Opened last November and located in the former Trader Vic's at Dinah's Garden Hotel in Palo Alto, The Sea is the first non-meat-centric entity from the Alexander's group. The menu includes beef and bird alternatives. But the focus is superior seafood first, expertly prepared, artistically presented, with enough wow to engage most of the senses.
Executive Chef Yu Min Lin has more than two decades of experience in Japanese and French cuisine, having honed his culinary skills in the Far East and refined them in California. He was recruited to be the opening executive chef at The Sea.
Inside, the ceiling is high and the wall palette composed of sea-soothing creams and aqua. Comfortable padded chairs and linen-lined tables are judiciously placed; vases of fresh flowers abound; and a glass wall separates the otherwise open kitchen. The full bar is separate from the main dining room and private dining areas, which reduces noise levels. Dining expectations are high.
On a recent evening, an amuse-bouche also readied our palates for what was to come. Served just after we placed our orders, it was a wedge of perch with chipotle jalapeno and pickled onion. Unfortunately, the waiter didn't know where the perch came from and never bothered to find out.
For starters, there were hot appetizers, cold appetizers, chilled seafood platters, oysters and caviar. It was a lot to contemplate, and the waiter also recited various seafood specials, truffle availability and the stunning price for Wagyu beef, priced by the ounce. It would have been helpful had all the additions been printed. This was just too much information to digest coupled with questions on the menu itself.
Nonetheless, we settled on hamachi shots ($12) for the table as a pre-appetizer: six shot glasses on a tray of rock salt. The tuna was sweet and delicate and sat on a base of truffled ponzu (citrus sauce), avocado, ginger and jalapeno.
Then came the appetizers: togarashi wild Hawaiian tuna tatake (tuna with chili pepper pounded in), priced at $18. Again, the tuna was melt-on-the-tongue tender, served with slivers of radish, avocado, crispy garlic and a delicate soy vinaigrette.
The five mini crab cakes ($14) dazzled. The cakes were presented on a black slate plate dotted with the yellows, reds and greens of lemon sauce, barbeque sauce and parsley pesto. It was as if Vermeer had set his paint board in front of me.
The bread was delicious, with a choice of three house-made, savory to sweeter. I chose the croissant with seaweed: delicious. Later, the waiter asked if we wanted more bread. The answer was yes, but the bread server never reappeared.
For entrees, the seared mero (grouper) from Hawaii ($40) straddled a wedge of sweet potato and pearl onions. Sauteed broccolini crowned the firm and flavorful fish, and swirls of port wine reduction sauce encircled the dish.
Triangle tiers of seared New Zealand John Dory ($36) were playfully arranged with just shucked peas, a zest of Meyer lemon, petite shimeji mushrooms (with a slightly nutty flavor), carrots, dried bell peppers, potato and smoked salt. It was a flavor-intense dish with all ingredients complementing each other.
On a whim, we ordered a side of truffle fries. Served in a deep cone, the earthy, aromatic fried potatoes were sprinkled with parmesan cheese. The heady essence wafted across several tables, inducing more orders from nearby diners. With truffle garlic aioli, they were $10.
Pastry chef Dan Huyhn's desserts didn't disappoint. The red velvet ($12) was red genoise (sponge cake), cream cheese and cranberry that was constructed to resemble a sponge. The cake was silky and sweet, and had eye appeal atop a black plate.
"Pucker Up" ($12) was a combination of yuzu (an agreeably sour Japanese citrus), pate sucre (sweet crisp pastry), huckleberry, recomposed creme fraiche and dots of meringue. The dessert was as tasty as it was playful.
Just when we were coming up for air, a post-dessert dessert, compliments of the kitchen, was presented: chocolate pops, espresso macaroons and jelly pâtés. If those weren't enough, a teeth-shivering pompon of grape-flavored cotton candy crowned the table just before the check arrived.
The wine list, close to 20 pages, would satisfy most oenophiles. I thought the prices were reasonable given the high-caliber restaurant. The sommelier was knowledgeable and offered apologies when she noted the wrong wine glasses on the table, and had them immediately changed.
I grade on a curve, so I don't mind being a little nitpicky. For a lesser restaurant, I would have dismissed the couple of little waitstaff missteps. But there is one problem — a house policy — that leaves me a tad miffed. I made my reservations online the day before dinner. About two hours later, I retrieved a voice mail informing me that I had to call the restaurant to confirm the booking.
Most restaurants call to confirm and ask you to call them only if there is a problem. I took the time to book once; why did I have to call again?
That being said, I give very high marks to The Sea. It's pricey, but if you love the fine dining experience in beautiful surroundings, with an accomplished chef and a waitstaff that aims to please, it's a must.
The Sea by Alexander's Steakhouse
4269 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 5:30-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: patio (except in winter)
Private parties: up to 200
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent