Kal Morsey is obsessed with water buffalo. The Egyptian native, one-time commodities trader and longtime Los Altos Hills resident wants you to be obsessed with water buffalo too, namely with their creamy, protein-rich milk.
Since coming to the United States decades ago, Morsey said he has been "astonished" that Americans partake mindlessly of what he sees as inferior dairy products from other bovines. Morsey seems genuinely sad for everyone outside of Asia, India, the Middle East and Italy who might never know the pleasures of water buffalo-milk products, including very low levels of lactose.
Morsey embarked on a years-long crusade, investing millions of dollars along the way, to establish one of the largest water buffalo herds in the United States. He bought a 50-acre farm outside Sacramento, where more than 300 buffalo must be coddled to ensure milk production. Finally, after clearing the mountains of regulations to operate a dairy, four months ago he opened Morsey's Farmhouse in downtown Los Altos, where every dish is made with products from the buffalo farm.
During a telephone interview, Morsey, a first-time restaurateur, seemed to question his own sanity a few times. But the result of his passion is an ambitious and unique addition to Main Street.
That said, many palates may not discern a marked difference between a good sea bass fillet cooked in water buffalo butter and the same fish prepared in butter from a Guernsey cow. I found most of Morsey's offerings to be excellent, but my hunch is most diners won't leave the restaurant wondering where water buffalo have been all their life.
Morsey and his business partner/wife, Yulia, a native of Russia, created the 3,500-square-foot restaurant to showcase "everything the water buffalo can do." In addition to serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, Morsey's also is a gelateria and offers a small selection of baked goods. From the "grab and go" section at the front of the restaurant, you can pick up a pint of thick, sweet buffalo milk ($5) or a container of ultra-fresh mozzarella di bufala ($14). Breakfast and lunch is ordered at the counter; dinner is full table service.
Some of the wait staff are still learning the ropes and a few of the entrees I tried fell short, but most of what I sampled over the course of two dinners and one lunch was very well executed, despite my visits occurring not long after the sudden departure of the restaurant's executive chef. My second dinner revealed a pared-down menu, with at least 30 percent fewer appetizers and entrees as compared to my first visit a few weeks earlier. Growing pains are still evident, but there is a lot of promise here.
Located at the former site of Main Street Cafe, Morsey's is airy, bright and white. The long, narrow dining room, with four-top tables in regimented lines, calls to mind a Scandinavian cafeteria: clean-lined and utilitarian but lacking warmth and ambiance, especially at dinner. It is not an unpleasant atmosphere, but the long dining room, more like a dining hall, doesn't feel particularly convivial or inviting.
Once we received our appetizers, however, the focus was all on the food. A warm kale salad ($12) of dinosaur kale sautéed in buffalo milk ghee was perfectly tender without a hint of bitterness. The savory-sweet salad was studded with golden raisins and bacon lardons, then topped with shaved Parmesan cheese and crispy shallots. A sherry vinaigrette added the perfect zing. The moules frites ($17) were top quality Prince Edward Island mussels and the pink, delicately creamy sauce was the best I've ever had with mussels, made with red curry, garlic, white wine, fennel and, of course, buffalo cream. I enjoyed the remains at the bottom of the bowl like a fine soup with my glass of Chevalier de Novato ($8). The accompanying frites arrived hot and crispy with what tasted like house-made ketchup.
The burrata di bufala ($18), a creamy, soft Italian cheese, is one of Morsey's signature appetizers, probably the freshest you will find outside of Italy. A jiggling dome of soft mozzarella blended with cream is served atop small heirloom tomatoes and dressed lightly with balsamic, basil and salt.
The wild mushroom tart ($13) was rustic and enticing with truffle béchamel, forest mushrooms, microgreens and a slather of roasted peach gastrique.
We were barely three-quarters of the way through our appetizers when the friendly but oblivious servers advanced with our entrees (this happened during my second dinner as well). We had to ask them to hold off, a situation that likely resulted in my friend's New York strip ($38) spending too much time under the heat lamps. Even had it not been overdone, the rather paltry cut of meat (not from water buffalo) was still unremarkable: too unseasoned and the blue cheese demi-glace did little to add interest. All four of us at the table agreed that the small side of fried Brussels sprouts was the standout item on the plate. However, my wild mushroom ravioli ($24), made rich and creamy with a porcini buffalo cream sauce, was earthy and delicious. Caramelized shallots and truffle oil took this dish to the edge of decadence, but the entrée stopped just short of being too rich.
The New Zealand crispy-skinned salmon fillet ($30) was succulent, if a touch bland. On my first visit, the salmon was being served with a parsnip puree, grilled stone fruit, yam chips and parsley pesto. When I ordered the dish on my second visit, it arrived only with three yam chips (delicious) and a small mound of lightly dressed lettuce. At that price point, the lack of accompaniments was disappointing.
Where the New York strip comes from boring old American cattle, Morsey's buffalo burger ($20) is just that: a buffalo-meat patty served with Morseys' mozzarella di bufala. It was a hefty and juicy burger, but neither I nor my dining companions noticed much difference in taste or texture as compared to a traditional burger.
Most of Morsey's desserts are of the dairy variety: dulce de leche ($6.50), crema Catalana ($6) and triple-chocolate cheesecake ($6). We tried two flavors of the buffalo milk gelato ($3.75 for a single scoop) and had completely different experiences. My husband's mango gelato was creamy and flavorful. My scoop of coffee was strangely chalky.
Overall, diners may well be having similarly divergent experiences here for a few more months as this ambitious project continues to find its footing, but there is a lot to love about Morsey's labor of love -- a farm-to-table restaurant in the purest sense.
Freelance writer Monica Schreiber can be emailed at [email protected]
134 Main St., Los Altos
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Alcohol: Beer and wine