A historic eatery
MacArthur Park has landmark ambiance, but the menu needs attention
The MacArthur Park restaurant occupies one of the loveliest buildings on the West Coast. Officially known as "Hostess House," the structure is a California historical landmark. Designed by regional architect Julia Morgan, the Arts and Crafts-era building was once a place where World War I soldiers from the former Camp Fremont in Menlo Park could meet with their families.
The spacious interior features exposed wood trusses, oversized fireplaces and a balcony at either end of the long main room with an impressive vaulted ceiling. The building was moved in 1919 to its present location at the end of University Avenue in Palo Alto after Camp Fremont was dismantled.
This past April, chef Faz Poursohi and business partner Chuck Frank acquired MacArthur Park from the bankrupt Spectrum Restaurant Group. Deja vu. Frank had hired Poursohi as the original chef at MacArthur Park in 1981, when Frank was an executive with Spectrum. It was a happy reunion for the two restaurateurs.
The partners refocused the historic eatery, painted, installed new carpeting and lighting, and upgraded the aging kitchen. The decidedly American menu is still the culinary draw. The ingredients are fresher and feature more locally raised products than in the past. The food varies from good to very good, but a few missed details jarred several dishes.
For starters, baby artichokes ($6) steamed, then grilled over mesquite, were served with an herb/yogurt/sour-cream sauce over a bed of watercress. While tasty, the chokes needed one or two more layers of spiny leaf peeled away; that first bite was extraordinarily chewy.
I enjoyed the delicate alder-smoked salmon ($12). The house-smoked fish was presented paper-thin, carpaccio-style. Served with crispy wafers, chopped egg, capers, red onion and Dijon mustard sauce, the salmon was brilliant orange-red and melt-on-the-tongue delicious.
The pasilla pepper ($8) was filled with cheddar, jack and blue cheeses, then grilled and served with salsa fresca, cilantro and lime. The cheese wasn't melted; it clotted rather than oozed. Cheddar is not a quick-melting cheese in any case, and the blue cheese overpowered everything else. The pepper was nicely charred and the salsa fresca was a triumph of fresh flavors.
MacArthur Park has a longstanding reputation for ribs. A full slab of baby back ribs is $24. I opted for the ribs and chicken ($22), a half slab of baby back ribs (eight ribs) and half a chicken. Both options came with great house-made fries and tempting, slightly piquant coleslaw.
So-called baby back ribs are really pork loin ribs and refer to the size of the bone rather than the age of the hog. Tender and lean, yes, but with little meat on the bones. They are cut from the upper part of the animal's back ribs. Nonetheless, they are a lot of fun to eat. Chef Poursohi brings his ribs in from Chicago. They are about as luscious as baby back ribs get.
The barbeque sauce was less viscous than most rib and chop house sauces. Although the recipe was not divulged, I discerned tomato, slightly sweet flavors with hints of garlic, chili pepper, lemon and perhaps Tabasco. I wouldn't call the flavors bold, yet there was a residual tang left on the tongue. The sauce proved delightful with the delicious tower of onion strings ($6). I was surprised to learn the barbeque sauce was not house-made but imported, via Chef Poursohi's recipe, from Chicago.
The fabulous double-cut pork chop ($24) spoke to me. House-smoked and grilled over mesquite, the chop had an outside that was charred black-gold while the interior was snowy-white, juicy and irresistible. Sauteed apples and a garnet yam added to the eloquence.
Ravioli of the day ($22) was stuffed with spinach and cheese. Bathed in tomato cream sauce and dotted with bits of smoked trout, the ravioli had flavors that were sophisticated and rich. The salty fish added a degree of earthy depth to the plump, yielding pillows of pasta.
Jumbo diver scallops ($22) were fleshy, fresh and perfectly cooked through while retaining their natural juices. The scallops were wrapped in apple wood bacon, which prettified the presentation, but imparted too much saltiness to the delicately flavored shellfish.
The salmon special ($22), with garlicky mashed potatoes and a medley of green beans and red peppers, was suffocated by the off-tasting lemon-kiwi sauce. The sauce was more like an oversweet lemon curd and the kiwi had little flavor. I'm not sure what the point was.
Desserts had similar results. I was enthused by the rendition of warm apple tart ($7). It was almost scalloped — that is, creamy — with slices of hot apple on a feather bed of airy pastry. Alas, the surrounding sauce was a head-scratcher: an awful cinnamon-coffee concoction that nearly ruined the dessert. A simple cinnamon sauce would have sufficed. I wondered if someone in the kitchen had made a mistake. In any case, I could manage only that part of the tart untouched by the dreadful sauce.
The creme brulee trio ($9) was three little ramekins of chocolate-, Grand Marnier- and coffee-flavored brulees. Only the chocolate was edible, and it was more pudding than airy custard. The Grand Marnier brulee tasted solely of alcohol; the liqueur must have been poured over at the last minute. The coffee was just inedible, smacking of burnt coffee grounds.
The turtle pie ($8) was a moist fudge chocolate brownie with dense fudgy topping and a dollop of whipped cream. It was the best dessert we tried, but all the desserts looked better than they tasted.
The wine menu lists about 80 California wines. Prices are heady and most California wines are overpriced anyway. The mark-up here runs about three times wholesale. Corkage is $5.
The restaurant can accommodate up to 350 people, nearly double that for cocktails. Though more attention to detail in the kitchen is needed, MacArthur Park has all the right ingredients: all-American food and wine, excellent service and stylish ambiance.
27 University Ave.
Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.; Sun. 5-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: yes
Party and banquet facilities: yes
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent