First, a doff of the hat to the food, service and decor at 4-month-old Cetrella on Main Street in Los Altos. It's pronounced "Che-trella," by the way, and named after a lush valley on the Isle of Capri. Now that we're speaking the same language, we can talk about the mouthwatering California-Mediterranean cuisine prepared by Chef Michael Ellis.
An East Coaster, Ellis learned his craft in Washington, D.C., at the Ritz-Carlton, Watergate Hotel and Charlie Palmer's kitchens. A decade ago, Palmer relocated Ellis to his Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, California, where Ellis eventually became executive chef and the restaurant earned a Michelin star. More recently, Ellis cooked in San Francisco and the Palo Alto area before joining Cetrella.
The menu is almost too big with 14 starters, eight pastas and eight entrees. It took some time to decide what to order, because everything sounded tantalizing. Nothing we tried disappointed, from the organic Tuscan kale salad ($12) with pears, pecorino cheese, sunflower seed kernels and roasted shallot and sherry vinaigrette to the mouthwatering seared diver scallops ($36) with braised Thompson River Ranch wagyu beef, salsify and truffle.
Every dish was expertly prepared, artistically plated and served with perfect timing by both kitchen and wait staff. The servers knew their stuff, too, and could answer any question tossed their way about ingredients and preparation. Water glasses were discretely filled and utensils quietly replaced.
Succulent and meaty Saltspring Island mussels ($16) from British Columbia were steamed in white wine, accented with harissa butter and green onions, and served with a hunk of grilled house-baked ciabatta.
The grilled marinated Spanish octopus ($18) presentation resembled an artist's palette. Pieces of the octopus were placed over thin slices of fingerling potatoes, then over a smear of avocado puree. Charred lemon and dots of red romesco sauce resembling paint droplets infused the plate with color, while micro-cilantro added flourish to the platter.
The bruschetta ($12) was equally colorful and almost a meal in itself. Smothering the grilled bread was jambon de Bayonne (a salted, air-dried ham from southwest France), marinated mozzarella, radish, frisee, fruity Spanish Arbequina olive oil and saba (an Italian syrup made from a reduction of grape must). It was a most unexpected and exciting bruschetta.
The black pepper tonnarelli (square spaghetti) carbonara ($24) with pancetta, sweet onion puree and flakes of pecorino cheese was topped with a duck egg yolk. The black pepper in the pasta turned the strands brown, and with the egg atop, the dish resembled a most edible nest. The pepper added pep to the pasta, but it wasn't spicy.
Fat, aromatic cappelletti ($24), which resemble tortellini, were filled with truffle polenta and accompanied by organic pork-and-beef meatballs in a light tomato sauce, all topped with pecorino and fresh oregano. The dish was perfumed and earthy.
Braised, fork-tender short rib ($28) with fingerling potatoes, baby carrots and cipollino onions was crowned with grated fresh horseradish and herbs. The texture and temperature made it the perfect comfort food.
For dessert, frozen lemon mousse ($9), chocolate cake ($10) and a Basque cake ($9) with blood orange segments and blood orange sorbet were irresistible conclusions.
The wine list was deep in first-class reds from the West Coast, France and Italy. There was a particularly nice selection of Oregon pinot noirs, as well as many local options. The bar menu offered a half-dozen bar bite selections, including pizza from the wood oven.
While the building that sits on the corner of Main and 1st streets is rather bland, Cetrella's interior is contemporary, with lush appointments in the bar and separate dining room. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the entire dining room and offer a street panorama with a view of passers-by. While the space is bright and airy, it's more elegant at night.
The dining room features several long banquette booths, which make conversation nearly impossible for those seated at opposite ends. There are also tables for twos and fours, an open kitchen, private dining rooms and space for the jazz combos that perform on weekends. Overall, it's an inviting and comfortable space.
Los Altos marks Cetrella's second location; the original in Half Moon Bay still garners accolades. M'hamed Bahet is the partner and general manager who orchestrates everything from the kitchen to server training at both restaurants. Bahet said he has been looking for a suitable location in the area for six years.
"A high percentage of the Half Moon Bay business comes from over the hill," he explained. "We wanted to make it easier for people on this side to get to us." Hats off to a new and enticing dining experience in downtown Los Altos.
400 Main Street, Los Altos