Restaurant Review: The urbane side of Mediterranean cuisine

Publication Date: Friday Nov 14, 1997

Restaurant Review: The urbane side of Mediterranean cuisine

Zibibbo, with its spectacular setting and creative dishes, sets a new standard for dining in downtown Palo Alto

by Ruth Schechter

ibibbo, the exciting newest addition to downtown Palo Alto is chic and modern without being stark. The low-key main entrance on Kipling Street, marked by a blue light and gurgling fountain, fronts onto a renovated Victorian house. Once inside the door, the place opens up into a protected patio and curvy main bar. It then becomes a different creature altogether, with high ceilings, chic, contemporary lighting, a sophisticated color palette and glass-enclosed patio areas that blur the line between indoors and outdoors. The place goes on and on, with the main dining rooms opening onto a display kitchen and another bar and lounge area fronting Waverly Street, another block over.

It's a gigantic setting, with 280 seats, but the defined areas keep the place from being overwhelming. There's great control of space and tone, with the illusion of privacy despite the scale. Zibibbo has been designed to thrust you into the heart of its activity and energy without making you feel like a just small component of the whole, as many massive public environments can do. At the same time, there is a definite buzz to the place--in part because it is consistently packed to capacity and because of few acoustic elements in the open spaces. Tables are small and close together, creating a sense of intimacy but also letting you in on maybe a few too many details of your neighbors' personal lives.

Zibibbo is the name of a grape used in Italy's regional dessert wines, and it's a fitting appellation for the restaurant as a whole--quirky, witty and down-to-earth. The menu spans the cuisines of the Mediterranean, including dishes from the south of France, Italy, Greece, Morocco and Spain. The open kitchen creates untraditional variations on dishes that are traditionally associated with the area, incorporating in-season produce, fresh fish and occasional experiments. The menu is tweaked daily and will be overhauled seasonally as raw materials come into and out of season. Many dishes at the restaurant are meant to be shared and come to the table on a family-style platter.

Small plates include dried fruit and Swiss chard fritters ($7.50), green olives with cumin and garlic ($2.50) and fresh seafood platters ($19.50-$45, depending on size) loaded with oysters, clams and prawns. The roasted mussels ($8.95) are not to be missed, with a heaping mound of glistening black shellfish served seasoned and succulent. The vegetable escabeche ($3.50) is comprised of warmed earthy vegetables marinated in white wine and seasoned with anise. The heirloom tomato salad ($8.25), which is off the menu now that tomatoes are past their season, was a visual treat--multicolored tomatoes of varying textures and flavors topped with crisp garlicky croutons and fresh basil.

Main courses include a small selection of pizzas, pasta and grilled or rotisserie-roasted meat, along with fresh fish selections and occasional game. Our pork tenderloin ($13.50), sweetened with a dense pomegranate glaze, was immaculately prepared and presented on a mound of smooth, garlicky mashed potatoes. This temperamental meat was as perfect as I have ever tasted. The sand dabs ($13.95) were humongous, with a crisp crust accented by caper berries and garlic. I found this dish to be less balanced, with a too-heavy dose of olive oil drenching the delicate white meat of a favorite fish.

Zibibbo offers an enticing selection of side dishes (most about $3.50), including eggplant and tomato gratin, those delectable mashed potatoes and half ears of corn with red pepper butter, which are served standing upright, grilled husks and all. I watched several nearby parties gingerly poke the pretty set-up without ever picking up the ears to actually eat. We loved the sauteed spinach, with its sweet currants and crunchy pinenuts making a nice medley of textures and flavors.

Desserts ($5.50-$7.50) are all made in-house and range from wonderfully smooth ice cream and sorbet in unusual flavors to a dense, decadent hazelnut profiterole. Our creme brulee was served in the creamier Catalan style with a nice sugar glaze but did not stand out as an exceptional end to our meal.

Zibibbo carries a well-rounded and sophisticated selection of wines, with interesting representations from Italy, France and California. There's a wide range of Champagnes and sparkling wines and a much broader selection of ports and dessert wines including the namesake zibibbo.

Service was extremely polished, professional and friendly. There was no sense of being hustled along, despite a brisk turnover at the tables all around us. We experienced a few glitches in the timing of our courses, and the line was crossed between leisurely dining and prolonged waits both at our table and from what we easily overheard at nearby parties. That is generally to be expected in a restaurant that has so recently opened its doors to such overwhelming demand. Despite some lapses, we found service to be a strong suit, and I expect these wrinkles will virtually disappear as the restaurant gets a better sense of its momentum.

Zibibbo is staking its claim with a combination of beautifully prepared, deceptively simple dishes and a striking, elegant setting. The place has created a forum for urbane and upbeat charm, which is enhanced by a savvy kitchen that knows how to bring out the inherent quality of seasonal ingredients.

Zibibbo, 430 Kipling Street, Palo Alto, 328-6722

Hours: Breakfast 9-11 a.m. daily; lunch 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5:30-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Atmosphere: Chic, elegant and cool; indoor-outdoor setting

Highlights: Highbrow Mediterranean with an eye for nuance; oak-fired oven and rotisserie for succulent poultry and meat; seasonal produce prepared with finesse; exceptional wine list

About the owners: Chef/partners Marc Valiani and Jody Denton are the team behind Restaurant LuLu in San Francisco's SoMa, which appears regularly on area "best-of" restaurant compilations. The two worked together in Dallas years ago and went their separate ways, with Valiani ending up working with Wolfgang Puck in Los Angeles and Denton with Reed Hearon at LuLu. Zibibbo, their second collaboration, opened on Sept. 22.

Credit cards: yes Parking: no Full bar: yes Takeout: yes Banquet: yes Wheelchair accessible: yes Non-smoking: yes Highchairs: yes Outdoor seating: yes 

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