Incongruity on University
Loui Loui Steak scores high for cuisine, low for retro aesthetics
The restaurant space at 473 University Ave. was built as Cafe Niebaum-Coppola in 2002, with sky-high ceilings, classic wood pillars and hardwood floors. Articulated doors opened across the front, softening the ambiance.
But mediocre food and stiff prices kept diners away, so Coppola segued the space into Cafe Rosso & Bianco, a more casual trattoria. When that didn't work either, Francis Ford pulled the plug.
In March, new owners with roots in both the Bay Area and New York reopened the place as Loui Loui Steak, an Italian-styled steakhouse with an incongruous name.
That's not all that's incongruous, though. Decorators plastered dreadful wallpaper onto every flat-walled surface. The resultant decor is a 1960s pseudo-psychedelic facade, about as much in tune with an expensive steakhouse as if Alice Waters suddenly redecorated Chez Panisse with Jack-in-the-Box ornamentation.
Further, on a recent visit I observed that one waiter must have bathed in cologne. Fragrance preceded him half a dining room away, a no-no in any eating establishment. Other waiters weren't familiar with many of the wines on the abbreviated list, although service was attentive. A steady drone of Otis Redding- and Marvin Gaye-type, male, bluesy music bludgeoned diners with entire albums played indefinitely. For $30-plus for a steak, I expected more attention to detail.
Surprisingly, the food was terrific. Everything I ordered was perfectly prepared with high-quality steaks, seafood, pasta dishes and appetizers. Desserts were particularly decadent, especially the order-ahead chocolate souffle. The women I saw trying it nearly rivaled Meg Ryan's deli scene in "When Harry Met Sally."
For starters, the gratin of pear carpaccio ($7) with asiago cheese, walnuts and arugula, dressed with honey truffle vinaigrette, was unusual, tasty and spirited. The sweetness of the ripe fruit was balanced by the peppery arugula while the walnuts provided crunch. The vinaigrette was sweet and earthy.
Octopus salad is about as Italian as salad can be. At Loui Loui, the grilled octopus ($11) was lean with firm flesh: acceptably rubbery, mild-flavored and less briny than calamari. The salad came with green beans and sliced potato. Plating was not as startling as it is in Italy; no oozing sucker-laden tentacles dangling over the edge of the dish. Instead, this was a tamer, well-conceived combination of tender cephalopod and vegetables.
The Maryland crab cake ($11.50) was chunky and deliciously briny. The texture of Maryland crab is flakier and tastes saltier than Dungeness and makes a great crab cake. The remoulade sauce accented perfectly.
Filet mignon carpaccio ($12.50) abounded with flavor. The melt-in-the-mouth meat was supported with shaved parmesan and arugula and was drizzled with truffle-infused olive oil with just enough bites to whet the appetite.
Most of the pastas are made in-house. The linguini with Kobe beef meatballs ($16) featured a generous portion of those marvelously flavor-packed meatballs. Kobe beef is buttery-tender because the meat contains a high percentage of fat. Kobe beef coupled with almost anything is delicious. The linguini and marinara sauce were merely props.
We tried two different steaks. The 8-ounce filet mignon ($28) was offered two ways, with bearnaise sauce or au poivre (misspelled on the menu). We tried the latter and the meat was lean, firm-fleshed and decadently tender. Most steaks come with a choice of side dish.
One evening, a 12-ounce rib-eye ($32.50) was the special. The tender beef was well marbled and perfectly cooked per my request. The steak was enhanced with a medley of mushrooms sauteed in brown mushroom sauce. The king-sized plate came with a pile of steamed broccoli rabe and toasted polenta. I left with a hefty doggie bag.
Veal chop Milanese ($29) was pounded flat and dredged in flour, egg, parmesan and bread crumbs, then fried. The resultant huge piece of veal was succulent, rich and subtle and was presented on a bed of arugula with a chopped tomato salad. Another doggie bag.
Noteworthy were the braised short ribs ($25), also blanketed with a hearty mushroom sauce studded with chunks of mushrooms. The short ribs had been browned, then slow-cooked with onions, carrots, celery, etc. The meat was fall-off-the-bone appetizing with minimal fat.
Desserts were first-rate. The yummy fried ravioli ($7) was filled with bananas and Nutella, topped with a sauce of mixed berries and a scoop of pumpkin ice cream. Forget the calories; just eat it and be happy.
Apple strudel ($7) was not overly sweetened, allowing the apple flavor to shine. Drizzled with caramel sauce, it was a perfect, if not distinctive, conclusion.
The chocolate souffle needed 20 minutes' oven time. The waitstaff came by midway through the entrees and asked if we wanted to order it. Ordering dessert while I'm enjoying something savory has always jarred me, yet I understand the necessity of getting the dessert prepared.
The souffle was served in a deep ramekin, enough to share, cakey on top with sumptuously immoderate warm chocolate pudding beneath. Bits of chocolate were still melting into the pool of pudding. To paraphrase Voltaire, so good it should be illegal.
The compact wine list featured wines primarily from California and Italy. Wine markups were on the hefty side for relatively humble wines. For instance, the $58 PrimaVoce and the $58 Fonte Chianti from Tuscany both retail for around $20.
Loui Loui seems somewhat at cross-purposes with itself. The service is conscientious and the cuisine superior and stylish. The decor, though, suggests something more dated, a toned-down version of Art Nouveau made famous at the flamboyant Maxwell's Plum in the 1960s. It just isn't all that appealing in this day and age.
Nonetheless, I recommend Loui Loui for the food and especially that memorable chocolate souffle.
Loui Loui Steakhouse
473 University Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: no
Party facilities: no
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent