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Stratta Star

Christopher Gardner

Stratta Symbols: The masterminds behind Stratta--Dave Zulaica, Chris Partlow and Lou Zulaica.

Downtown San Jose's newest bistro--Stratta Grill & Cafe--packs style and culinary punch into a tiny renovated space

By Christina Waters

A sense of style flirting with playfulness: that's how I'd characterize the upbeat interior of Stratta, a new grill in town that almost completely erases any vestige of former tenant TJ's. I say "almost" because those atmospheric wooden booths remain to tempt lengthy lunchers and romantic diners to this attractive eatery.

The star here is the menu by Lou Zulaica, who's cooked his way from Dartanian's through the South of France and six months with legendary Roger Vergé and back to Les Saisons and the Fairmont Hotel. A year and a half in the planning, Stratta catalyzes the chef's exuberant tendencies toward sensuous cooking, involving lots of hearty grill updates, lusty pastas and assertive salads.

The place looked great as we arrived at lunchtime last week exactly two minutes too late for the last coveted booth. And since the booths do offer the coziest seating in the pretty restaurant--glowing with pale lemon and sky-blue faux-marble walls--I recommend getting there early. Or reserving a booth in advance. The staff maintained a smooth but brisk pace from kitchen to white-linened tables throughout our meal, the only weak element of which was the lackluster Italian bread and the uninviting foil-wrapped pellets of butter. But glasses of excellent David Bruce Pinot Noir 1994 ($6.50), from the small but intriguing wine list, helped us over this momentary glitch.

Two beautiful salads arrived, along with a polite, unobtrusive request: "Would you care for a little pepper?" My petite Caesar salad ($2.95) was a well-balanced orchestration of anchovy and garlic, lots of crisp romaine and exceptional croutons. Croutons, while not difficult to engineer, tend to be a universal restaurant disappointment. Not so at Stratta, where the croutons rate high in both garlic intensity and olive-oil saturation. They crunch, they're small and mouth-friendly. They're superstars of their genre.

My companion agreed, in between bites of her salad of Sonoma greens (we wondered about this, given that we have so many fresh greens available right here in our neck of the bay). The greens turned out to be predominantly romaine, with bits of curly red and radicchio in a creamy vinaigrette dressing that might have been right at home in Italy ($2.95). Both were ample portions, thoughtfully executed.

Ah, the entrees. One order of a pasta special--fettuccine with tomatoes and seafood--was mounded into a wide bowl steaming with perfumed clouds of garlic and basil ($8.95) It was blatantly gorgeous, laced with sweet stewed tomatoes, oyster mushrooms, succulent scallops, lightly smoked prawns, and handfuls of fresh minced basil and parsley. No element was gratuitous--every single ingredient had been chosen, and enhanced, with as much care as skill.

We would have fought over this wonderfully full-bodied pasta dish had it not been for my entree, an old-fashioned yet thoroughly updated platter of grilled marinated flank steak, sliced and fanned over a snowfield of mashed potatoes the size of Mt. Hamilton ($8.95). This is not a complaint. These were truly sumptuous spuds, fortified with roasted garlic and thyme. A rich reduction gravy kept the lean beef moist, and slices of sautéed crimini mushroom completed the troika of classic flavors.

Our favorite parts of these main dishes involved the moist scallops, cooked to that barely quivering point of tender sweetness but not one minute longer, and the comforting, almost nurturing mashed potatoes.

Over some very good cups of coffee we considered Stratta's dessert options. We decided to split what turned out to be a tumescent slab of tiramisu ($4.95), sided with a thick squiggle of unsweetened whipped cream and a mint leaf. This tiramisu was freshly constructed, layers of rum-soaked ladyfingers, then a layer of Mascarpone cream cheese, then a dusting of cocoa, then an espresso soaking.

After watching a plate of penne and a few other desserts go by our table, I realized that I'd have to spend the next few months working my way through the entire Stratta repertoire. What a tasty new neighbor for a downtown neighborhood getting better every minute.

Stratta Grill & Cafe
Address: 71 E. San Fernando St., San Jose
Phone: 408/293-1121
Chef: Lou Zulaica
Entrees: $6.95-$8.95 (lunch)
Hours: 11:30am-4pm Mon.; 11:30am-10pm Tue.-Fri.; 4-10pm Sat.- Sun.

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From the April 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro

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