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January 28, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 28, 2005

Dining at the BBC Dining at the BBC (January 28, 2005)

Menlo Park bar serves up affordable, tasty bistro food

by Dale F. Bentson

The British Bankers Club in Menlo Park has been redecorated and rejuvenated by new owners, a new chef, a new menu and the results are decidedly positive.

The new owner's group, headed by Keith Kwazney, also operates the successful Carry Nation's in Los Gatos. Chef Michael Jewell, a California Culinary Academy alum, who has cooked in New Orleans and San Francisco, has fashioned a tasty menu designed for quick service with minimum fuss.

Make no mistake though -- this is still primarily a watering hole that also serves food. An elongated bar and four TV screens dominate the interior. One 6-foot wide plasma screen television was so lifelike that, during one recent dinner, I was transfixed by a golf tournament in Hawaii. The image was so vivid I would have sworn that Tiger Woods was standing on a table a dozen feet away from me. In addition to the ubiquitous sports screens, BBC offers various forms of animate entertainment Wednesday through Saturday: deejay, karaoke, live music and dancing.

The handsome brick building, constructed in 1922, has housed a bank, the Menlo Park City Hall, the police department and jail, with the public library upstairs.

The interior trappings include a mahogany triple-arched back bar; a stained glass window from Tiffany Studios depicting St. George, the dragon slayer; art glass lamps from Handel, Daum and Tiffany Studios; and a monster 1,600-pound solid brass chandelier that originally hung in the Philadelphia Opera House. All in all, an eclectic mishmash of objects designed to generate conversation should Tiger Woods falter on the 18th.

For starters, I liked the sweet corn and clam chowder ($5.25). The generous-sized bowl was chock full of creamy corn, tender clams and diced potato. A squiggle of roasted red pepper aioli and garlic croutons topped the bisque. The nicely thickened chowder just coated the spoon.

Cornmeal-dusted fried calamari ($6.75) was not fried crisp enough for my taste, leaving the squid somewhat limp and mushy. The horseradish vodka cocktail sauce and the lemon-caper aioli sauce that accompanied had nice sharp flavors.

I was not a fan of the "Classic Caesar" salad ($4.75). Crisp, giant, whole romaine leaves blanketed with shredded parmesan cheese was served on a mini platter. Cutting through the romaine catapulted a good portion of the cheese across the table. Garlic croutons provided what little oomph there was to the salad -- the dressing having no discernible flavor whatsoever. An authentic Caesar salad has clear-cut, pithy flavors: anchovy, garlic, mustard powder, lemon juice, coddled egg, Worcestershire sauce, fresh ground pepper, pungent olive oil and fresh grated parmesan. Not to single out BBC in particular, most of our restaurants have strayed far away from the true Caesar.

My favorite entree was the grilled tri-tip steak salad ($9.50). The handsome presentation was loaded with focaccia croutons, tomatoes, artichokes and feta cheese. Across the top of the salad lay two skewers lined with tender chunks of grilled beef. The vinaigrette dressing was the perfect unifier for this well-prepared dish.

Grilled hanger steak ($14.75) with cabernet sauvignon reduction sauce was tender and juicy. Served with garlic mashed potatoes and braised Swiss chard, I was told that the hanger steak is the house favorite. For an establishment populated primarily by males I am sure this is true, but it was not the best dish on the menu.

I also liked the slow-roasted baby back ribs ($12.75) better than the steak. The ribs were coated with a thick, finger-licking, slightly spicy chipotle sauce (dried, smoked jalapeno pepper). The five meaty ribs were covered with flakes of cilantro and accompanied by a pleasing, coarse-chopped cole slaw.

A generous chunk of juicy, roasted salmon ($13.25) was cooked nicely pink, although the waitress never asked how I wanted it prepared. The salmon was stacked atop green onion mashed potatoes. Stacking all the components of the dish atop one another is still prevalent in many local restaurants, but has been passť for a couple of years. However, that is not a knock on the quality of the dish.

Fresh rock cod fish and chips ($10.25) suffered from the same not-quite-crisp-enough problem as the calamari. While the cod had good flavor, the lack of crispiness left a doughy taste in the mouth. Lemon caper aioli, sweet vinegar and excellent non-greasy, toasted French fries accompanied. The toasted French fries are also offered as a side dish ($3.50).

All desserts all house-made. Bananas Foster ($5.25), a favorite from Brennan's in New Orleans, combined butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, banana liqueur, bananas and rum and was served over vanilla ice cream. Too bad the presentation was not combined and flambeed tableside, as it was meant to be. This was a pleasing dessert that could have been special.

Caramelized pineapple ($5.50) with organic pistachio-saffron ice cream was very sweet yet not overly heavy, as most of the desserts were. Chocolate s'mores fondue ($5.50) was an eight-inch high tower of sweet "goo": melted chocolate and caramelized marshmallows served over graham crackers. Not recommended after a half-dozen Sam Adams.

The bar is extensive but the wine list undersized. Only a dozen wines and a couple of champagnes comprise the list. All selections are available by the glass. An innocuous Orvieto I had one evening was terribly overpriced at $7.50 per glass. Wines range from $6 to $7.50 per glass and $24 to $36 per bottle.

The pacing of the meal from the kitchen was excellent and the service was fine, although the dinner servers seemed more adept at serving up drinks than food. I am sure that with more high-quality food being served they will soon become as adroit with plates as they are with glassware.

British Bankers Club serves up reasonably priced, well-prepared California bistro food. While still primarily a bar, the new bill of fare affords another reason to visit this 83-year-old haunt.
British Bankers Club Reservations: yes Credit cards: yes Parking: underground parking Alcohol: full bar Children: yes until 9 p.m. Outdoor dining: yes Party and banquet facilities: yes Take out: yes Catering: no Noise level: high Bathroom cleanliness: good

British Bankers Club, 1090 El Camino Real, Menlo Park; (650) 327-8769

Hours: Lunch Sunday-Saturday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Dinner Sunday-Thursday 4-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 4-10 p.m.


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