Expectations for Palo Alto's newest destination restaurant, The Sea, are extraordinarily high, since it is part of the Alexander's Steakhouse brand. After opening in 2005, Alexander's quickly became a standard bearer for Bay Area steakhouses, and the same course has been set for The Sea among seafood restaurants.
Rarely is opening a new restaurant smooth sailing, and that proved true for this one. Just weeks before its November opening, founding executive chef Jeffrey Stout was replaced by Yu Min Lin, who was most recently at the Michelin two-starred Providence in Los Angeles. His résumé also includes stints at the French Laundry and Manresa.
Since it's important to give a new restaurant and chef time to work out the kinks, I waited 2½ months before visiting. In the two weeks between my visits, rough patches in service were getting smoothed, and Lin was refining the menu.
Housed in the spot left by Trader Vic's, The Sea has replaced all traces of Polynesian kitsch with understated modern elegance that has the calming effect of the ocean. You'll find no clichéd seafood restaurant decor.
The entrance is bright white with little more than a large hostess stand and a large chandelier. Its starkness was matched by our reception from the hostess when she didn't immediately see our reservation on her computer. Her lack of finesse made us feel momentarily uncomfortable.
The dining room, which seats nearly 150, also is predominantly white -- walls, tablecloths and cream-colored leather chairs -- with accents in blue and gray. Blue canvas banners hang from the high ceiling near the gleaming open kitchen. Two smaller dining areas flank the main room.
Oddly, when seated, you're given only the wine and cocktail lists. The former seemed premature without a dinner menu to make pairing decisions. The latter is filled with tempting creations by bar director Perry Hewitt. But the wait for a dinner menu must be excruciating for nondrinkers -- nearly 40 minutes on our first visit with just water and a carafe of wine on our table, though the dining room was only half full. Finally, our amuse bouche and a basket of house made bread arrived one after the other, the best of which was a croissant topped with the Japanese condiment furikake, which gave a big hit of umami.
The restaurant was much busier on our next visit, but the meal got off to a quicker start, though service slowed toward the dinner's end.
The tuna tacos appetizer ($15) on the first visit was very good but messy, more upscale bar food than white-tablecloth fare. Two weeks later, it was gone, replaced by an ocean foie gras ($16), which seemed more appropriate for the venue.
Traditional foie gras was banned from most California menus last year, but Lin uses monkfish liver, a delicacy in Japan, to form a torchon. It's cut into a thick medallion and served with watermelon radish and a citrus sauce -- a lightly sweet and acidic foil to the rich, velvety liver.
Though perhaps not a flawless dish, the fried clam chowder ($15) appetizer exemplifies Lin's quest for perfection. The bowl is delivered with a brunoise of crisp-tender celery and carrot and finely chopped pieces of bacon with three bite-sized fried clams. The creamy soup, delicately flavored with white miso, is poured at tableside. Eat the clams first, so they don't lose their crunch in the broth, and then enjoy the rest, savoring the perfectly cooked vegetables.
As for the main courses, Mero ($40), a fish similar to sea bass caught in Hawaii, was truly disappointing -- underseasoned, with the flesh mushy in places. The broccolini and sweet potato puree with it were incongruous counterparts. That shouldn't happen at an upscale restaurant.
Main courses seemed better on my second visit, though that may have been a function of fortuitous ordering. In the John Dory ($36), filets of mild, white fish were firm and well-seasoned with a golden sear. The accompanying peas and mushrooms made for a harmonious pairing.
Another standout was the white shrimp carbonara. Although $36 is an outrageous sum for pasta, the linguine noodles in a rich, creamy sauce were ringed by a generous portion -- at least 10 pieces -- of sweet, succulent butterflied shrimp. Mushrooms, dried tomatoes and Brussels sprouts prevented this from being a one-note dish, and it was nearly impossible to stop eating it.
Pastry chef Dan Huynh's desserts ($12) were artfully plated, and the ones we tried were very good. Monkey Business -- a riff on banana bread and a creamy banana parfait with pearls of citrus -- was good but not outstanding. Pandora was sinfully delicious. A cube of airy chocolate mousse atop a perfect round of cake topped with a salted hazelnut praline, it hit all the right notes. The real gem on the plate, a caramelized miso ice cream, mirrored the sweet-savory character of the praline.
Meals end with a plate of mignardises, bite-size morsels of things such as shortbread, madeleines and paté de fruit, as well as a cone of cotton candy, an Alexander's trademark.
Despite the problems, The Sea shows great promise. If the improvements I witnessed in between visits continue, there's no reason it won't soon be riding a wave of success.
E-mail Jennifer Graue at firstname.lastname@example.org.
4269 El Camino Real,
The Dish: The team behind Alexander's aspires to do for a seafood restaurant what it did for the steakhouse: create a destination-worthy dining experience by which others in the Bay Area are judged.
Prices: Appetizers, $12-$35; main courses, $36-$62; desserts, $12; wines by the glass, $10-$25, by the bottle, $36 and up.
Details: Housed in the old Trader Vic's, The Sea is an upscale, special-occasion place. Although the servers wear suits, this is Silicon Valley, so no jackets are required for patrons.
Pluses: Enticing, seasonal cocktail menu and well-curated wine list; large parties can be accommodated; turf options are available to complement seafood fare.
Minuses: Service hasn't yet hit its stride. Long lapses can make diners restless. Some dishes don't quite hit the mark, and the kitchen is still adjusting the menu.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.