Bradley Ogden got it early. A primary advocate of California cuisine more than three decades ago, he pioneered the use of fresh seasonal ingredients presented in a straightforward manner to enhance flavor, color and texture on the plate. Along the way, he won two James Beard Foundation Awards and numerous other honors.
Ogden was one of seven siblings. His parents owned a popular music hall just outside Traverse City, Michigan, that attracted big name rock-and-roll groups. His grandmother lived on a farm in Ontario where he became familiar with free-range chickens, fresh-caught trout, just-picked fruits and vegetables and organic produce.
"I never lost my appreciation for those simple, basic flavors," Ogden said.
He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in New York with his twin brother, Bentley. His brother didn't like it, but Bradley thrived. Ogden came to prominence as executive chef at San Francisco's Campton Place in the early 1980s.
With partners, he opened the highly regarded Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur in 1989. That success launched a series of projects around the Bay Area, Southern California and Las Vegas. Along with his son, Bryan Ogden, he opened Bradley's Fine Diner (BFD) in Houston last year. The Menlo Park restaurant, opened last November, is the second location but will be the flagship operation as the company moves forward.
BFD isn't an old-fashioned diner with blue-plate specials. It's more like San Francisco's Fog City Diner in concept, with Lark Creek Inn cuisine, seasonal and locally sourced ingredients and superior talent in the kitchen. It's All-American cuisine -- fine-dining comfort food.
That doesn't mean everything is perfect. Prices are on the steep side, and there is as much as a 25 percent premium for many of the same dishes between lunch and dinner. The decor is on the rigid side, with nothing much to soften the iron and hard wood elements. One wall has dozens of kitchen knives impaled in it as if a circus knife thrower had been practicing in off hours.
Let's talk about the excellent fare, though. Ogden's métier is flavor forward, simple and fresh, and menus can have daily variations, depending on availability -- all the better for the diner.
The roasted beet salad ($12) came with citrus wedges, kumquats, goat cheese and watercress, tossed in tangerine vinaigrette. A thin slice of toast smeared with a house-made creamy cheese plumed from the side. The salad was colorful, light and scrumptious.
The free-range turkey meatballs ($14) could have been a meal in themselves. A half dozen plump meatballs were baked in tomato sauce and basil with house-made ricotta melted atop.
The wild shrimp and Santa Cruz rock crab cake ($14) was served on a bed of grapefruit, fennel and frisée and drizzled with Meyer lemon aioli. Alas, the crab flavor was overwhelmed by the briny shrimp.
The slow-braised short rib ($29), served with crème fraîche whipped potatoes and a medley of roasted winter vegetables, was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The plate was well-balanced and artistic, fragrant and not overly heavy.
One of the best dishes was the grilled Mt. Lassen red trout ($32) with roasted turnips, toasted farro, beet puree and chard, topped with matchstick green apples tipped in horseradish. It was a clever and delicious flavor profile.
Fish and chips ($23) featured rock cod, fries, tartar sauce and little squirt bottles of lemon and malt vinegar. The cod was just fried through and not greasy. The fries were feather light but crispy.
One day at lunch, I enjoyed wood-grilled flatbread ($14) blanketed with shrimp, green olive pesto, Parmesan cheese, chickpeas, pickled red onion and spinach -- an unusual and tasty combination.
For dessert, the apple cobbler ($8) topped with vanilla bean ice cream was disappointing. The baked apples were mouthwatering, but the doughy wafer that capped the apples was like hardtack. I couldn't cut it with a knife and fork.
The winner and undisputed dessert champion was "Bradley's Butterscotch Pudding" ($6) with whipped cream and a soft ginger cookie. It is one of the best desserts around.
Too bad the front of the house wasn't as inspired as the kitchen. On one dinner visit, the server seemed so rushed, it was all she could do to take our orders despite the restaurant only being a quarter full. That night, there was too long a wait between courses, I had to ask for the check, then, had to ask someone to take said check after another long wait. On a subsequent visit, the waiter was unsure of just about everything. It didn't mar the experience but I expected better. To be fair, the midday servers were excellent.
Since I'm being picayune, the too-loud rock-and-roll golden oldies music was grating after awhile. It's not a theme restaurant and was off-putting.
The wine list was well chosen but on the pricy side. Creative cocktails and many beers are also available.
Ogden has enough professional experience to perfect the front of the house and the culinary vision to keep diners happily returning. When it all comes together, BFD will be off the charts. n
Bradley's Fine Diner
1165 Merrill St., Menlo Park
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday 5-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.
Brunch: Saturday-Sunday 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.