Re-energized and relocated
St. Michael's Alley lures with stylish surroundings, excels with satisfying, earthy cuisine
In college (OK, it's been a few years) I survived on frozen Swanson Chicken Pot Pies. My local grocery store often had them on sale as a price leader for 49 cents. Perpetually short on funds, I ate pot pies for both lunch and dinner for weeks on end. Upon graduation, I swore I'd never look another pot pie in the eye.
I changed my tune, though, after glimpsing St. Michael's Alley's chicken pot pie ($19) being delivered to another table just as we were being seated. After delightful appetizers, my deep-dish, oversized pot pie arrived, piping hot from the oven, with a golden crust of puff pastry that had oozed over the sides while it baked.
As I pierced the crust with my fork, a steam vent of appetizing aromas released. Loaded with garden-fresh peas, miniature carrots, green onions, leeks and big chunks of white meat, the pie was creamy, crusty and crunchy.
The presentation was so eye-catching that it elicited oohs and ahhs from an adjacent table. It took some time for the pie to cool enough to dig into, but the savory pleasures were worth the wait.
Chef CJ Hammer told me that the pot pie was flavored with a pinch of nutmeg added to the white wine, cream and chicken stock base, and a dark roux bound the mixture. Gruyere cheese was added to the puff pastry to achieve the flaky pliable crust he has perfected.
This is the all-new St. Michael's Alley at the corner of High Street and Homer Avenue, by the way, just around the corner from the original location on Emerson Street in downtown Palo Alto. According to co-owner Michael Sabina, the original site is still used for weekend brunch and private parties. Soon, though, he hopes to start work converting the old space into a neighborhood pizza/pasta bistro.
Sabina, and co-owner/wife Jennifer Youll, designed and built the new space. It took them two-and-a-half years. Sabina, a mechanical engineer, was aided by family and friends who came from across the country to assist in the build-out.
"We used a long felled walnut tree from a friend's property in Woodside to make the bar. I fashioned five different options for Jenny on wainscoting. We drilled through the concrete floor for mechanicals. We recycled and salvaged everywhere we could," he said.
The results are first-rate. The space is divided into two separate rooms — three if the outdoor patio is included. One room houses the warm and cozy bar that includes a long striped banquette with tables.
The dining room is more sophisticated in design with caramel-colored walls topping head-high white wainscoting. Contemporary lighting and smart tables and chairs complete an elegant dynamic. Daytime, the patio is the preferred spot. The orangey umbrellas glow in the midday sunshine, making both food and patron look healthy and vibrant.
The menu will soon segue into more summery fare but, overall, the food and service have never been better. Perhaps it was just my perception; perhaps the new space did reenergize the staff.
Appetizers included bruschetta ($6), an Italian appetizer America has taken many liberties with. While not the classic bruschetta of garlic-rubbed toast beneath chopped fresh tomatoes and basil, the St. Michael's version was appealing. Six toasted baguette slices were smeared with goat cheese and topped with tomato-herb relish that featured basil, oregano, rosemary, garlic, green onion, balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
I enjoyed the artichoke and cheese tart ($7), which was as artistically pleasing as it was good to eat. It was a flavorful, rich cheese custard, similar to quiche, but even lighter.
Ginger prawn lollipops ($9) were another hit. The Vietnamese-styled complex dipping sauce enlivened the crispy, fresh-tasting crustaceans.
Also noteworthy was the earthy wild mushroom cake ($6) topped with crispy leeks and garlic herb sauce. The mushrooms, of course, vary by season. Currently, chef Hammer uses portabella, oyster and white button mushrooms added to white wine, leek oil, green onions, chives, eggs, cream and panko breadcrumbs.
For main courses, the spring pea risotto ($17) was a solid bet. Creamy and rich, the still-firm grains of rice were studded with leeks, bits of asparagus and wild mushrooms.
Pan-roasted juicy Alaskan halibut ($26) sat atop smashed Yukon gold potatoes infused with sundried tomato beurre blanc sauce. Steamed asparagus with fresh pesto completed the boldly flavored plate.
Fresh briny seared sea scallops ($23) were served with zesty ginger-lime beurre blanc risotto topped with fresh mango. Baby bok choy splashed with lime gremolata (parsley, garlic, lime peel) balanced that delicious dish.
Desserts did not disappoint. Strawberry bread pudding ($7.50) was warm and ever so slightly crunchy. It was delicious with the vanilla bean creme anglaise and whipped cream.
Raspberry parfait ($8) was a festive frozen puck layered with honey-almond mousse, raspberry sauce and whipped cream, especially refreshing on temperate evenings. Chocolate layer cake ($7.50) was appropriately dense and gooey, rich, with a resonant note of sweetness, yet not cloying.
Wine prices are fair and many are offered by the glass. Roses are particularly delightful this time of year. Sabina said he is making an effort to wean many patrons away from white zinfandel (the mere thought makes me shiver) and onto the more delicious roses. Corkage fee is $20.
"We stock 120 to 150 wines and try to keep at least two-thirds of them as local as possible," Sabina said, mentioning several from the Santa Cruz Mountains. The list is augmented with Napa and Monterey County wines and an occasional import.
Unlike the original St. Michael's Alley, the new restaurant offers a full bar with specialty cocktails.
I liked the old St. Mike's just fine but I am enamored with the new edition. The ambiance is cozy and stylish, the food lively and engaging, the service friendly and knowledgeable. With an ever-evolving menu, it's the kind of place I will never tire of.
St. Michael's Alley
140 Homer Ave.
Dinner: Tue.-Sat. 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Lunch: Tue.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Brunch: Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: yes
Party facilities: yes
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent