There’s a show on the local public television station here called Check Please Bay Area. Three people submit their favorite Bay Area restaurants, everyone tries each other’s out, then they meet around a really awkward restaurant table set while the host–a blonde woman whose eyes and smile always look like she’s more than one glass of red wine in–peppers them with questions about what they tried and what they liked and goads them into picking restrained foodie fights with one another.
We love this show.
Because of it, I have a running list of restaurants we want to try on my phone. An Ethiopian place in San Jose, a hipster hangout in the Outer Sunset, and some San Francisco classics like Zuni Cafe and Tartine. At first, the list was fantasy because Brad’s diet is restricted and we don’t have any extra money for eating out. But then we both said, “What are we doing? We live in the Bay Area. It is virtually our duty to eat out.”
So we are. Once a month, one of us picks a spot and we go. We ignore the gluten-free part of our diet and ignore how strict we both are about spending extra money and eat a meal out as if we’ll never go back. (Read: We order appetizers AND dessert.)
Brad chose Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park as our first stop. The name sounds like a dive, doesn’t it? It’s not. It’s a smallish white-tablecloth spot with a reputation for turning people away at the door because it’s booked solid. We tried our luck right when they opened (as in, we got there 10 minutes before they opened, walked casually by the front door to see if anyone had gone in yet, circled back around the building, stared at one another wondering when was too early to go in, then walked back to the front door and went in) and were led to a room with only five tables right outside the kitchen.
While we looked over the late winter menu–broken up into First, Second, and Third courses–a group of four were seated at a table near us. They sat down and started talking about a gallery showing and someone mentioned “my last book” as the women fussed with their beaded jackets and the men uncorked the first of two bottles of wine. I fidgeted in my gray wool cardigan and turned to look behind us. In the next room, a younger man sat by himself with a martini and a plate of meat, completely satisfied without a person or a book or a phone to distract him.
Our waitress coached us to order first and second courses to share, and an entree each. The menu changes seasonally; often the ingredients come from the farmers who sell to the public during the market the restaurant hosts on Saturdays. Some of the herbs come from barrels planted out back (the top photo).
While we waited for our first course to come out, she brought out a basket of bread and buttermilk biscuits and then set individual ceramic tiles with a pat of butter and small pile of salt by our plates. A moment later, she brought out “a taste of the season” from the kitchen–two Tokyo turnip bites, cooked but served cold with fennel flowers and shoots. So two bars have been set for future restaurants we visit: butter presentation and unasked-for small bites from the kitchen.
We ordered the Half Moon Bay Grilled Sardines for our first course (still on their Spring menu!) because Brad has a bizarre love for sardines that can only be explained by their nutritional value. I decided if I was ever going to try them, it would be at a fancy place like this. And I’m so glad I did! The filets were served over small globes of crispy potatoes, a frisee salad, and garlic aioli. I would eat sardines every day if they always tasted like that. (That’s right, Brad. I said it.)
For our second, we got a spinach salad that I chose mainly because it includes leeks and mushrooms, two of my favorite ingredients in life. It was good, but the thing about making a lot of salads on your own is that virtually no salad at a restaurant will impress you. Still, we didn’t leave any behind. (I also don’t have a photo of it because I started to feel conspicuous whipping out my phone for every plate like a commoner.)
I could write pages about our entrees (I did in my journal the next day), but instead I’ll simply share the names: Marin Sun Farms Braised Grass-Fed Short Ribs with mashed potato, asparagus, horseradish cream, and beef jus. All you need to know about this is horseradish cream. Unbelievably succulent.
I ordered the Winter Organic Vegetarian Tasting–a flight of vegetables, basically. From left to right: paper-thin potato gratin with parmesan, artichoke hearts with hoisin chutney, risotto balls with blue cheese and some vegetable I’ve never heard of before (it sounded like or-RAHN-say. Is this a real thing? Please enlighten me in the comments.), asparagus in a reduction, and beets smothered in a port orange marmalade. Wow. I definitely have fantasies of holding a dinner party of just vegetable small plates after this.
For dessert, I ordered the obligatory chocolate cake, and it was awesome, especially the mint ice cream it came with. But Brad’s trio of seasonal ice creams were even better. He got a scoop each of avocado, almond, and Meyer lemon ice creams. The lemon ice cream literally made us gasp and our eyes water, it was so sour. I loved it.
We were so sold on this place and then they brought out our check—with two small port wine dark chocolate truffles. Well played, Flea Street.