Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Sorcerer Slone: Josiah Slone has made Sent Sovi his own.
Chef Josiah Slone has finally exorcised the memory of David Kinch at Sent Sovi
By Stett Holbrook
WHEN WE last checked in with chef Josiah Slone in 2003, he was settling into the kitchen at Sent Sovi, the celebrated restaurant he took over from David Kinch earlier that year. Kinch, who has since garnered international acclaim at Manresa in Los Gatos, loomed large over the small Saratoga restaurant where he first attracted the adoration of food critics and diners.
Comparisons to Kinch were inevitable, but Slone hasn't followed in Kinch's footsteps. He has gone in his own direction and walked out of his predecessor's shadow to make the restaurant entirely his own. While Slone's cooking was uneven early on, Sent Sovi once again ranks as one of Silicon Valley's best restaurants.
In keeping with the changing seasons and the availability of local ingredients, Slone changes his menu quarterly. Cooking with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients is de rigueur in Bay Area restaurants, but Slone's cooking takes this edict to new levels of deliciousness.
Over the course of two visits, I had the good fortune to taste dishes from the fall and winter menus. The food from both sounded low, earthy tones that resonated with the warm timbre of a cello concerto. Everything was framed in a warm glow that seemed perfectly calibrated with the cold weather outside.
On my most recent visit, dark clouds and wind driven by an approaching winter storm made for a blustery walk to the tiny Big Basin Way restauranta perfect backdrop for Slone's winter menu. After a humdrum amuse bouche of baby artichoke topped with a Parmesan cheese crisp and aged balsamic vinegar (hey, it's free, what do you want?), the fun began.
Smoked trout and butter lettuce salad ($11) proved that there's nothing drab about cold weather food. The moist, delicately smoked trout was a perfect match for the bright notes of the Meyer lemon confit scattered on top. Bound together with a crème fraîche dressing, it was a cool, refreshing winter salad. Rabbit rillettes (rich, slow-cooked, shredded meat) with a frisée salad tossed with a Dijon mustard vinaigrette was a simple, satisfying dish. Best of all was the porcini mushroom and black truffle soup ($12). Looking like melted chocolate ice cream, the creamy soup tasted of the forest floorearthy, aromatic, herbaceous.
Slow-braised osso buco with wholegrain mustard spatzle (a kind of dumpling) and braised red cabbage ($34) is the culinary equivalent of a warm blanket and a crackling fire. Slone coaxes rich, sultry flavors from the tender veal shank (coffee? rosemary?). Spatzle is so often gummy and bland, but here it's pleasantly chewy and imbued with a little crispness from the thin bits of Smithfield ham cooked with it. The tall bone for which the dish is named yielded a few morsels of delicious marrow that tasted like meat-flavored butter.
I think of prawns as summer fare, but the fennel-marinated prawns with garlic gnocchi and paprika sausage ($27) changed my mind. The plump, juicy prawns gave the dish a lightness that helped balance the hearty gnocchi and piquant morsels of sausage that Slone gets from Dittmer's, a great butcher and sausage shop in Mountain View.
The star of this winter night of delights was the jerk-flavored duck confit ($28). Two duck legs crossed at the ankles are served atop small white beans and red rice pilaf and braised chard and drizzled with a tamarind glaze. To say the duck was tender and succulent is an understatement. I just looked at it and it fell off the bone. But I tasted the tamarind more than the jerk seasoning. Jerk sauce is Jamaica's signature seasoning, a mixture of allspice, fiery Scotch bonnet chiles, soy sauce, brown sugar and other spices. I know Slone worked in Jamaica, so I'm sure he knows his jerk, but it just didn't come through on this dish. Maybe that's just as well, because it was great as is.
My only complaint about the night was the surroundings. Sent Sovi has one of the most romantic dining rooms in Silicon Valley. The copper wainscoting, the oil paintings of California landscapes and the Oriental rug over wood floors ooze intimate charm. But I wasn't sitting there. A private party had rented out the dining room and my fellow diners and I were relegated to the nearby "wine cellar," a dining room usually reserved for private parties. Slone has done his best to liven up this low-ceiling room with new paint and art on the walls, but it still feels like a converted basement rumpus room. Fortunately, the food offset the setting.
Food I tried a few weeks ago from the just-retired fall menu was equally good. Slone has a fondness for wild mushrooms and they're worth ordering whenever they're on the menu. The buttery, pine-scented sautéed chanterelles ($12) were topped with just a little Vella Dry Monterey jack cheese, proof that you don't need to do much to a dish when you use great ingredients. Slone also makes great soup. The white truffle-oil-scented Dungeness crab bisque was a dream. A thick as melted caramel and the same color, the soup was like eating a bowl of creamy, crab-flavored gravy.
From the list of entrees, the bacon-wrapped rabbit medallions with lavender-braised hindquarters ($29) was the clear favorite and evoked the waning light and crisp air of autumn. The perfectly cooked white meat stayed rich and moist thanks to the bacon, and the lavender perfumed the tender dark meat.
I also liked the night's fresh fish special ($29), pan-fried striped bass served in a beautiful yin-yang presentation around diced zucchini and tomatoes.
Service varied during my two visits. On one night, our server had the smooth delivery of a late-night jazz DJ and a graciousness that's often missing from fine dining restaurants in the South Bay. He had the menu down cold and paced the meal perfectly. In keeping with the local spirit of the menu, Sent Sovi has a mainly California wine list that features a number of wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Our server knew the list well and made several good recommendations. On another visit, however, our server was hesitant and stiff. Dirty plates lingered too long and when he did clear our table we had to hold onto our wine glasses lest he knock them over with his clumsy, across-the-table reach.
If Sent Sovi has a weakness, it's the desserts. They're good, but not on the same level as the rest of the menu. Bergamot-orange crème brûlée with black tea granita ($8) sounded good on paper but came across muddled and too sweet. The layer of burned sugar was too thick and stuck in my teeth like a Jolly Rancher. Coconut ginger cheesecake ($8) was good but otherwise unremarkable. But the Scharffenberger chocolate mousse was great ($8), a creamy, light dessert with enough chocolate flavor to float a battleship.
Sent Sovi is no longer that restaurant that used to be owned by that famous chef. Sent Sovi is Josiah Slone's restaurant, and it's very good.
Address: 14583 Big Basin Way, Saratoga.
Hours: Tue-Sun 5-10pm.
Price Range: $27-$35.