As it settles into its cozy, 28-seat downtown Palo Alto home at Hamilton Avenue and Cowper Street, Thyme doesn't necessarily need more talent in the kitchen. It needs more time.
On the heels of recent seasonal California cuisine openings like BirdDog and Lure + Till, Thyme is the next local entrant for the genre.
A taste of the cast iron skillet-fried Scottish salmon ($24.50) and you'll know this restaurant is a keeper that hopefully will continue Palo Alto's culinary growth.
The preparation of the salmon with just a lemon wedge, wilted spinach (cucumber was on the menu but not available), and a mixed-greens salad was overly simple, especially for the price, but the salmon itself was cooked to that perfect state, leaving it both flaky and juicy.
Chef-owner Winston Haddaway is the key to the restaurant, as he's the only chef. He's a native of Trinidad but met his wife Carol in England, and stayed there to run his own gastropub in London's hip Camden neighborhood for years. His wife moved to Silicon Valley for work and Haddaway followed a few years later. For the past decade, he has worked the private-chef and events circuit, all the while dreaming of his own gastropub.
Mulling over the Palo Alto dining scene, however, Haddaway opted instead to pursue the casual-California direction with a British influence. The British element only showed up recently in grilled sausages with mashed potatoes, cabbage and bacon ($24.50) and an excellent apple and cinnamon custard tart ($8.50, the only sweet dessert available). Meanwhile, California arrives with an evening endive and avocado salad ($12.50) topped with not-enough crab, brightened with pink grapefruit segments and a beautiful grapefruit dressing to tie everything together. For starters, it's this salad or soup. Get the salad.
I was skeptical how the rack of lamb ($27.50) would emerge after a hesitant waiter didn't understand what "medium rare" meant and said he would tell the chef to cook between rare and medium. But Haddaway nailed it. The lamb, with a rosy hue in the center, just the right amount of gaminess, was tender with a slick char to the exterior and topped with a red-wine reduction sauce.
At both lunch and dinner, there is a bowl of linguine with parsley pesto ($16.50) clinging to the strands, tossed with asparagus spears and covered in a flurry of shaved Parmesan cheese. It is resolutely seasonal, hearty and fresh, but won't quite take diners to a pasta epiphany. An addition of an herb, spice or produce would be more than welcome. It's simple California cooking that tasted like sunshine but didn't taste like fun.
Lunch brought a messy and oversized marinated rib-eye sandwich with mushrooms on focaccia bread ($14.50). Some of the beef was succulent and juicy, but other bites yielded more flabby gristle than a diner would desire. Like the pasta, the sandwich badly needed a sauce or aioli and some supporting ingredients to create a full package.
Garlic toast ($12.50) came topped with a poached egg, surrounded by confetti-like chopped onions and bell peppers to scoop up the yolk when the egg gets punctured. Again, a fine dish, but there were a lot of peppers and onions.
Day and night, the mainstay I'd gladly order again is a warm goat cheese with dried apricots, pine nuts, honey and English biscuits to scoop it all up ($8.50).
Things are changing at Thyme. Just before the deadline for this review, the restaurant announced lunch is ending in order to focus on dinner. This curiously came after starting as a lunch-only restaurant for its first two months. Being a dinner destination, wine will be pivotal. Right now, the list has six wines, and five of them are far from exciting. Haddaway cares deeply about wine and said he plans for growth in this department.
Of all the work-in-progress components at Thyme, service is clearly the most under-construction. The owners are still trying to find the right ratio of servers-to-diners but the fact is, how many restaurants of any size have only one server on the floor? The servers were well-intentioned, but I eventually just stopped counting the slip-ups: not pouring wine from bottles, no serving utensils, long waits to order -- and the hits kept coming.
The interior is serene and simple. In typical 2016 fashion, reclaimed wood dominates everywhere, from the bare tables to the chairs to the floor. Windows wrap half of the space, allowing for people-watching by day. Another wall includes a plush burgundy banquette and a screen made of twigs that could be in a tatami room. Give some bonus points to Thyme for one of the most well-kept restrooms in town, with real towels for hand drying. The soundtrack pretty much sums up where Thyme is right now: Sometimes you'll hear French classics, then you'll hear nothing for five minutes because the music player and the credit card machine happen to run from the same phone.
It will be intriguing how things play out at Thyme. Haddaway is a gifted chef and the restaurant should shake off the roller-coaster of its early days. I'm willing to give it time.
496 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: street and lots nearby, usually easy
Alcohol: Wine only
Happy hour: no
Outdoor seating: no
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: quiet
Bathroom cleanliness: very good