When news came earlier this year that Ryan Shelton would be the executive chef at the soon-to-open Palo Alto Grill, I was really pleased. He had impressed me just months earlier at Le Cigare Volant, the restaurant at Randall Grahm's Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz. When that eatery closed suddenly at the end of last year, I was disappointed that more people hadn't experienced Shelton's creative, playful touches.
At his new home on University Avenue, which opened in the spring, he has partnered with Luka Dvornik, who previously owned Lavanda, a restaurant and wine bar that was just down the block before closing last year.
Restaurant-saturated Palo Alto is very different from Santa Cruz, so I wondered how market forces would affect chef Shelton's style. The menu shows his creativity and playfulness in small plates such as avocado corn dogs ($7) and (during my visits) an entree of chicken and waffles ($21), but that is no longer on the menu.
His instincts appear to be reined in by the restaurant's concept as a place for steak during the dinner hour, with five cuts of beef taking pride of place on the menu. The decor also exudes steakhouse chic -- dark wood, black granite bar, exposed brick. Large windows and modern art add light and color.
For diners not drawn to steaks, however, a number of seafood dishes and nearly a dozen shareable small plates tip the balance toward contemporary California cuisine.
The wine list draws upon the Central and North Coasts, and sprinkles in selections from France, Italy and South America. We asked our lunch server about a picpoul from France's Languedoc region. To her credit, she admitted to not knowing much about it and offered us a taste.
The talents of pastry chef Yoomi Shelton (wife of Ron Shelton), shine throughout the meal. The bread basket makes a great first impression with Yoomi's pretzel epi bread, served with a mustard cheese dip, and two other breads. It was odd that we had to request butter on both visits.
Among appetizers, the sliders ($12) were standouts. They are cooked medium to medium-rare here. Served three to a plate, the fat, juicy patties are adorned with peppercorns, which add a pleasant crunch and flavor. Brioche buns stand up to the succulent beef, and house-made ketchup adds a distinctive tang. Sliders aren't on the lunch menu, but it does offer a peppercorn burger ($13).
The avocado corn dogs came in the most nearly perfect cornmeal batter I've ever encountered -- golden-crisp outside, light and fluffy inside.
The grilled octopus ($14) was pretty, but overcooked. The thin end of a tentacle was charred to the point that I could neither cut nor chew it. But the marble potatoes served with it, in a pesto and lemon dressing, were glorious.
In a nice twist on Caesar salad ($10), Shelton incorporates boquerones (sardines cured in vinegar) for a bright, tangy taste. It was topped with miniature gougères in place of croutons.
The Turf & Turf ($31) is a thin 13-ounce bone-in rib-eye topped with slices of house-cured pastrami -- a bolder version of a bacon-wrapped filet. It had great flavor.
The steak paired nicely with a side of creamed kale ($6), fragrant with sliced fennel. It was among a number of tempting side dishes I would like to try on a future visit, including mushroom risotto ($6) and fried Brussels sprouts "with brown sugar and butter pecan" ($7). These sides would be a welcome addition to the lunch menu, and so would the triple-cooked fries ($5), with a burger.
The pastry on the vegetable potpie ($19) was memorable, with a rich, hearty bottom crust and glossy, browned puff-pastry top. Inside, the vegetables were an ideal crisp/tender, but the tomato-based sauce overpowered the delicate flavors of the peas and mushrooms. The filling also could have used more heft; beans, perhaps, would have made it more satisfying.
The strawberry streusel cobbler ($8) at lunch was little more than warm compote with a smattering of streusel topping. It was a disappointment, since I knew what Yoomi Shelton is capable of. The plate of cookies and petit fours ($7) came with two small cheesecakes, accented with a delightfully tangy lime and three chocolate sea-salt cookies that were insanely addictive.
Small details like the colorful dishware and the trio of salts brought to the table for the steak elevate the dining experience here. But they're offset by small foibles, such as the busser who tried to take away the salts before the steak arrived. Such matters of finesse can be easily remedied.
I hope Chef Shelton finds room to flex his creative muscle and have fun. Palo Alto Grill is already a fine place to dine, but it can be even better.
E-mail Jennifer Graue at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Palo Alto GrilL
* * ½
Address: 140 University Ave.,
The Dish: At this high-end, comfortable restaurant, the focus is on steaks, seafood and small plates with contemporary California twists.
Prices: Small plates and appetizers: $7-$14; main courses $18-$48; desserts: $7-$11; wines by the bottle $34-$200+, by the glass $9-$15.
Details: Chef Ryan Shelton, formerly of Le Cigare Volant in Santa Cruz and the Michelin-starred Baumé, has teamed with restaurateur Luka Dvornik.
Pluses: Good ambience, creative menu and thoughtful wine list. Pastry Chef Yoomi Shelton's work stands out.
Minuses: A few misfires in execution keep the Grill from being really great.
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday-Saturday 5.-10 p.m.; Sunday 5-9 p.m.
Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.