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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Walking the Walk: Valley Bar and Grill is off and running--and it's going in the right direction.

Strong Starter

Valley Bar and Grill redefines a cocktail-heavy concept into something full of culinary innovation and high-tech appeal

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

PAST ENCOUNTERS with most establishments claiming membership in the bar and grill category have--in my estimation--proven far more bar than grill. At best, the man at the burners was usually a graduated fry cook wearing handsome whites; he had a repertoire of about five things: steak, steak, chicken, fish and, well, steak. Plus, of course, an exhaustive lineup of fried appetizers. Most of these places earned their plaudits, in fact, after the kitchen closed and while the blenders whirred into late night. "Alcohol and cholesterol" is how one friend sums them up.

The new Valley Bar and Grill, however, may be changing all of this. From what we sampled one Saturday evening, this fledgling operation is working hard to redefine the old cocktail-heavy concept into something full of culinary innovation and high-tech appeal. The kitchen employs a real chef with a keen affection for Southwest cuisine and all of its peppery nuances and regional flavors. We were told he prepares his own green chiles and has been given the freedom to flex his creativity.

Like most brand-new establishments (this one opened Dec. 29), the Valley (Silicon, not Santa Clara--I asked) is still in the process of fine-tuning. Just be patient. It takes about three months for all the numbers and letters to come together. The best news: this place has big potential and should win much allegiance by mid-year, especially with its menu of European, Asian and Southwest influences.

You enter through the door of the lounge into an upscale, minimally decorated space with tall ceilings and hardwood floors polished to perfect oaken hue. The bar is a bright, modern arrangement glowing with bottles of premium liquor and six television monitors set before you like a security system for the paranoid. Of course, each one flickered with the current sporting rave; this visit, football. Unfortunately, there was loud music too, so loud it reverberated through the air, beating us with bass tones in the process. Throughout the evening our small group competed against it as we tried to converse.

Music aside, the best attributes of the lounge--namely the high ceilings, the wood floors and the minimal decorations--were carried artfully into the dining room. This room added eclectic features as well, such as the mixing of high-tech track lighting with old-fashioned light fixtures. The use of a mirror covering the length of one wall further enhanced the feeling of spaciousness as well as the character of the lighting. The overall effect is both warm and striking, although the trendy earth-tones paint-job has been done to death. A minor point, however, in a such a pleasant place where tables are not cramped but judiciously spaced for maximum dining comfort.

The menu is a compendium of the typical and the not-so-typical, where innovations of the kitchen are at home with bar and grill favorites. Diners can pick and snack over cocktails with appetizers like crab cakes with green-chile tartar sauce, or settle in for a long meal with appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts.

We opened with Red Chile Spiced Fried Calamari ($6.95) and Vegetarian Thai Stick ($5.95), both highly recommended by our waitress. We enjoyed them, the crispy squid in one, the melange of Oriental vegetables in the other, but both, unfortunately, had a slight aftertaste of the deep fry. The calamari came with a rich chipotle mayonnaise--a fitting condiment (spicy, but not hot)--the Thai stick with a liquid sweet and sour that we poured like balsamic over the crunchy egg rolls.

Following logic, we sampled salads next. The first, the Asian chicken ($8.95), struck the eyes and the palate as too busy, too filling, just too much for a second course, and would have worked much better as a lunch entree. The ingredients, however--especially the chicken breast and the napa cabbage--were remarkably fresh. But once put together with everything else--the carrots, the peppers, the onions, the ginger and the almonds--the flavors were sadly lost; only the mint could clearly surface in the coriander vinaigrette.

We enjoyed the chef's gourmet rendition of the Greek salad ($8.95) much better. This salad, composed mainly of red leaf lettuce, mixed traditional ingredients with a few surprises like roasted garlic and grilled Roma tomatoes in a brisk balsamic and mustard dressing.

Superb freshness and quality marked the entrees we sampled that night. The pork chops ($13.95), the prime rib ($19.95; Thursday through Saturday) and even the chicken breast ($14.95) betrayed high standards and drew no significant complaints from our table. The chicken breast, airline style (wing included) with crushed garlic and black peppercorns, and the slow-roasted prime rib--as succulent as I've had--were given perfect heat, hitting the deck full of juice and natural flavor. The pork chops (served with apple sauce), on the other hand, spent a little too much time on the grill. They came hot and handsomely striped, but slightly dry.

When it comes to new restaurants, it's usually the service that takes time to find its legs and learn to jibe with the rhythms of the kitchen and the dining room. This establishment proved to be no exception. There were confusions and some mistakes (not many), but our server was a true professional, circumventing most of them with grace and sincerity. Two birthday parties in full swing didn't help matters. I used to wait tables and know what can happen in such a scenario.

You can cast off those tired remembrances of the old-style bar and grill where people used to come to drink first, to drink second, and to eat ... maybe not at all. The Valley Bar and Grill gives us an inspired new look and steps into the future with both feet pointed in the right direction at the corner of Villa and Castro in Mountain View. About that loud music, let's just pray for adjustments. Or you could simply ask. The management seems more than willing to please.

Valley Bar and Grill
Address: 194 Castro St., Mountain View
Phone: 650.968.1848
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri., 11am-10pm; snacks 2-5pm; and dinner 5-10pm daily
Price Range: $5.95-$19.95
Cuisine: Innovative

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From the February 3-9, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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