It didn't take long to realize that Bird Dog is not the kind of restaurant Palo Alto sees very often. The restaurant, which opened at 420 Ramona St. in November, offers big-city sophistication with a hefty dose of quirkiness.
Whether it's the lightly wilted spinach ($11) bursting with the fragrant allure of vadouvan (a French version of an Indian spice blend), a stunning, abstract plating duo of eggplant and shishito peppers ($13) or heirloom carrots ($14) of myriad sizes in a robust sauce made from red curry, tamarind and oranges, chef/co-owner Robbie Wilson is clearly a vegetable whisperer.
The only holdover from Wilson's menu at his previous restaurant, the acclaimed Mattei's Tavern in Santa Barbara wine country, is the simple yet downright special whole avocado ($14) grilled over California red oak chips. The avocado is halved, the pit scooped out and an umami-packed ponzu sauce fills the hole, with precise grill marks on the avocado. Some fresh wasabi and kombu seaweed complete what is a perfect dish. Palo Alto better thank Wilson's wife for insisting that he bring the avocado starter with them to the Bay Area.
Bird dishes are indeed highlights at Bird Dog. Wilson uses dry-aged duck for a lovely and complicated preparation involving smoking, brining and then cooking the bird sous-vide; it's artistically laid out with bronzed skin on one of the two pieces ($27). Then add to the equation finely minced cashews, like sand, and the curveball of a banana sauce-like pudding made from both whole old bananas and banana chips.
Even more thrilling is a delicately fried chicken thigh ($18), served with smoked uni and an egg-yolk sauce that together become something like the seafood-tinged mayonnaise that drips down your hands while eating a lobster roll.
Wilson is clearly having fun at Bird Dog. He also is a disciplined, thoughtful chef. He learned in the kitchens of industry giants like Thomas Keller, Nobu Matsuhisa and Tom Colicchio, and he wants to "bird dog" the fun in fine dining. (The term means to pursue with fierce determination, but mostly, it's just a fun phrase that reflects how Wilson wants to share the Silicon Valley mindset of achieving success and having a good time en route.)
So, rather than music in the restrooms, you'll hear a distinctive voice: Julia Child, talking about things like the various culinary uses for butter. (This is both in homage to her influence on cooking and because the Santa Barbara native often would stay at Mattei's Tavern.) Artistic birds hanging from the ceiling were made by a graffiti artist. The well-priced and well-chosen wine list tells diners to "Enjoy The Hunt" with a picture of a dog leash, since we all know using a wine list can be detective work. The bread is an excellent grilled roti, liberally sprinkled with sea salt. Quirky, fun and it works.
Not everything was a rousing hit, but the faults were minor. The cured and cooked plancha salmon ($24) had an ideal, medium-rare consistency but it needed another dimension. Wagyu ribeye ($33) looked like it was going to be utter steak bliss and mysteriously didn't boast as beefy a character or buttery texture as anticipated. A bowl of farro with a poached egg and miso ($12) needed more miso and was too watery instead of rich and thick. I adored the acidity, spice and crunch of lime, chiles, pecans, and sesame oil with the raw tai snapper ($17), yet some bites of fish were stringy.
All of these are small quibbles. It's easy to look past them with what must be Palo Alto's most creative cocktails, split between re-interpreted classics and new inventions. I recommend the "Otobai," a yuzu-driven version of a Sidecar.
The 120-seat dining room is awash in black and whites as if Armani chose the color palette. An immaculate open kitchen anchors the rear of the space and a stone-topped bar sits by the front windows, with the dramatic dining room and bare-wood tables sandwiched between the two. Pay attention to the gorgeous hand-blown glass lamps above; none of them are quite alike.
Service is both attentive and laid back. One area for improvement: with sharing encouraged, servers need to stagger the courses with smart pacing so the table is never cluttered.
Desserts bring more sweet and savory crossover fun. A chocolate cremeux comes with Hitachino beer in the ice cream; a winning Meyer lemon tartlet was served with a dot of avocado mousse and a quenelle of coconut ice cream. The best of the three dessert options is the cookie jar ($5). The rotating selection of "cookies," from passion fruit mini-macarons to seaweed and cacao-nib studded madeleines, are worthy of the sweets you would find at the end of a meal at a three-Michelin starred in Paris, for their quality and intriguing flavors.
They are the perfect way to end a night at a new Palo Alto cornerstone. Hopefully, this signals the beginning of more restaurants that are able to bird dog fun, creativity and quality.
420 Ramona St., Palo Alto
Hours: Dinner Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
Credit Cards: Yes
Take-out orders: No
Outdoor seating: No
Parking: Lots and street nearby, not easy at peak times
Alcohol: Full bar
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Medium, sometimes medium high
Bathroom cleanliness: Good