Sunday, May 18, 2008

La Strada

La Strada, Palo Alto
Fine Italian cuisine on University Avenue's restaurant strip

We've tried a lot of the restaurants in Palo Alto, and walked past a lot more. At any given time, there are probably five or six on our "must try" list. La Strada had actually been recommended to us by some people we met at a party who were fellow foodies, so it rose on our list until we finally got the chance to go there.

It's a narrow space, confined and hard to navigate, at least for the customers. The staff weave their way through it with practiced ease, and they do seem to be constantly in motion. The kitchen is a long area to one side of the restaurant separated by a counter, so you can always see when food comes up and the kitchen smells fill the small area. The bar is a small section of the counter that bends around at the front of the restaurant, and on University Ave., there's a small patio of eight or nine tables.

We were seated inside, almost in the middle of the restaurant. Our server and the was not just attentive, but friendly, making suggestions and asking us what we liked, clearly interested in making our dinner better. When he came to ask how everything was, he really meant it (or else he really sold it). The atmosphere inside was very communal, bustling and well-lit. With the understated wood and plaster interior, it felt like a neighborhood joint.

We all tried different things, sampling the specials for that evening as well as some of the standard menu items. It was hard to decide, because everything looked so good, and the warm, fresh bread they brought out, almost ciabatta-like, made us hungry for more. We settled on...

The buffalo mozzarella salad. I like fresh mozzarella, but this stuff was amazing. I mean, it could've just rolled down the street from the Stanford pastures. I am not a fan of raw tomatoes (though learning to eat them now), but the ones included here were small and sweet, the kind I do like, and the fresh basil over thin cucumber slices complemented the light lemon-flavored dressing. You can always improve a salad with good bread, and the crisp, thin, salty flatbread went well with this salad. High marks for freshness and flavor out of such a simple dish.

Another appetizer, the terrina al forno, was more complicated: clams, mussels, and shrimp baked over red rice. The rice was almost undercooked, but we decided it went well with this dish; had it been softer and stickier, it would have really changed the consistency and not necessarily been better. It also might have soaked up more of the flavorful broth, which we enjoyed slurping. The shrimp, oddly, had heads but no tail shells. All in all, though, the seafood was all cooked well, the flavors blending together very nicely, almost like a "paella lite" (with red rice rather than saffron rice).

For main courses, we got a house-made black olive pasta with lamb cheeks, accompanied by spring peas and fava beans. The wine sauce, smooth and rich, didn't overwhelm the subtle olive flavor in the pasta, nor the flavor of the tender lamb cheeks. The peas and fava beans were similar to the veggies included with the other main course in the "veggie round," and were just as crisp and well-done.

The "veggie round" was a molded round pile of veggies that came with Mark's rib-eye steak. The broccoli and peppers accompanying the peas and beans had the same great flavor and crisp tenderness. The steak itself (I'm told) was a little tough, as would be expected from the cut, but was probably marinated in something like the balsamic vinegar that was drizzled over it, to rave reviews.

Although we were pretty full, we couldn't turn down the dessert that came with the special dinner menu: an apple tart in the European style, flat and round, accompanied by a scoop of vanilla bean gelato. In the gelato stood a flat, dried slice of apple, and to top it all off, candied walnuts and a rich, buttery caramel sauce that was better than it sounds. It wasn't too thick of a dessert, especially for three to share, but it was a perfect end to a wonderful meal.

We've tried a lot of the restaurants on and around University Ave. in Palo Alto. At any given time, there are a select few on our "must go back to list." That list now includes La Strada.

No comments: