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Style over substance

With hits and misses, Terrain Cafe needs to establish an identity

Dotted with oversized planters filled with exuberant greenery, Terrain Cafe certainly lives up to its name. An enormous ceiling fixture flaunts an artistic composition of twigs, mosses and leaves, baskets of ferns dangle overhead, chairs are made of woven rattan and two walls of windows blur the divide between outdoors and in. These elements all combine to create a natural and informal ambiance that fits right in with the restaurant's al fresco garden premise.

The cafe is contiguous to Stanford Shopping Center's new Anthropologie outpost and its Terrain garden store, where many of the restaurant's trappings are for sale. It's part of a budding Urban Outfitters empire. The clothing company, which owns Anthropologie, teamed up with well-known East Coast restaurateurs, the Vetri family, to create a new merger of hipster retail and casual dining. You can snap up a fetching dress or accessory, walk through the connecting door and indulge in a meal. A shopping experience for all the senses, taste included.

Terrain, which opened in Palo Alto in November, is the first installation on the West Coast, with the next branch planned for Los Angeles.

So the place looks great and comes with established culinary bona fides. Some of it definitely works, but the place feels like it still needs to establish its identity. Is it a cafe or a fine-dining establishment?

The ambiance is casual-chic, with cool visual details. Servers greet patrons with a "How you guys doing?" Tables are bare, adorned only with sleek white plates and white linen napkins. True to its garden-y vibe, water is served in Mason jars and complementary bread arrives warm in a clay flowerpot.

The menu, on the other hand, veers toward the upscale, with prices to match. There is an emphasis on natural, organic, sustainable, farm-to-table ingredients, and dishes change on a regular basis. By the time this review is published, there will be an extensive menu revision, with only a few staples remaining in place, according to David Taylor, the assistant general manager.

The aforementioned bread is charming in presentation and delicious, made in-house and served with soft, house-blended coriander butter. The burger ($19) is also a winner: a generous patty of perfectly cooked Niman Ranch beef served on an Acme bun, accompanied by a pile of terrific fries. A mix-and-match artisan farm board ($21) includes a selection of cheeses, meats and grilled vegetables served with tasty embellishments, such as salami with cinnamon applesauce, goat cheese with onion relish and asparagus with tangy orange marmalade.

Other selections sounded great on the menu but fell flat in delivery. A shaved spring salad ($16) consisted of a mound of slightly tired-looking Napa cabbage, shaved carrots, semi-transparent slices of radishes and slivers of additional greens whose identities were impossible to discern, all topped with a whispery afterthought of truffle vinaigrette. Grilled avocado ($12), enticing as it sounds, was also underwhelming. Warm avocado halves topped with breadcrumbs and cheese were austere in presentation and difficult to eat.

A recent dinner menu included local pan-seared rockfish ($28), a generous slab of light-flavored fish served on a bed of sautéed fennel. The fennel was fabulous, elevated by zingy slices of orange. The fish, however, was dry and topped with pretty but flavorless pinkish-red particles of what turned out to be orange tapenade. Mary's organic grilled chicken ($26), though attractively served on a base of creamy polenta, was also overcooked and unsubstantial for the price.

The restaurant serves a well-rounded selection of craft beers, spritzers and wine, favoring California vintages (glasses run $8 to $18 and bottles, $40 to $120). Wait staff is cheerful and well intentioned but inconsistent in professionalism. We endured prolonged waits for dishes to be cleared, water glasses that remained empty and descriptions of our selections that were not always accurate. And I'm not sure everyone appreciates the casual "you guys" approach.

Though its intentions are meritorious, Terrain does not quite hit the mark. The greenery and garden atmosphere make it an inviting stop during a shopping center walkabout, but its identity remains a bit elusive, and its informal cafe approach does not jive with its cuisine -- or its prices.

Terrain Cafe

Stanford Shopping Center, 180 El Camino Real, #1301, Palo Alto

650-262-1830

shopterrain.com

Hours: Daily 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m.--9 p.m.

Credit cards: Yes

Reservations: Yes

Catering: No

Delivery: No

Outdoor seating: Yes

Parking: Adjacent lots

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Happy Hour: No

Wheelchair access: Yes

Noise level: High

Bathroom cleanliness: Average

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Comments

3 people like this
Posted by A Cook
a resident of another community
on Jun 8, 2017 at 9:21 pm

$19 for a burger?! A $16 salad? $26 chicken? I hope that's for a whole bird. I'm sorry, that's all just a little too precious (and pretentious) for me. I'm an avid cook with my own culinary business and appreciate high quality, "farm to table" ingredients, but these prices are just ridiculous.

I guess I wish Terrain the best of luck, one culinary professional to another.I hope there are enough well-paid hipster in and around Palo Alto to make this place fly.


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