The tomatoes, plucked that dewy morning from the garden adjacent to the Red Currant bistro, sang with fresh, ripe earthiness. I sopped up the remaining vinaigrette with the artisanal house-made bread that had been placed on the table along with icy water goblets minutes earlier, while we perused the menu.
It was dreamy lunching in the Garden of Delight under a California live oak tree at Menlo Park's Allied Arts Guild. Gone for the season were the blooms of roses, purple wisteria, Nile lilies, asters and salvia. But understated hydrangeas still retained their flowers amid bubbling fountains and neatly trimmed gardens, with the long shadows of September silently segueing to autumn. What more charming setting for a midday repast?
Ayelet and Nir Perry have been the proprietors of The Red Currant bistro at Allied Arts Guild since last November. Ayelet Perry is a self-taught, intuitive chef who grew up in Israel. Her parents were in the restaurant and catering business and she cut her teeth on Mediterranean cuisine.
Nir, who was born in the U.S., had relocated to Israel with his parents. The couple met in high school and have been together ever since, moving to the Bay Area in the mid 1990s.
Ayelet began a whirlwind apprenticeship working with such notables as Wolfgang Puck, Hubert Keller and Pascal Janvier. She has cooked for U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the late U.S. congressman Tom Lantos and the prime minister of Hungary. She is an advocate for organic, sustainable, locally grown products. The Perrys also own Cassis Catering in Redwood City.
The Red Currant is a captivating enclave. The grounds, intricately manicured by master gardener Kathleen Bryan, are on historical property smack in the middle of Menlo Park. The lot can be traced back to a land grant from the King of Spain over two centuries ago.
In the early 20th century, art lovers Delight and Garfield Merner bought 3.5 acres of the land and collaborated with architect Gardner Dailey and artist Pedro de Lemos to create a place where artists would work and folk art would be supported. The Allied Arts Auxiliary took over management of the guild in 1951, and profits go toward the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.
Al fresco garden dining is available as weather permits. Indoors, the spacious ambiance of The Red Currant is decidedly Spanish-American with a tile floor, whitewashed adobe walls and a muscular fireplace surrounded by paned windows that overlook gardens, fountains and courtyards. Crisp white linen covers tables and softens the wood chair/wood table motif.
The fish I ordered one midday was a wedge of pan-seared salmon, which sat atop a throne of inky forbidden wild rice, and was surrounded by a lush moat of jazzy mint-yogurt sauce ($19.95). Chef Perry utilizes the freshest fish available, including branzino, a Mediterranean sea bass. This day, though, it was salmon that was fork-flaky, pink and regal.
The generously portioned, tender hangar steak ($19.95) was the color of deep rich mahogany thanks to the caramelized onions and the syrupy reduction of red wine and balsamic vinegar. The accompanying celery root-potato puree could have been mistaken for whipped potatoes but with more flavor.
Schnitzel ($15.75) was thinly sliced seasoned chicken breast, which came with celery root-potato puree, sauteed onions and coleslaw. The chicken had been flattened, lightly breaded with herbs, and quickly sauteed. It was so tender that each bite nearly melted on the tongue.
The Middle Eastern platter ($14.75) featured sweet-potato falafel, hummus, tabouleh salad and house-made flat bread. The tabouleh salad was composed of bulgur, finely chopped tomatoes, onions, parsley, mint, olive oil and lemon juice. Everything on the plate was vibrant and refreshing.
Desserts were equally distinctive. Honeydew melon soup with lychee and passion-fruit sorbet ($8.75) was cool and refreshing. It reminded me of the delicious fruit shrubs (frosted fruit juices and sorbet) served at Colonial Williamsburg.
An airy Italian meringue with fresh cream and berry coulis ($7.50) struck just the right note. Not overly sweet, the dove-white colored meringue was the perfect nest for the vibrant red berry sauce.
Plum crisp ($8.25) with a scoop of vanilla ice cream — and the peach tart ($9) — were still warm from the oven. Both contained chunks of fleshy fruit with light crisp crusts and a wonderful balance between sweet and sharp.
Service was slightly impeded by the distance between the kitchen and the dining area, especially the garden. The competent servers were constantly on the move, but a little patience was necessary. The restaurant is not a venue for a quick meal, but a sensory one. The ambiance offers something of interest to gaze at, sniff, listen to or touch from every vantage point.
Due to use-permit restrictions, The Red Currant is open only for breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday and is prohibited from serving alcohol. However, patrons can bring a bottle of wine and the restaurant will charge only a nominal fee for use of the stemware.
Evening hours and alcohol are permitted for special events: weddings, business functions and social receptions. Always call for reservations as the restaurant is frequently booked for special events.
Ayelet Perry is an accomplished chef. Add to her skills a unique, beautiful property nestled in the middle of Menlo Park and the results are romantic and languid, approaching utopian. Her menu is nutritious, creative, colorful, fresh and well prepared. What better time of year than now to enjoy? "Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower." -Albert Camus.
The Red Currant
Credit cards: yes
Outdoor dining: yes
Party and banquet facilities: yes
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent
75 Arbor Road
Breakfast: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-noon. Lunch: Mon.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.