Charming locale, jagged service
California Cafe has all the ingredients but not always the execution
California Cafe occupies a picturesque space at the Stanford Barn. In case you've forgotten, the Barn dates to 1888 and was part of Leland Stanford's steam-powered brick winery. Later, the building served as a dormitory, a dairy and headquarters for a cattle-breeding association. California Cafe debuted in 1986.
The restaurant features a lovely spacious patio along with a main dining room, banquet rooms and full bar. Along with its sister in Los Gatos, California Cafe is now owned by the international private equity firm Tavistock.
Executive chef Mark Pettyjohn has an excellent background. He is a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute and has cooked at high-end venues across the country including the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, the late Sonoma restaurant The General's Daughter, and the ultra-chic — but now also-gone — Aqua in San Francisco. He tweaks the menu seasonally.
Prices aren't shy at California Cafe, so I expected top-notch food and service. Sometimes I got it, sometimes I didn't.
For starters, the salmon tartare ($11.50) featured a "raw salad" of salmon with a pineapple sweet chili salsa glazed with a tangy lemon-soy dressing. It was a satisfying appetite revver-upper.
The Dungeness crab cake ($7.75) sat atop a bed of baby mizuna greens with pineapple salsa and pineapple sauce that did not detract from the crab. The mizuna greens — Japanese mustard — were peppery and slightly bitter, which contrasted nicely with the pineapple and brininess of the crab.
However, the phyllo-almond baked brie ($12.75) with pineapple chutney, roasted garlic, caramelized onion and toast fell woefully short of the mark. The cheese was too underripe and when baked didn't melt enough to ooze. The result was crusted flavorless cheese. In addition, the toast had been over-grilled, leaving it brittle and impossible to spread the hard cheese on.
Seared potstickers ($8.25) were supposedly stuffed with pork and vegetables, although the vegetables lay atop the plate, not inside the potsticker. The wrapper was crusty around the edges as if it had been reheated. The sauces were dismal. The sweet soy sauce was ordinary and the chili garlic aioli tasted suspiciously like Thousand Island dressing. I instead dipped the potstickers in the tasty caper olive oil sauce intended for the complimentary bread.
More successful, the Alaskan rock cod ($25) was flaky yet juicy and fishing-line fresh. The pancetta potato ragout that accompanied it added texture and some saltiness to the plate.
I also had no complaints about the chunks of Hawaiian albacore tuna ($26) that were served over jade rice with a crunchy slaw with strips of fresh mango. The tuna was perfectly cooked to order (barely seared) and was served room-temperature.
Seared, demi-glazed, day-boat scallops ($27) came with sweet corn pancetta risotto and arugula. This was a worthwhile dish. The scallops were moist and briny; the risotto added an earthiness; and the peppery greens livened the dish.
Wild boar ribs ($21.50) brushed with a sweet chili glaze and accompanied with lemon-scented mizuna were just plain fun to eat. The ribs were small in comparison to baby-backs, but plenty meaty. I counted 30 bones when I finished — and I finished them all. The glaze was both sweet and savory.
The side of haricots verts (French green beans) with pancetta ($5) would have been praiseworthy had the tiny cubes of pancetta not been over-fried. While not quite cinders, the bacon had lost its oils, and the texture had been degraded from chewy to jaw-challenging.
For dessert, butterscotch bread pudding ($7.50) was warm, appetizing and not overly sweet. Peach cobbler ($8) was delightful and made with organic peaches. Carrot cake ($7.75) was delicious and the texture was pillowy-soft but still firm enough to hold its shape. All good.
Service, however, slipped up. One evening on the patio, our server was responsible for both inside and outside tables. Problem was, she could neither see nor service both areas at the same time. Our appetizers arrived before our wine order was taken. At that point we opted for a glass rather than a bottle.
The experience was no better inside on a subsequent visit. The wine we ordered apparently couldn't be located, but we weren't informed of this until, once again, after our first courses arrived. Both times we sat in a pleasant restaurant, primed for a leisurely evening of dinner and wine, with no beverages for over half an hour. In both cases, the manager on duty should have noticed and jumped in to help.
Ordering wines by the glass can be chancy too. In one instance, the Mark West Pinot Noir ($10) was too warm, making it taste unpleasantly stemmy.
Another time, I chose a glass of Sonoma-Cutrer. The waiter poured a not-very-generous pour from the bottle ($13.50 and yes, there were less expensive wines by the glass). But that wine retails for $25; it was stick-em-up pricing. A full bottle was priced at $54. It came with a screw cap too, and please, let's not debate that issue.
Generally, wine prices ranged from $30 to $60 with some exceptions pushing triple digits. Wine prices were high versus the quality served. Corkage fee is $15.
California Cafe is situated in an idyllic spot amongst mature trees, flowering planters and old brick buildings. There is talent in the kitchen but that doesn't always translate to the dining experience.
700 Welch Road, Palo Alto
Lunch: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Brunch: Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m-3 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Sat. 4-9:30 p.m.; Sun. 4-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: restaurant lot
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: patio
Party facilities: yes
Noise level: average
Bathroom cleanliness: good