Masterful Mediterranean | August 30, 2019 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - August 30, 2019

Masterful Mediterranean

Despite Smyrna's low-key ambiance, its cuisine is top-notch

by Monica Schreiber

With its white tablecloths and Italian standards, Spalti had been a mainstay on Palo Alto's California Avenue for decades. In recent years, though, the restaurant started feeling stodgy and old school next to the avenue's more energetic newcomers like Terun and iTalico. Owner Ayhan Akgul shuttered Spalti earlier this year.

Now he's back in the same location with a new concept and a new business partner. Smyrna, which opened in May, is reminiscent of Spalti in its fine-dining ethos, but showcases cuisine closer to the heart of Akgul, a Turkish-born Kurd. Smyrna is named for the ancient Hellenic city now called Izmir, on the Aegean coast of Turkey.

Some of the upmarket Mediterranean fare will be familiar to patrons of Urfa in downtown Los Altos. Urfa owner Zubi Duygu, also Kurdish, is Akgul's old friend and new partner. They've brought to Smyrna some of Urfa's most popular dishes, including a succulent grilled Spanish octopus appetizer ($16) and a whole, spinach-stuffed branzino (flown in that morning from the Mediterranean, $33) that had me swooning.

With the exception of one slightly charred order of spanakopita ($11), I was so taken with Smyrna's cuisine that I dined there several additional times in advance of this review. I worry, though, that despite Smyrna's center-of-the-action location on California Avenue, many might be overlooking this place. Visually and atmospherically, there is little to entice discerning diners to venture inside.

The rather generic decor, heavy on gray and beige, is ... fine, dignified even, but lacks personality and energy. A pretty bar toward the back of the room lends a bit of liveliness, but I couldn't shake the feeling that the ghost of Spalti still haunts the place. Even the front patio, painted gray and black, feels serious and subdued. It doesn't help that the restaurant's signage — the design of which suggests a casual eatery, not upscale fare — is partially hidden behind a tree.

A restaurant's image isn't everything, certainly when the food is this good. But it does matter, especially on a street crowded with Michelin stars, hip bistros and animated sidewalk seating. During my four visits to Smyrna, I watched too many potential customers stop to read the menu, look around a little bit and then continue down the street.

That's too bad, because Smyrna's cuisine holds its own against swanky Mediterranean hotspots like Taverna and Evvia. So, let's focus on the food. Like that branzino. The Mediterranean sea bass was stuffed with spinach before being grilled to flaky, smoky perfection. Served with almond-studded couscous and delightfully zingy pickled onions, this mostly de-boned fish was beautifully plated and perfectly executed both times I ordered it.

A bowl of gazpacho ($8), artistically drizzled with herbed olive oil, revealed heirloom tomato perfection — just the right balance of sweetness and acidity — with chunks of avocado and crunchy diced cucumbers providing texture. I could not remember having enjoyed gazpacho as much as this version, even in Spain.

On one visit, our group of four made a fun, tapas-style meal from the starters section of the menu. The sauteed tiger prawns ($15) were the tiniest bit chewy, but I cared little because the white wine and butter herb sauce, embellished with warm kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes and feta cheese, was bright with wine and garlic and the ideal immersion for Smyrna's housemade bread.

The spread sampler ($12) was a generous plate showcasing three Mediterranean classics: a luxuriant tzatziki, eggplant puree and a Turkish roasted red pepper and walnut dip (muhammara). The lamb meatballs ($12) were a little dense, but flavored nicely with za'atar and bathed in a saffron tomato sauce.

The Scottish salmon ($31) was a masterpiece of intense flavor combinations atop another perfectly grilled piece of fish. A sauce made of sun-dried tomatoes, capers and white wine was an Italian-esque reminder of Spalti's glory days. Grilled vegetables and rice with orzo rounded out the plate. The lamb shish kebab ($26) provided two generous skewers of tender and savory leg of lamb, grilled medium rare and served with a cooling tzatziki.

Smyrna's poached pear dessert ($11), made famous at Urfa, is a showy, Spanish-style way to finish your meal, served flush left on an oblong plate with a scoop of vanilla gelato. The cold, wine-soaked pear was surprisingly subtle in flavor. I would have preferred it served warm as a counterpoint to the ice cream. The real winner was the chocolate mousse ($10), not too sweet, infused with Turkish coffee and whipped to a dreamy frothiness. Both desserts featured delicious candied orange peel and a sprinkling of pistachios.

Co-owner Akgul helped provide friendly, efficient service on all four visits. Pacing was on point and all our servers were considerate and friendly. There's a strong sense of restaurateurs working hard to deliver a top-notch dining experience. I hope that my quibbles about the ho-hum ambiance are taken in the spirit in which they are meant: to encourage prospective diners to give this excellent cuisine a try, even if the restaurant's vibe is a little subdued.

Freelance writer Monica Schreiber can be emailed at monicahayde@yahoo.com. Smyrna 417 California Ave., Palo Alto 650-521-0955 smyrnabistro.com Hours: Monday-Friday: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5-9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday: 5-9 p.m. Credit cards: Yes Reservations: Yes Catering: Yes Takeout: Yes Outdoor seating: Yes Parking: Street or public garage Alcohol: Full bar Bathroom: Excellent Noise level: Moderate to quiet

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