When I heard Selby's was touting "the coldest martinis on the West Coast" and preparing them tableside on retro cocktail carts, I had just one question: How soon could I get a reservation?
Selby's is the newest addition to the Bacchus Management Group's empire of upscale eateries, known for novel-length wine lists and ultra-fresh fare from Bacchus' private, organic farm in Woodside. The group's "properties" (as Bacchus describes its restaurants on its website) include Michelin-starred The Village Pub in Woodside and San Francisco's Spruce.
Selby's opened five months ago in the ivy-covered building at the Redwood City-Atherton border that had long been occupied by Chantilly, the local grand dame of continental cuisine until it closed in 2017. Where Chantilly was all feminine Frenchiness, the retro-chic Selby's has a masculine, "Mad Men"-ish vibe. The 10,000-foot, two-story space was designed by former Ralph Lauren Home stylist Stephen Brady, who put his stamp on other Bacchus restaurants, including Spruce and The Saratoga.
His design for Selby's is swanky and country clubby with a dash of Jazz Age supper club. Soft light from art deco sconces illuminates bold, black walls. A corner fireplace casts a honeyed glow on the downstairs dining room, where Silicon Valley glitterati recline in leather chairs, below a geometric art-light fixture, talking digital disruption over dry-aged steaks, thousand-dollar bottles of wine and $50 cheeseburgers (which we will get to).
Even the acoustics are a throwback to the gilded age of fine dining. There's plenty of buzz, but diners can still hear the classy background music -- and each other.
This retro-luxe ambiance pretty much screams martini. And Selby's is building part of its glamorous brand on its signature drink ($18), styling it after the unshaken, unstirred version made famous by Dukes Bar in London, said to have been author Ian Fleming's inspiration for James Bond's go-to libation.
The martini I enjoyed one evening at the Carrara marble-topped bar was indeed Arctic-cold and potent enough to knock Don Draper on his heels. The drink I received on a subsequent visit, from the much-anticipated cart, was a room-temperature travesty, prepared in slapdash fashion by a server who looked annoyed and out of her element. When I noted my drink was far from the coldest in the West, there was no offer to remedy, just a strange comment about how it was hard to keep bottles cold when the restaurant was so busy. Wait, what?
These disparate cocktail experiences mirrored my overall impression of Selby's: Some dishes were beautifully executed while others inspired quizzical expressions around our table. Service during one dinner was well-paced and nicely narrated. The martini travesty meal saw a number of missteps (forgotten items, awkward pacing) that might have been forgiven at a lower price point, but which were irksome when entrees average about $50.
Executive Chef Mark Sullivan's menu is an homage to steakhouse classics, with some offerings so old school they feel fresh and fun again. To wit: the towering gruyere popovers that arrive pre-dinner, accompanied (unnecessarily, but deliciously) by a terrine of beef fat-infused butter.
Excellent starters distracted my attention from the glass of vodka impersonating a martini. The sweetbreads piccata ($24) featured decadently creamy morsels of calf thymus glands, sautéed and bathed in a lemony brown butter and caper sauce. A crisp Caesar salad ($17) showcased a practiced hand with garlic and anchovies. The classic wedge salad ($16) was elevated from the old standard with peeled, candy-sweet cherry tomatoes, a pungent blue cheese and a cylindrical base of crunchy iceberg lettuce.
I shared the dry-aged roast crown of duck for two ($98), a complex, impressive-sounding dish, carved tableside, that looked fit for a royal banquet. Dry aging involves the evaporation of blood from the meat, which ultimately, perhaps counter-intuitively, tenderizes the flesh as enzymes break down the connective tissue in the muscle. Dry-aged duck takes on a milder, more delicate flavor. I actually enjoy duck's gamey taste and found this breast to be bland and slightly chewy, despite its 38 North provenance (from Bassian Farms in Petaluma). That said, Calvados-glazed chestnuts and huckleberry jus, augmented by cumin, honey and lavender, made for a delicious, sweet-savory sauce.
While my tepid reaction to the duck could be attributed to personal preference for an earthier flavor to the meat, all of us at the table agreed that the 12-ounce, dry-aged New York strip ($55) was a head-scratcher. Requested medium rare, the rare cut we received had little sear and no marbling. It was tough, tasteless and dry. Where dry aging should elicit a superior, nutty flavor and heightened levels of tenderness, none of these qualities was in evidence. I was again left wondering about the vagaries of the dry aging process.
I did find superior tenderness and flavor in the Country Captain chicken ($34). This curried chicken dish is often associated with the South, but likely has Anglo-Indian roots going back to the 1800s. Selby's version of this classic -- both exotic and comforting -- showcases a heady swirl of intoxicating spices, including Madras curry and paprika. Two generous pieces of chicken were served atop a bed of black rice.
Selby's has already received its share of (well-calculated) news coverage for its Black Label burger ($50), among the most expensive hamburgers in the West, if I may riff off the restaurant's "coldest martini" marketing.
The massive, half-pound patty contains a mixture of dry-aged hanger steak, short rib and chuck. The seared meat is topped with Époisses, a pungent soft cow's milk cheese from Burgundy, and -- the coup de grâce -- 5 ounces of chopped black truffles from Australia. There are a lot of intense, savory, woodsy flavors going on in this burger, and if you order it the recommended medium-rare, as I did, the result is an unctuous, umami experience that is a little overwhelming, but certainly more interesting than the similarly priced New York strip. Plus, it comes with crispy, hot shoestring fries.
Tackling Selby's wine list would require a separate review, but suffice to say Bacchus is aiming for another Wine Spectator Award to place alongside those already on the shelf for The Village Pub and Spruce. The approximately 100-page list boasts more than 4,000 labels. If ordering a truffle-topped burger does not sufficiently impress your date or the VCs around the table, consider the 2015 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet ($8,900), the most expensive bottle on the list.
3001 El Camino Real, Redwood City
Hours: 5-10 p.m. nightly
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: No
Parking: Valet or street
Alcohol: Full bar
Noise level: Moderate