The interior has remained intact as well. Pro Bono is a décor kissing cousin to Trellis: some of it looks dated; some of it looks homemade; most of it provides a pleasant setting for lunch or dinner. The walls are papered, one with a mural of either Paris or the Vieux Carrie, and framed posters and mirrors dot the perimeter. There are several booths, linen-lined tables scattered about and a small bar in the back.
The menus at Pro Bono and Trellis are also similar in both presentation and content. Ignacio Cortez ably manages the kitchen at Pro Bono. The food is fresh and crisply prepared with vibrant colors with few interesting twists. Akif Aydin told me that if any ingredients are not up to their standards of freshness, they simply are not served that day.
I started one dinner with the wild boar sausages with flageolets ($8.95). It was a hearty beginning. The chewy and flavorsome sausage, not house-made, had been grilled and served with a swarm of the small kidney-shaped beans nestled in fragrant red pepper tomato sauce.
The carpaccio ($9.95) was razor-thin slices of raw beef tenderloin garnished with sliced onion, capers, Parmesan cheese and a squiggle of Dijon mustard. The meat was melt-in-the-mouth quality.
Smoked sliced duck breast with herbed fettuccine and truffle oil (9.95) had some pizzazz. The meat was plump and lean and the pasta simmered in chicken stock and herbs was pleasing. The truffle oil imbued an earthiness that united the dish.
Cold gazpacho ($4 for a cup) was the soup du jour one noontime. It was the perfect antidote to the brilliant warm weather that day. This rendition was no revelation, but the crisp chopped tomatoes, English cucumbers, sweet peppers, onions, hint of cilantro, olive oil and vinegar were a refreshing welcome.
Pro Bono presents essentially the same menu at lunch and dinner with a few additional salads offered midday. One main dish I particularly liked for lunch that was absent from the dinner menu was the pork involtino ($11.95) — pork tenderloin pounded flat, then rolled around prosciutto, fontina and mozzarella cheeses, pan-fried then baked and topped with red wine and balsamic reduction sauce.
The roast double breast of chicken ($16.95), stuffed with four cheeses and served with tomato basil sauce, was a dinner favorite. Goat, provolone, feta, grana (a sharp granular grating cheese) and a hint of gorgonzola cheeses filled the tender breast. Okay, it should be called five cheeses, then. The chicken was rolled in eggs, bread crumbs, garlic, basil and other fresh herbs before being pan fried.
A hunk of fleshy pink King salmon ($16.95) was encrusted with fresh horseradish and herbs. The fish was grilled the way I like it, a little crispy on the outside and slightly undercooked on the inside. The fresh horseradish added a smack to the dish that was unexpected and welcome.
The sea bass special ($19.95) one evening was a large grilled filet drizzled with light and fragrant chardonnay sauce. The meat was flaky yet firm, delicate and tasty. The bass was accompanied with orzo (rice-shaped pasta) and French green beans.
The staff was always enthusiastic and eager to please. The service was almost too good at times. One dinner I was asked on three separate occasions if everything was all right. There is a fine line between trying to be helpful and being intrusive.
I like our American penchant for asking if everything is as it should be (they don't do that in Europe), but the question should occur two or three minutes into the main course. That way, there is time to adjust and correct anything that is missing and then let the diner enjoy the meal in peace.
The desserts were generally above average. Tiramisu ($6), the classic rendition of ladyfingers soaked in espresso and rum and layered with mascarpone, had a drizzle of raspberry sauce on the side. For added zing, the cake had a splash of Frangelico, a hazelnut-flavored liqueur, and Kahlua, a coffee flavored liqueur.
The house-made cheesecake ($7) with a dash of amaretto was crumbly and velvety (the way it should be). The graham cracker-crusted cake was topped with sun-dried cranberries that had been reconstituted in raspberry and red wine vinegars, a savory twist atop a well made cheesecake.
CrËme bršlée ($7) was a creamy, lush yellowy custard with subtle hints of orange and basil. Not overly sweet, the herb invested the subtlest savory hint. My only reservation is my personal preference for chilled crËme bršlée. The burnt sugar topping on this offering was still warm at serving.
Copa alla pro bono ($15 for two) was a large goblet filled with warm zabaglione, vanilla gelato and way too few berries. The dish would have been markedly improved with a half dozen more strawberries or a handful of raspberries, both in season. The cost of this dessert warranted something more. As it was, the goblet was not visually interesting and there weren't enough berries to offset the mass of creamy liquid. The zabaglione itself was tasty with the healthy splash of Marsala evident.
Pro Bono sports a broad but shallow wine list. There is a little bit of everything available from France, Italy, California and Australia. It is a list designed to satisfy everyone, at least on a basic level. Prices are reasonable and there are nearly two dozen choices offered by the glass at levelheaded prices. Corkage fee is $12.
Café Pro Bono has much going for it with well-priced, above-average food, friendly service and agreeable décor. There is an enthusiasm amongst the staff that is engaging. It is a restaurant I have long overlooked but will no longer. I hope you haven't been making the same mistake.
Café Pro Bono
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: no
Party and banquet facilities: yes
Take out: yes
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent
Café Pro Bono
2437 Birch St. Palo Alto (650) 326-7514
Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Daily, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
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