By Renjie Wong
We’ve all been on that one Valentine’s dinner from hell.
You know the one: tacky decor, middling food, overpriced wine and — worst of all — the rude waiter, sick from serving roomfuls of doe-eyed couples all night. At best, it is the worst date you and your valentine will have; at worst, it is your last.
But that’s not going to happen this time — not at Stanford, not in Palo Alto, and especially not on our watch. In our commitment to uncovering only the best dining experiences, we at The Daily scoured the boulevards and back alleys for the finest Valentine’s Day meal in the 650… and found it at Palo Alto Grill.
Situated in the heart of Palo Alto, the young restaurant has been making waves in the dining scene since opening last April. Led by Executive Chef Ryan Shelton, the establishment is the happy lovechild of a classic steakhouse and an edgy nouvelle cuisine joint. With a focus on Bay Area produce, Palo Alto Grill comfortably fills the niche of an upscale, unpretentious neighbourhood restaurant.
Shelton’s pedigree is sterling: having previously worked at Chez TJ and Baumé, two of the neighbourhood’s Michelin joints, he has accrued a gruelling decade of training under his belt. This invaluable experience has translated into a chef who knows what the diner wants.
“When I was younger I’d bring my ego into the kitchen,” Shelton said, “and it took me a good number of years to realize that the customer writes the menu, not me.”
His vision, then, is apparent in the Valentine’s Day menu. Bringing together the finest items in his repertoire, Shelton’s selection for the evening is presented a la carte, with smaller portions designed so that guests can taste a wider variety of his culinary confections.
Palo Alto Grill’s Dungeness crab cakes are the restaurant world’s Kardashians: juicy, meaty and unbelievably addicting. What appears at first to be a layer of guacamole under the crab cakes turns out to be an earthy pea puree, complementing the crab’s sweetness in a way that only vine-ripened peas can. It is the accompanying slow-poached egg, however, that steals the show. Heated at 62 degrees Celsius for precisely 1 hour and 52 minutes, the resulting congelation is a vision of Jello-like beauty; tracing my fork over the yolk causes it to ooze molten gold, forming a puddle of dipping sauce most divine. Not for the faint of heart, for sure, but we daresay there is nothing more appealing than a date who mops up every last drop.
The Palo Alto chopped salad is equally spectacular: row after row of baby shrimp, eggs, olives, artichokes and pumpkin seeds meticulously laid out on a dish then tossed tableside with a green goddess dressing. The result is a vivid confetti mix of contrasting flavors and textures, from olive’s sharp saltiness to the egg’s delicate creaminess. There is, of course, method in this madness, and the chervil bite of the green goddess dressing binds each mouthful in an altogether refreshing mix, while affording a satisfying weight that few salads achieve (in our book, anyway).
As far as main courses go, the olive oil poached halibut stands out for its surprising flavors: caught from the frigid northern Atlantic waters off the coast of Scotland, the firm, flaky, flavorful fish is the ideal foil to a bed of yellow bell pepper risotto. The latter’s intense sweetness — extracted by confit-ing said peppers for hours over a low flame — provides the delicate halibut with an almost candy-like dimension, while a black olive tapenade delivers a unexpectedly salty edge.
By far the most impressive dish on the Valentine’s Day menu, however, is the signature steak frites. A hefty slab of Holstein beef — from cows fattened on the vast countryside pastures of upstate New York, I was told — is grilled to medium-rare perfection, then sliced to reveal its gloriously rosy interior. Lashings of black truffle reduction provide a rich depth to the meat, while a tray of three artisanal salts add subtle tweaks to the flavor: the fleur de sel carries a mineral crispness, the smoked Maldon salt a smouldering perfume and the Hawaiian lava salt a happy balance between the two. We found the second complemented the steak best, combining with the intoxicating meat liquor to ignite a smoky campfire in one’s mouth. Shelton finishes the dish with a cone of triple-cooked fries dusted with white truffle oil, which we certainly fell for. But really, who wouldn’t? If this doesn’t win your date over, nothing will.
We could go on about the other incredible dishes — salmon poke, panko-crusted Monterey abalone, flourless yuzu chocolate cake — but beyond a certain point words do no justice to Shelton’s impeccable menu. Just be careful not to neglect your Valentine’s date too much.
Contact Renjie Wong at renjie “at” stanford.edu.