Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - July 8, 2011

One door closes, another opens

Owners shutter Bistro Elan, but open the sparkling Birch Street restaurant just a stroll away

by Dale F. Bentson

After operating the highly regarded Bistro Elan on Palo Alto's California Avenue for 16 years, Andrea Hyde and husband/chef Ambjorn Lindskog closed the restaurant on July 2. Fortunately for diners, they didn't travel far; they shifted their business just a stroll away to their new, smaller Birch Street location.

"It was all about rent and the relationship with our landlord," Hyde said of the move. "Many of our patrons met their partners on first dates at Bistro Elan; we watched families and kids grow; it was an extension of our living room. We hope we brought those sentiments with us."

I found that everything sparkled at Birch Street, including the food. The stainless steel of the kitchen was mimicked in cool gray walls and a shiny hardwood floor. The large front window and side transoms flooded the space with midday light.

The drawback is the size: a dozen tables inside, a dozen more outdoors when the weather cooperates. As of this writing, the restaurant is open only for lunch. Dinner service is scheduled to commence on July 15.

Diminutive Birch Street might be the only sit-down restaurant I have been in where the kitchen is larger than the dining room. Despite the nook size, it took the couple nine months to get through the permit process and start construction on Birch Street.

The end results were worthwhile, though. During my visits, patrons were lined up when the doors opened for lunch. By noon, getting a seat involved a short wait. Service was ever-prompt and the kitchen necessarily fast — people needed to get back to work.

For starters, both soups were packed with flavor. The creamy corn chowder with red potatoes and leeks ($5 cup/$7.50 bowl) contained kernels of just-shucked corn, finely diced potato and ringlets of leek, all very fresh tasting.

The chilled cucumber soup with yogurt, onion and dill ($5/$7.50) was rich and tangy; even a cup quelled the pangs of appetite. This soup was well-balanced and the dill used sparingly enough to taste the sweet/sourness of the yogurt.

I loved the arugula salad ($11) with cara cara navel orange segments, Meyer lemon, lime, dates, hazelnuts and parmesan cheese. The salad was peppery, citrusy, crunchy with hints of sweetness.

Of the main dishes, the pan-seared albacore tuna ($15.75) sat atop a bed of roasted burgundy-red beets, avocado and snap peas, all dressed with a spicy paprika dressing. Flavors tumbled off the fork.

Orecchiette (little ears) pasta ($15.75) was tossed with a slightly piquant house-made chili sausage (red pepper flakes, cumin, fennel) fresh English peas and pecorino cheese. The generous portion was long on flavor and satisfaction. The veal shank-stuffed cannelloni ($15) was packed with fork-tender meat and mushrooms under a blanket of roasted tomato sauce. A pile of crisp greens made a nice accompaniment.

Birch Street features BN Ranch beef. BN are the initials of natural-meat pioneer Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch meats. Niman left that business in 2007 and now raises superb grass-fed cattle on his own ranch in Bolinas. Niman makes a special all-beef hot dog exclusively for Birch Street ($7.50) with house-made waffle chips.

Another superb sandwich was the Swedish tartine ($13.50) on toasted pain de mie (similar to a pullman, long and narrow) piled with smoked salmon, Oregon shrimp, cucumber, asparagus, hard-boiled egg, dill and mayo all covered with paper-thin radish slices. The sandwich was as pretty as it was delicious: a mini smorgasbord on an oversized flat of toast. It came with house waffle chips.

Lindskog and Hyde have long championed the Sunday California Avenue farmers market, where they buy all their seasonal produce. Several of the farms make supplemental deliveries during the week to maintain the freshest product.

Finally, I'm not much of a fan of strawberry ice cream, but this one turned my head. The strawberries had been roasted before being churned into the cream. Roasting the berries evaporated the water and intensified the flavor. It was like eating strawberry-jam ice cream.

Also available was a delicious chocolate-chip ice-cream sandwich and various tartlets including a lip-smacking caramel-chocolate tartlet. All desserts were $5, required no prep time and were delivered quickly to the table.

The beverage list was more than adequate. Wines were offered by the glass, carafe and bottle.

While we lament the passage of Bistro Elan, we can celebrate that Lindskog and Hyde have just relocated to a smaller venue a block away. Like its predecessor, Birch Street delivers an appealing seasonal menu and chic ambiance, at appetizing prices.

Birch Street

2363 A Birch St., Palo Alto

650-853-0667 and 650-327-0188

www.bistroelan.com

Hours: Tue.-Sat.: Lunch: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner: 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. (starting July 15)

Reservations: no

Credit cards: yes

Parking: city lots

Alcohol: beer and wine

Children: no

Catering: no

Takeout: yes

Outdoor dining: streetside

Party facilities: no

Noise level: loud

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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