What do Nietzsche, Kant, Spinoza and Michelin-star restaurants have in common? Mark Sullivan.
After completing a degree in philosophy, Sullivan embraced cooking and learned through experience. Now, he is the executive chef of and partner in Bacchus Management Group, which operates The Village Pub in Woodside, Spruce in San Francisco, Mayfield Bakery & Cafe in Palo Alto and four Pizza Antica restaurants scattered around the Bay. The Village Pub has received one Michelin star every year since 2009.
Among Sullivan's accomplishments: In February, he cooked for President Barack Obama at Spruce -- undoubtedly a cerebral as well as a technical challenge.
What does one expect from a Michelin-star restaurant? High quality ingredients, for starters. Bacchus Group has an exclusive partnership with SMIP Ranch, a 5-acre organic farm located in the hills above Woodside. Approximately 80 percent of The Village Pub's produce comes from the farm.
Masterly technique in the kitchen and consistency of dining experience are among the Michelin criteria. Sullivan was raised in a food-attentive family and cooked in San Francisco, then across southern France and northern Spain, before returning to the Bay Area. Along the way, he mastered method and system. At The Village Pub, under Sullivan's guidance, chef de cuisine Orlando Pagan and his brigade turn out perfect plate after perfect plate.
To earn a Michelin star, there is more, of course -- subtle things, attention to detail. One evening, after the table next to us vacated, not only did busboys quickly clear, but they also produced a small steam iron and smoothed the linen before the table was reset.
Additional factors include a well-stocked wine cellar. Bacchus Management Wine & Spirits Director Andrew Green has assembled a world-class wine cellar with more than 2,500 selections. In 2013, The Village Pub earned Wine Spectator magazine's highest honor, one of only 81 restaurants in the world to receive a Grand Award.
I gasped when examining the inventory, one of the finest wine lists I'd ever seen. The 10-plus pages hold in-depth offerings of the greatest wines of Europe and the West Coast, and particularly a who's who of Bordeaux, Burgundy and California reds.
I gasped again at the prices. The markups are quite significant, though there are affordable wines for those not wielding platinum cards. Don't be shy about asking the sommelier for guidance and give parameters about how much you want to spend.
There is large selection of spirits as well. Fear not and drink well.
And expect exceptional service. The Village Pub servers kept close eyes on their tables without being intrusive. During my visits, pacing from the kitchen was perfect: no rushed courses and not too much time in between, either. Water and wine glasses were refilled when levels reached the halfway point. The servers were knowledgeable about ingredients and preparation.
Utensils were changed after every course. Napkins were discretely refolded if a diner needed to leave the table. The bread basket was never empty. The Parker House rolls were made in-house; the custom-baked breads came from Mayfield Bakery.
There are also decor and ambiance considerations. The Village Pub was quiet enough for conversation, even when the dining room was filled. Tables are dressed with crisscross double linens to hide table legs and paired with plush red upholstered chairs with matching banquette to divide the bar area from the dining room. An exterior wall with paned windows allows in just enough light during daylight hours. Montara photographer Robert Buelteman's black-and-white images enhance the walls.
Finally, there is attitude and anticipation. Walking across the parking lot toward the door, I just sensed something special. Inside, reception was immediate and warm.
Yes, we did eat. Two gougères, or cheese puffs, were brought while we scanned the menu. Our server, soon followed by the sommelier, was helpful. Bread arrived; water goblets filled.
At dinner, the sautéed sweetbreads ($22) were fork-tender and served with corn, onions and crisp bacon. The aromatic brown sauce was flavorful yet delicate enough to showcase the sweetbreads.
The agnolotti ($19) were sweet and creamy. Agnolotti is a specialty of the Piedmont region of Italy: flattened dough folded over meat or vegetables, in this case, corn.
Roasted duck breast ($28), pink and savory, was accompanied by tiny carrots and gnocchi. Simple, clean, delicious.
The pork chop ($39) was so tender, a knife wasn't necessary. A tempura zucchini blossom and tiny onions shared the plate.
At lunch, the Lyonnaise salad ($14) was mouthwatering. The lardons -- delicate strips of bacon -- were thick and crisp, and the poached egg so perfect it was a work of art.
The succulent pork schnitzel ($24) was pounded-thin pork loin, breaded, sautéed golden, and served with snippets of greens, minced vegetables and tiny cherry tomatoes.
Desserts were all pleasure, including the hazelnut chocolate mille-feuille ($12), a layered chocolate cake ice cream sandwich; a chocolate souffle ($15) that was feather-light but held the Earl Grey crème anglaise that was poured into the cavity; and a "banoffee cake" ($12) with walnut-toffee crumble, butterscotch ice cream and chocolate pastry cream.
Leonardo da Vinci is said to have remarked, "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." At The Village Pub, the food is simple and straightforward, and the ingredients speak for themselves. For Sullivan, utilizing the local abundance doesn't require exhaustive deductive reasoning. Maybe that's why it works so well.
The Village Pub
2967 Woodside Road, Woodside