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The state of fine dining

By Julissa James

SF’s food scene casts a long shadow. The Peninsula is stepping out.

Illustration by Donna Grethen

You’re a Peninsula-based food-ie with a taste for fine dining. You’re hungry for diversity, refinement and creativity. You don’t have the time, energy or desire to battle traffic on northbound 280. You scan the list of restaurants in your area, you see a Michelin star here, a glowing review there, and then it hits you: There is a culinary explosion happening right in your backyard. You’re relieved. You’re elated. So is everyone else. Let’s eat.

The Peninsula is no longer a stopover on the fine-dining train headed toward San Francisco; it’s a destination. Chefs and restaurateurs are driving home the point that the area is a hotspot for innovators that go beyond the tech variety. A rising wave of upscale restaurants are taking their place among the pantheon of long-standing and beloved food institutions in the area. Places like Protégé, Taverna, Bird Dog and Verge are pulling up a chair at the table next to the Michelin-starred giants like Manresa, the Village Pub, Rasa, Baumé, Wakuriya, Madera and The Plumed Horse, among others.

Carolyn Jung, a James Beard Award-winning food writer based in Silicon Valley, sees the right group of chefs, eager diners and Peninsula economics as the perfect storm for the culinary boom. “The timing is right,” Jung says. “In Silicon Valley, you have a lot of wealth. You have a lot of people who are highly educated, who have traveled extensively, and who have an appetite for the finer things in life. That doesn’t mean they like only expensive food, it just means they have a real appreciation for food that is crafted with care. Many high-tech folks have been a driving force in this new renaissance by investing their money in new restaurants and bakeries.”

Another crucial aspect in this renaissance, Jung says, is that restaurateurs are choosing Peninsula cities to open their restaurants to avoid getting lost in the saturation of San Francisco. People in the area — excited to have something to call their own — are usually more supportive. “In San Francisco, diners typically can be quite skeptical when they walk into a new establishment for the first time, and almost dare it to be as good as they have heard,” Jung explains. “I think in the Peninsula and South Bay, diners are more apt to walk into a new restaurant more open-minded and pulling for it to do well. Maybe it’s because San Franciscans are a little more jaded, since they’ve had it so good for so long. On the Peninsula and in the South Bay, because we haven’t had the plethora of buzzy or award-winning restaurants, we’re more apt to excitedly extend the welcome mat when something promising does arrive.”

The same was true for Protégé, the highly anticipated brainchild of French Laundry alums chef Anthony Secviar and master sommelier Dennis Kelly. Jung says that for years prior to opening, eager foodies were peeking their heads in the door of 250 California Ave. in Palo Alto during construction to inquire about an opening date.

Here for the long haul.

Buzz and anticipation surrounds most ambitious restaurants that try to hack into the Peninsula food scene, but early support doesn’t always translate into longevity. Secviar believes that true customer loyalty comes through a sense of connection, and that’s been the basis of success for the six-month-old restaurant.

Protégé’s equal emphasis on food, wine and service has helped to launch the local hotspot into the culinary stratosphere.

“[People] want to have a connection to a place, recognize the owners, support the local businesses — you can’t trick them into it,” Secviar says. “Palo Alto has seen its fair share of failed transplant-restaurants with big-name chefs who aren’t onsite … I believe that a chef or owner should be on site, serving their customers every day. It’s how Dennis and I run Protégé, and when I saw that Palo Alto also values and supports this level of commitment, I knew I was in the right place.”

After working under chef Thomas Keller at French Laundry with what Secviar calls “a tre-mendous amount of freedom,” he was still charged with executing Keller’s distinct philosophy ahead of his own. With Protégé, he’s created an opportunity to craft his authentic style and serve food that highlights the natural abundance in the area without taking itself too seriously. Jung calls his hen egg with smoked olive oil and a porcini-infused pastry cage “high art.”

“We cook for our guests here. There are no smoking mirrors, elaborate garnishes or over manipulation of ingredients,” Secviar says. “I like to think of it as ‘ego-less cuisine.’ We aren’t showing off, we’re simply trying to create delicious food with great products, sound execution and a meticulous attention to detail.”

Another new kid on the block with an ingredient-driven menu is Taverna, the joint venture of Hakan Bala and Thanasis Pashalidis who met working at Evvia, another highly-praised Greek restaurant in Palo Alto. To serve a menu that Pashalidis calls “Greek-Californian,” the duo brought on William Roberts as executive chef, formerly of Dio Deka, Michael Mina and Village Pub. It was important for the duo to represent old-world Greece through authentic, farm-to-table Hellenic cuisine and even more important to capture the Greek attitude toward dining.

“I wanted to create a place for people to come eat, but more so than the food, Taverna is about … getting out,” Pashalidis stressed. “Half of dining in Greece is about the conversation.”But if the conversation falls flat, diners can let the food do the talking. Koulouri Thessalonikis (a traditional sesame bread ring served with lamb butter), oktapodaki (grilled octopus), or bogugatsa (folded phyllo dough filled with vanilla crème and topped with pistachio ice cream) are only a few examples of the seasonal offerings at Taverna.

The ultimate melting pot

Cultures collide seamlessly at Verge in Los Gatos. Chef Albert Nguyen-Phuoc taps into the deep spices of his Vietnamese heritage, the disciplined French techniques from his education at Le Cordon Bleu, and his almost 30 years in the Bay Area to create a menu filled with surprises like mushroom cobbler and breakfast ravioli. “I want people to ask, ‘What’s going on here?’” says Nguyen-Phuoc of his intentions for diners at the bistro and bar. “I want them to have something different that they can’t find anywhere else on the Peninsula because of the types of ingredients that are combined together.”

The region is no stranger to diversity when it comes to food, but ethnic influences in the fine-dining scene are popping up with increasing regularity. With Rasa Contemporary Indian in Burlingame securing a coveted Michelin star three years in a row, ethnic eateries see a wide-open door to claim their rightful place in the high-end restaurant world.

Verge in Los Gatos presents diners with delightful sensory surprises that are still pure California at heart.

“Rasa has been instrumental in raising the status of Indian cuisine,” says founder and CEO Ajay Walia. “The Peninsula used to lack options of creative dining, but that seems to be changing fast as more people are branching out.”

Other notable restaurants like Sushi Yoshizumi and Wakuriya in San Mateo have vaulted to next-level status by earning Michelin stars this year as well. Jung believes that the Peninsula food scene will only get better and more diverse in the future. In a region world-renowned for its innovative spirit and warm embrace of immigrant talent, it seems apropos that an eclectic new generation of chefs and restaurateurs would make their mark here. San Francisco still casts a long culinary shadow, but with the emergence of a vibrant fine dining scene, the Peninsula now enjoys its own spotlight.

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