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October 28, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, October 28, 2005

Dining al fresco at Bravo Fono Dining al fresco at Bravo Fono (October 28, 2005)

European cuisine with a Palo Alto price tag

by Elaine M. Rowland

Bravo Fono, a longtime resident of the Stanford Shopping Center, is only one of several establishments founded by Hungarian restaurateur Laszlo Fono and his wife, Paulette.

But if you think this is just another mall eatery, you and your wallet would be mistaken. As in much of Stanford Shopping Center -- or Palo Alto, for that matter -- the prices are what the market will bear, so your appetizer may well run as much as a pasta course or entrée at a different restaurant.

A $30 lunch (without wine) won't lure in all the mall's customers. But Bravo Fono, located near the Ann Taylor and Pottery Barn stores, has a lot going for it, and that's why it's still around. You're paying for ambience, convenience, zip code, and, often, delicious food.

For starters, Bravo Fono is open from lunch through dinner, which is great for shoppers who miss lunch or are still around after the mall closes up at night. Lunch in the sun (or under umbrellas) at the dozen or so sidewalk tables next to a splashy fountain is quite nice, and that seems to be the most popular mealtime for this restaurant. If you're looking for a really quiet place to have dinner, go later in the evening, when it's pretty empty.

There's an afternoon tea menu from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., with traditional English-style teas, cucumber and salmon sandwiches, clotted cream, and scones. But since I arrived earlier, I went with the regular lunch menu, which includes grilled/roasted/sautéed foods, pastas, salads, and house specialties of Mediterranean classics with a hint of Hungary.

Before ordering, you're brought an amuse-bouche of crunchy, tender breadsticks -- a lost art, I had thought, and perfect with the hot Hungarian gulyás (cup, $6.95). Unlike many goulashes you'd find in such old Euro enclaves as New York's Upper East Side, this one wasn't three-quarters cabbage, but a hearty paprika'd broth with chunks of potatoes and meltaway cubes of beef. Bravo, Fono.

I also enjoyed the polenta con verdure ($12.95). It's a salad-plate-sized serving of creamy polenta with fontina cheese, topped with sautéed spinach, tomato, and mushrooms. It tastes a bit like cheese grits (and I mean that in a good way). Along with the grated, aged parmesan on top, the fresh tomatoes add just the right punch to accentuate the creamy savoriness of the dish.

As I was dining a bit after the usual lunch hour, when things were quieter, I was surprised the waiter didn't check on me. I don't need a lot of hand holding, but "attention must be paid" is a good mantra to remember for customers as well as traveling salesmen.

By the time I'd had a soda ($2.50) and perfectly fine cappuccino ($2.75), with tax and tip, I'd cracked $30.

My next meal there was dinner inside, when the restaurant was fairly empty except for a few mall-lingerers enjoying Bravo Fono's pretty, modern interior, with a chromed bar and glass bricks along one wall. We were brought a basket of breadsticks right away, along with fresh French bread and butter, and the sticks were just as good the second time around.

For appetizers, we tried the prosciutto with melon ($12.95) and gorgonzola pear salad ($13.95). I definitely preferred the prosciutto plate, which was three thick slices of cantaloupe lovingly swaddled in plenty of moist, smoky prosciutto. Too many restaurants take this easy-to-prepare dish and screw it up by using dry prosciutto. But here the appetizer was well worth the price.

The salad was a carefully thought-out combination of mixed salad greens topped with candied walnuts and gorgonzola over thin pear slices. The quiet vinaigrette was subdued by the gorgonzola, but if you got some of each ingredient on each forkful, it worked well. If you got a forkful of just greens, it was significantly less interesting.

Returning to the Italian part of the menu, we ordered cannelloni with ground beef, veal, and chicken in a tomato cream sauce with mozzarella ($17.95) and a glass of Tenuta di Nozzole Chianti Classico Reserva ($9).

If the Chianti had been more robust, as they typically are, it would have overpowered the cannelloni. As it was, the wine's smooth start and tannic but quick finish meant it didn't hang around long enough to compete with the food. Or complement it overly, either.

Ruffino has better chiantis, but I didn't see them by the glass. I was surprised at how light the cannelloni was: the ground meat inside was almost fluffy, like it had been whipped, so even with the cheese and sauce it didn't sit heavy. It wasn't a very exuberant dish, but it wasn't bad, either.

I really liked two-thirds of the San Francisco crab cakes ($19.95), which is to say that the outsides of the fair-sized cakes were deliciously crispy, and the pool of creamy, roasted red pepper sauce around them was terrific. The insides of the cakes were disappointingly soggy, however (as opposed to juicy), so I'd have to try them another time before recommending them as a whole.

We finished with pear almond tart ($5.95), with its surprisingly flavorful crust. And while some tarts look fruitier than they taste, this one was popping with pear flavor. Along with a kir royale ($6.50), it was a sweet but not cloying dessert.

If you're looking for cheap eats at the mall, keep shopping. But for the typical Stanford Shopping Center customer wanting to linger by the fountain over plates of European-style cuisine presented in an attractive, straightforward way, Bravo Fono should be in business for a long time to come.

Bravo Fono, 99 Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto (650) 322-4664
Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Checklist: Reservations -- yes; Credit cards - yes; Lot parking - yes; Alcohol - yes; Takeout - yes; Highchairs - no; Wheelchair access - yes; Banquet -- no; Catering -- no; Outdoor seating - yes; Noise level - low; Bathroom cleanliness - fair.

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