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December 10, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 10, 2004

Still trendy, after all these years Still trendy, after all these years (December 10, 2004)

At 30, Sundance still impresses with its fine food

by Dale F. Bentson

America has not contributed much to the cuisine of the world but it has contributed mightily to how people eat.

The cafeteria originated in San Francisco during the gold rush; the diner hails from Providence, R.I. The drugstore counter, the lunch counter, drive-ins and drive-thru restaurants are all-American concepts, as is the fast-food chain (for better or worse). The specialty restaurant, seafood and steakhouses are also distinctly American.

Over the past decade steakhouses have evolved from no-frills, sizzling-iron platter, plastic table-clothed, predictable-as-death-and taxes establishments with ketchup, A-1 and Worcestershire sauces perched on every table to classy restaurants with lengthy wine lists and knowledgeable wait staffs.

Sundance, The Steakhouse, located on El Camino across from Stanford University, represents the genre's current sophistication. Formerly known as Sundance Mine Co., it evolved a half-dozen years ago into a cozy, mahogany-paneled enclave with muted lighting, sepia-toned Western photographs, old sporting equipment and plush forest-green booths. It is a mecca of masculinity.

While beef still rules at Sundance, the menu includes a variety of well-prepared seafood and poultry dishes, as well. It is a place to linger over dinner, beverage and good conversation in one of four intimate dining areas.

Sundance is a family-operated business. Robert Fletcher started the restaurant in 1974 on a site that had once been a thriving drive-in complete with carhops on roller skates in the 1950s. Now son Galen oversees all food-related matters and brother Aron manages the restaurant.

One recent Monday evening we arrived at 6 p.m. without a reservation and was informed that the wait would be about an hour and a half for a table. Fortunately, there were a few tables available in the lounge where we enjoyed the same menu. I made a reservation each time subsequent to that. After 30 years, this restaurant is still trendy.

For starters we had Panko-crusted calamari ($11.50). Panko are Japanese-style breadcrumbs with a coarser texture than ordinary breadcrumbs, resulting in a lighter, crunchier coating for deep-fried foods. The fresh-tasting, crisp calamari were served with chipotle aioli and red cocktail sauce.

Dungeness crab cakes, ($12.50), in season now, were golden patties filled with threads of fresh meat spun around scallions, milk, egg and bread crumbs. The crab was the most evident part of this mixture, imbuing the cakes with a lightness not always evident in this dish. The delicate texture was enhanced with the sherry cayenne aioli sauce that accompanied. Sundance wisely serves all sauces on the side.

The New England-style clam chowder was excellent ($5.50 cup; $6.95 bowl). Creamy and thick without being pasty, the chowder was the perfect medium for the delicate, fresh clams. The house salad ($6.50) was nothing special but did feature very crisp, chilled, lettuce with a variety of house-made dressings from which to choose.

Prime rib of beef is offered in four different cuts ranging from $22.95 for an 8 oz. petite cut to $33.95 for the 14 oz. shareholder's cut. The certified Angus beef was slow-roasted for more than eight hours and carved lean. The near melt-in-your-mouth beef was enhanced with additional au jus and creamy horseradish sauce. All entrees were served with vegetables and a choice of potato or rice pilaf.

There were other beef entrees as well, including filet mignon available in two sizes, ($29.95 for 7 oz. and $37.95 for 11 oz.), a monster 24 oz. Porterhouse steak (prevailing market price), and a 9 oz. Top-cut sirloin, ($23.95). The 14 oz. New York strip streak ($31.95) was everything I wanted it to be, slightly charred on the outside and pink -- not red -- on the inside.

Teriyaki filet mignon skewer ($24.95) was a delicious medley of tender beef and vegetables already de-speared when served. But I was not overly fond of Duke's teriyaki glaze (pineapple, ginger, red and green pepper, honey, soy and garlic). The rather cloying sauce didn't fit with the beef and vegetables.

The seafood was excellent -- much better and less expensive than nearby Scott's Seafood Grill and Bar. Wild northern salmon ($19.95) was a grilled delight. Pink and flaky, the large filet had been basted with lemon butter. With garlic mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables, it was more than I could eat.

Pacific swordfish ($22.95) was meaty and fresh-tasting. I opted for it grilled although it was also offered pan-blackened, Cajun style. Both fish entrees were served with dill-caper sauce, which was OK but I would have preferred a lemon-caper butter sauce or something similar. I thought the dill-caper sauce too creamy for grilled fish.

If you dine between 5 and 6 p.m. Sundance offers a twilight menu of a dozen different regular-portioned entrees for $16.95, including soup or salad -- a good value for early diners.

Desserts are extravagant as well. Mud pie ($6.50) had a whipped cream topper that oozed over one side. It looked as if the waiter was bringing me the head of Queen Nefertiti complete with diamond tiara. The tiara turned out to be chopped nuts and, fortunately, the queen's head was a huge slab of coffee ice cream, atop a chocolate-cookie crust, mired in thick, hot fudge. A dessert intended for a king.

A thick, cookie-crusted chocolate torte ($5.95), swimming in raspberry sauce, appealed to my chocolate-loving companion. Pear sorbetto ($5.50) was light and refreshing, while apple pie a la mode ($5.95), with its flaky crust and soft warm apples, was almost too much when topped with Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream.

White chocolate creme brulee ($6.95) was touted as the owner's favorite. While the custard was creamy enough and the burnt sugar crust was in the right proportion to the custard, I still was not overly fond of the confection. Maybe it was the white chocolate, which, of course, is not chocolate at all; it is made from cocoa butter, milk, and sugar. Stick with the torte or mud pie if you want chocolate.

The friendly, professional wait staff was clad in vests and crisp, white aprons. Service was swift -- sometimes a little too much so. White-jacketed busboys routinely snatched plates from the table the instant one diner was finished, making the remaining diners uneasy and hurried. It is improper service to clear plates until all the diners have finished.

The wine list boasts more than 450 wines from around the world. Prices are on the high side but not outrageous. There are a dozen and a half wines available by the glass. The dessert wine list is outstanding and includes a dozen or so ports, plus cognac, grappa, Madeira and a handful of interesting domestic Rieslings and muscats.

Sundance has changed with time yet has retained the knack for pleasing its clientele. This is no accident. The Fletcher family buys the best ingredients and thoughtfully prepares them. Count on this steakhouse being around for another 30 years.
Sundance, The Steakhouse, 1921 El Camino Real in Palo Alto; (650) 321-6798,
Hours: Lunch: Monday - Friday 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m.; Dinner Monday - Thursday 5 - 10 p.m.; Friday - Saturday 5 - 10:30 p.m.; Sunday 5 - 9 p.m.
Reservations: yes
Credit cards: yes
Parking: adjacent lot
Alcohol: full bar
Children: yes
Outdoor dining: no
Party and banquet facilities: yes
Take out: yes
Catering: no
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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