Menlo Park's loss is Palo Alto's gain, twice over. After closing his haute French restaurant Marche in 2011, Howard Bulka gave us Howie's Artisan Pizza in Town & Country Village. And now, Guillame Bienamé, a former executive chef of Marche, gives us Zola, the best food news in downtown Palo Alto this year.
Don't go getting all literary about the name. Bienamé chose it not because of any connection to the French author, Emile Zola, but simply because it's a name that's easy to pronounce, write and remember.
Zola will be a comfort to local diners who still miss L'Amie Donia, a beloved French bistro formerly located just across Bryant Street. The new casual French restaurant similarly reflects one chef-owner's unpretentious version of high-quality cuisine.
Two caveats: While not overpriced for what you get, Zola is no bargain. And, depending on the crowd and the wine consumption, the 44-seat dining room can get unpleasantly loud. It is warm and lovely to look at, with lots of bare wood, but all hard surfaces. One solution is to come with a group of six to eight people and eat at the communal table up front.
Bienamé incorporates seasonal produce into every dish on the one-page menu. Meat also is sourced as locally as possible.
Start with soup ($7), from the menu section called Pour Commencer. It could be a hearty but not too rich blend of celery, brioche and porcini mushrooms or celery-root puree drizzled with a brown-butter coffee glaze.
Rillettes de salmon ($9) feature moist, slightly smoky fish with a tasteful minimum of fresh dill. Mustard seeds on top act like caviar, breaking apart as you bite. Ample toast accompanies it. (Fresh bread is provided upon request.)
Ricotta gnocchi ($13) are topped with a perfectly poached egg.
Bavette steak ($28) was very pink for medium-rare. Choices of sauce are béarnaise and café de Paris, a red wine sauce the server recommended. It came with crispy fingerling potatoes, cauliflower and kale.
Roasted pork loin and belly ($26) promises to be a signature dish. Currently it comes with a trio of roasted apples, turnips and Brussels sprouts.
All of these vegetables are prepared differently and are available as side dishes, making it easy for vegetarians to compose a meal from the Legumes and Pour Commencer sections. Soup is always vegetarian, as are at least two of the salads.
Among the Legumes, charred brassicas ($9) are cauliflower florets and kale, both with crispy edges, in a French-inspired Indian masala with golden raisins. Also not to be missed: crispy fingerling potatoes ($5) finished in smoked paprika, orange zest and fine herbs; and the Brussels sprouts ($6) with chorizo, almonds and parsley.
Try to save room for dessert. Yvette's crème caramel ($6) for the lighter touch, chocolate mousse ($8) for joyful sharing. Not just another fluffy pudding, this mousse is topped with coffee gel, cocoa nibs and Chantilly cream.
As with the restaurant's name, Zola's menu wastes no words. You don't have to wade through a lot of verbiage about techniques and farms. And conveniently located on the back of the menu is a welcome selection of craft beer, kir (a French cocktail made with liqueur and white wine) and wines by the glass.
A few specials augment the daily changing menu. You shouldn't have to ask for prices, but you might. One more nit to pick: Pacing can be erratic. But Zola had been open barely two months when we visited. I will happily go back.
Location: 656 Bryant St., Palo Alto
Hours: Dinner 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: City Hall and street parking
Alcohol: beer and wine
Happy hour: no
Outdoor dining: no
Party and banquet facilities: no
Noise level: medium-high to high
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent