling is painted burgundy, the walls a dappled ocher. There are only booths in the main dining area and two separate dining rooms with tables and chairs. The booths abut expansive windows that front El Camino Real with views of the gnarled traffic outside.
The focal point of the restaurant is the opposite of what it should be. Behind Cibo are the lovely gardens of the Creekside Inn: serene, green, relaxing and yes, a creek runs through the property.
The menu lacks focus. The concept seems to be "something for everyone." The results seem to be not much of anything for anyone. The appetizers are a journey through the Middle East and south of the border. Coupled with the entree offerings of meats, pastas, dinner salads and sandwiches, there is no unifying theme.
There are numerous misspelled words on the menu. Marinar (marinara) sauce, artichikes (artichokes), vniaigrette (vinaigrette). After the restaurant has been eight years at this location, one would at least expect the scrutiny of spell check.
One evening, I ordered the Earth & Surf ($8.95) appetizer, a supposedly lightly battered calamari with assorted vegetables with aioli sauce. Alas, the kitchen didn't have the ingredients. That dinner, I settled for Buffalo chicken wings as an appetizer followed by the chicken and artichoke linguini entree, an odd combination.
My dining companion ended up with hummus and meat loaf. What's the theme here? Supposedly California with a touch of Mediterranean — it sure fooled me.
I tried two soups du jour ($4.95 or $3.10 if ordered in conjunction with an entree). The tomato soup was thick, more sauce-like than soupy, and way too salty. The clam chowder, on the other hand, was loaded with tender, delectable clams, potatoes, onions and — New Englanders, please avert your eyes — celery.
Those chicken wings ($7.95), by the way, weren't too bad so far as chicken wings go. The wings were meaty, the sauce slightly piquant, with ranch dressing that was cool and creamy.
We went Middle East one evening, ordering both hummus ($6.45) and mazeh ($7.45). Both were plenty for two. The hummus was tasty enough; the pureed chickpeas were enhanced with tahini, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice.
The mazeh was a platter of tomatoes, cucumber, bits of fresh basil, with big chunks of feta cheese all drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Both plates had ample amounts of fresh flat bread.
For entrees, the grilled salmon filet ($18.95) was flavorless and blanketed with the special Cibo saffron sauce. The sauce was akin to a not-very-eggy hollandaise without the kick of lemon to liven it. The color was Day-Glo yellow, startling when the plate was placed before me. Saffron-infused sauces are tawny to yellowy. I've never seen a sauce turned fluorescent yellow from saffron.
Accompanying the salmon were rice and sauteed zucchini, spinach and carrots. The carrot slices must have been hewn from a carrot the size of a sapling — they were as big as half-dollars and nowhere near cooked even partially through.
The aforementioned linguini with chicken and artichokes ($19.95) was an excellent dish with generous portions of both artichoke hearts and cubed tender chicken that was not overwhelmed with cheese.
The meat loaf ($13.95) was pretty good too. There seemed to be more than one kind of meat in it, perhaps beef and pork. The generous portion was smothered under a rich blanket of red wine mushroom sauce. The garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables that included those giant carrot slices completed the plate.
The eggplant parmesan ($14.95), drenched in marinara sauce, was burned on the bottom. It was pretty on the plate and the initial flavors were good.
The Philly steak sandwich ($12.10) was massively filling. The bread had been grilled and it oozed provolone cheese. The inside was loaded with thinly sliced, rather flavorless beef, onions and roasted red peppers. I managed not quite half of it before waving a white flag.
Service was generally good, polite, friendly and prompt except when clearing. On each of my three visits, entrees came while appetizer plates sat. The server couldn't manage with both arms full, so we awkwardly moved plates around to make room.
The wine list is puny and uninteresting. About the only wine I had any passion for was out of stock. The waiter, sensing my frustration, discounted a Beringer merlot from $44 to $26. While I appreciated the gesture, that merlot retails for $17.
Desserts provided no pleasant surprises. With the apple pie a la mode ($5.95), the crust was soggy and apples were in short supply. It had a faux artiness about it with squiggles of mango, chocolate and strawberry sauces, none of which complemented the baked apples. A glob of whipped cream flavored with something I never identified and a Maraschino cherry topped the ruin.
Lava cake ($6.25) oozed hot, thick chocolate when pricked. Obviously, it was a better choice.
Cibo has survived for eight years with a menu that can be seen as odd combinations or something for everyone. Despite my protestations, it pleases enough customers to keep going.
3398 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
Hours: Breakfast/lunch: Weekdays 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Fri. 5-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. 5-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: yes
Party facilities: yes
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent