Room for improvement
Stellar wine cellar, chic ambiance, but Lavanda needs some tightening up
Sometimes that first date is magical. You think a long-term relationship could develop. The object of attention, though, is merely a mirage, reflecting your own dreams and not reality. On subsequent dates, you notice the little things: the stained shirt, the not-quite-fresh breath, the scuffed shoes. You decide to remain just friends.
My relationship with Lavanda in downtown Palo Alto went something like that. I looked forward to reviewing the restaurant that opened in 2002 and has received many wine and food accolades, including winning Wine Spectator magazine's "Best of Award of Excellence" for five consecutive years. Bruce Schmidt and Luca Dvornik manage the operations.
However, while I found the decor chic and appealing, the wine list terrific, the wait staff first-rate and the Mediterranean-themed menu interesting enough, the food had its ups and downs. There were also bothersome issues that left me wondering.
Besides the regular menu, there was a loose-leaf page of Specialties from Croatia. I thought it was a monthly "foods of the wine world" program Lavanda was running. Turns out it isn't. Dvornik hails from Croatia and his native cuisine is very much Mediterranean. The additional page was meant as a permanent addition to Lavanda's oeuvre. I wasn't aware of that until interviewing Schmidt just before going to press.
My first date at Lavanda was for lunch. I ordered the fried Laughing Bird shrimp po'boy with remoulade sauce, romaine and pickled onions ($12). It was one of the best sandwiches I've ever eaten. The soft but crusty bread, from Panorama Baking Company in San Francisco, made the sandwich excel. The shrimp was delightfully spicy, the sauce just right. But the accompanying fries were limp and unappealing.
On a subsequent dinner date, we were shown to a back table despite the restaurant being nearly empty at an early dinner hour. I faced the wall so my companion could have a view.
I didn't mind so much sitting at a back table, but to the left of the wall was the passageway to the restrooms, and a small space where the staff hung their coats and the restaurant stored extra chairs. There was a curtain that could have been drawn that would have lessened the visual distress, but alas, I felt I was eating in the storeroom.
The menu offered about a dozen and a half hot and cold small plates, all amazingly priced at $5, a great value. The bruschetta with avocado, olive oil and sea salt was perched atop perfectly grilled bread — a successful derivation of the classic tomato-based bruschetta.
Other small plates included grilled sardines, charred squid, fried okra chips that were finger-lickin' tasty, a Croatian pepper-and-eggplant relish and roasted-lamb spare ribs in lemon au jus that were a tad too fatty for my taste. The farinata, or chickpea pancake, with tapenade was delicious.
Moving to bigger plates, the grilled salmon wrapped in grape leaves ($24) was mouthwatering with raisins and pine nuts over a bed of couscous and grilled vegetables. It was an enticing plate with harmonious flavors, textures and aromas. The raisins added an unexpected sweetness to the slightly briny fish.
My favorite dish was the roasted marinated half chicken ($23) with nearly caramelized onions, a wisp of garlic, diced roasted potatoes, lemon and olive oil. The succulent, meaty chicken had crisped skin and was rich and juicy inside. It was halved again for easy knife-and-fork manipulation.
The menu, though, lacked descriptions. Each dish simply listed ingredients with no adjectival embellishments. For example, the above chicken was listed as "Mary's Roasted Marinated Half Chicken with Spring Onion & Garlic, Potatoes, Lemon & Olive Oil." The components were fine but why would I choose a dish based just on a list of ingredients? There was nothing to entice, to whet the appetite. It was a disservice to the kitchen.
The New York steak ($28) was served with blue-cheese butter, a head of roasted garlic, truffled mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. A tender cut of meat, perfectly prepared and quite the bargain for a quality steak these days.
Handkerchiefs ($17), technically fazzoletti, were little triangles of pasta, dressed with a rich, meaty ragu of beef, tomatoes, vegetables and olive oil, capped with a shower of Parmesan. There was no holding back on the meat in this thick sauce; it was extravagant and the dish was satisfying.
But the house-made pumpkin gnocchi ($18) with Gorgonzola cream, walnuts, fried sage and cinnamon was dreadful. The gnocchi were dense and chewy and the Gorgonzola overwhelmed any hint of pumpkin flavor. The color was an unappetizing gray and the consistency was more Elmer's glue than anything edible. I sent the dish away and the kitchen quickly prepared the handkerchiefs instead.
For dessert, the warm raisin-bread pudding ($8) with vanilla-bean creme anglaise was delicious, as was the vanilla-bean creme brulee ($8). The pumpkin cheesecake ($9) with caramel sauce and warm apple kuchen with whipped cream ($8) were both very good.
The warm pear tart with vanilla ice cream ($9) wasn't as successful. The pears were underripe, and, when baked, yielded no juices to caramelize and run through the pastry. The tart was dry and flavorless.
The impressive wine list is broad and deep. Besides featuring big bruiser Bordeaux and deliriously expensive Burgundies, the list contains scores of worthy, affordable wines. The good selection of wines by the glass is reasonably priced.
Besides the disastrous gnocchi (which should never have left the kitchen), there were a few other noticeable blemishes at Lavanda. The bathrooms were below acceptable for a restaurant of that caliber. No excuses: They should be maintained throughout the evening.
One wine menu I was handed was dilapidated with a shopworn cover and brittle plastic-covered pages. I would have been hard-pressed to want to choose a $500 bottle of wine from those pages. Finally, and this might be splitting hairs, but the restaurant's website contains a great deal of outdated information. I don't know if it's economics or a general slackness, but Lavanda needs some tightening up.
185 University Ave.
Lunch: Weekdays 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.; Sun. 5-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Outdoor dining: no
Party facilities: yes
Noise level: can be noisy
Bathroom cleanliness: fair