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Welcome to the chef's table

Monthly pop-up dinners at Palo Alto's Garden Court Hotel a charming experience

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Pssst. There's a room in Palo Alto where foodies gather once a month around a long, communal table to experience an intimate, specially curated meal. The menu is unique, different and unpredictable, entirely in the hands of the chef each time. People have been returning again and again for more.

The meal is served in a surprising setting: the Garden Court Hotel in downtown Palo Alto, which has no official restaurant (it is not affiliated with Il Fornaio, which occupies the large dining space on the first floor of the Cowper Street building). But it does have an official chef.

Clive Berkman, an experienced chef who hails from South Africa, came to the hotel by chance last year after helping out at an event. He's been in the kitchen ever since, in charge of the hotel's in-room dining and events (corporate dinners, weddings and the like). So these monthly pop-up dinners, which started in March, are meant as a platform to showcase his talents (and of course, bring more people into the hotel).

Dubbed 520 Chef's Table (a play on the hotel's address), these dinners are not a cheap treat. Tickets are $155 ($119 per person plus a 20 percent service fee and 8.75 percent state tax) and include a multi-course, one-night-only dinner along with a starter cocktail, wine pairings throughout dinner, interaction with the chef and a 30-person cap to keep it "intimate." If you care about food and food experiences, you'll be getting your money's worth; otherwise, the price might not be right.

Berkman crafts a different dinner for the third Thursday of each month based on whatever might be inspiring him at the moment, oftentimes with a personal tilt. One month, it was dishes from the favorite places he's eaten around the world (South Africa, England, France and America).

This month, the menu paid homage to new foodie film "Chef," in which Jon Favreau plays Los Angeles chef Carl Casper, once hailed for being daring and ground-breaking but now creatively stifled by his restaurant's owner, who just wants him to "cook what works." Casper quits in a very public video that quickly goes viral, and he starts a food truck so he can cook the way he really wants to.

"He's a great chef; however, he's tied and constrained by the conditions in which he works," Berkman told the diners at the beginning of the July 17 dinner. "And all of a sudden he's taken to a place where he's freed from the burdens of having to live up to a certain standard ... with reviewers, reporters, with modern technology, where information can be immediate ... you can imagine the nervousness and how we feel being in an industry where we're always on stage."

Favreau's character purchases a beat-up taco truck in Miami and drives it across the country, stopping to sling his new food (Cuban sandwiches, barbecue sliders, beignets, arroz con pollo) in New Orleans, Austin and back to Los Angeles.

Berkman -- who also dreams of owning a food truck one day -- said the film's message spoke to him, and he created a menu to further the story and meaning. He's owned or worked at restaurants in or near the cities Casper stops: Miami, New Orleans and Houston.

Upon entering the Garden Court Hotel's "Terrace Room" -- a beautiful dining room with French doors that open onto an enclosed terrace -- diners could choose from a weak Cuban mojito cocktail or wine. Appetizers were mini "reconstructed" Cuban sandwiches. These tiny summer-vegetable choux pastries filled with goat cheese and apricot chutney could not be more unlike the traditional flat bread Cuban sandwiches Casper makes on a panini press in his truck, but they were delicious. Who knew something of barely one-inch diameter could be so packed with flavor?

Everyone eventually found their seats at the farmhouse table. Each setting had two spoons, three forks, two knives, two wine glasses and print-outs of the menu, topped with a carefully folded white napkin topped with a tiny spring of lavender. Baskets of foot-plus-long savory bread sticks, hand-braided by a member of the kitchen staff, were set out with small bowls of olive oil mixed with Berkman's own special spice mixture.

Perhaps the best part of 520 Chef's Table is hearing from Berkman himself. He came out with each course to talk about the dish and interact with guests. The amuse-bouche, the "Seven 'Cs' soup" with lobster, came with a delicate croquette, lonely in a large white bowl. Waiters doused it with soup made from curry, coconut milk, cumin, chili oil, corn and chives. It also came with a challenge: name all seven of the ingredients in the dish that start with the letter "C." The prize: a packet of Berkman's special spice mixture to take home. Diners quickly whipped out iPhones to make lists of ingredients.

Next up was roasted black cod from Half Moon Bay topped with jicama and on the side, tiny scallops, a roasted-pepper mojo sauce and small cubes of deep-fried bread pudding. Berkman talked about how the dish exemplified his "three Ts" model for cooking --taste, texture and temperature-- with the fish served closer to room temperature than piping hot and the crunch of the bread cubes adding a texture contrast with the soft fish.

Berkman disappeared and then returned with a surprise before the second course.

"I've always threatened to serve dessert" between courses, he said.

Scoops of palette-cleansing blood-orange sorbet appeared, with a grilled nectarine hiding beneath -- the perfect stop-gap between a seafood and meat dish.

"If I left you with the taste in your mouth ... of say, bananas, and then came right off that with tomatoes, your mouth (would) clench," Berkman said. "Really great menus are the ones that flow into each other."

As the first meat of the evening came out -- fried quail with stewed black beans, rice cake and a plantain mousse -- Berkman quickly warned that someone in the kitchen had been too generous with the salt shaker. The quail was incredibly salty; not inedibly so, but enough to overpower the meat or the spicing. The beans and rice cake were excellent, though, and plain enough to balance out the heavy dose of sodium.

The main course -- a smoked porterhouse steak served with one long, snake-like purple bean; yucca hash browns, topped with roasted Brussels sprouts and pancetta; and a large piece of flash-fried chard -- was grand. The meat was rolled out on a cart with a metal heat lamp and carved at the table. Berkman said he wanted it to be reminiscent of hotels he cooked at during the 1970s that would make an almost theatrical act out of serving meat. The meat was smoky, soft, sweet.

Wine and dessert, however, were disappointing. The two wines, a St. Supery sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley and J pinot noir from the Russian River Valley, were excellent and generously served throughout the dinner, but there was no mention of either one or explanation of how they paired with the food.

And though Berkman called dessert "the greatest course" of any meal, the three he served were nothing to write home about. A beignet was too soft, almost under-fried and a chocolate lava cake and tres leches cake sadly underwhelming. Ironically, a lackluster chocolate lava cake is also Casper's downfall in "Chef."

But it didn't matter, because everyone was enjoying themselves immensely. The whole table chimed in to sing "Happy Birthday" to one of the diners. Throughout the evening, strangers got to know each other over the food, lingering well past dessert and coffee.

For more information on 520 Chef's Table, go to gardencourt.com. The next dinner is set for Thursday, Aug. 21, and they run through December.

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The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

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