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[whitespace] Ramon Bernal
Flexing Mussels: Silan chef Ramon Bernal contemplates a plate of shellfish while sitting next to a fountain, one of the lavish decorative touches at the Los Altos restaurant.

Dressed to Impress

Though Silan makes an astounding first impression, it's a good restaurant rather than a great one

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

SOME RESTAURANTS make astounding first impressions that can rock your sensibilities. For a while anyway. Such was my initial experience as I crossed the threshold into Silan, opened sometime last year in the location that once housed the Black Forest Inn (a Los Altos favorite for many years).

While waiting at the bar for my guest to arrive, I was beamed to a village somewhere in Italy, somewhere warm, somewhere fragrant with olives and baking bread. In my fantasy I sat at a table with a glass of red wine and a dish of pasta still steaming from the pans. The decor had that kind of effect--you salivate in delicious anticipation. Everything you'd ever expect to see in a restaurant of this nature is fully established in each detail, right down to the painted-on brick. From stem to stern, the place is brushed in demure shades of clay and earth--terra cotta, they call it--so warm I could sense the colors on the back of my neck.

But the feel of the authentic Italian village began to erode, not quickly but by degrees. Eventually I found myself beamed back to my bar stool. Still waiting for my friend, I began to feel as if I'd been transported to a dining concession at Disneyland or Vegas rather than to the continent--to a place like the Blue Bayou (you know, the one next to the Pirates of the Caribbean), where decor is overworked to the point of being cartoonish. At my worst moment, I imagined Bugs Bunny twirling through gargantuan plates of spaghetti.

When my companion finally arrived, we were escorted to our table in the quasi-patio. On our way, we passed the open-view kitchen and brick pizza oven where stools have been provided front and center to the action. We were seated next to a trickling fountain decorated with ceramic lion heads. Live potted plants in strategic locations enrich the patio setting, but not enough to allay my suspicions that this decor is, in my opinion, the product of someone who struggled hard to get the look right, but went overboard in the process. The sound of the water, however, was very peaceful.

The menu is an ambitious undertaking that offers a wide selection of Italian specialties from both the north and south of the Italian boot. There's a full bar and a reasonable wine list with a fair number of good Italian wines. We got under way with a plate of carpaccio ($7.95), made of thinly sliced cured beef dressed with virgin olive oil full of aroma, plus capers and Parmesan cheese. We layered the moist slices onto chunks of good crusty bread, finishing every bite and swabbing the plate of all its tangy juices.

We divided two pasta dishes for our second course. The first was recommended to us as one of the specialties of the house, called fagottino ($13.95). These tender pockets of pasta contained a puree of ricotta, spinach and mushrooms and were finished with a fresh sauce made with sweet tomatoes and pistachio nuts.

A much richer selection followed: gnocchi alla salsa di Gorgonzola ($13.95). Be advised when you order this one: Tread lightly. Eating an entire plate could end the evening for those with delicate digestive systems. So restrict this dish to an appetizer, or God be with you. The sauce was a pungent concoction full of heady Gorgonzola, cream and pine nuts, rich beyond words, but surprisingly not thick or paste-like, as so many sauces can be with these particular ingredients. We hoped our salad of baby spinach virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar ($7.95) would cleanse and restore our palates, but it failed to do so. Simply put, there was too much dressing and the greens were soggy.

In baseball parlance, we batted .500 with our entree selections which is exceptional for a ball player though not for a restaurant patron. Our home run that night was the scallopine porcini ($16.95), slices of veal and fleshy wild mushrooms in a liquid brown sauce fortified with red wine. The sauce exuded wonderful flavor, not a drop of which escaped our bread.

Tagliata di manzo alla Chianti ($15.95) was our strike-out this game. First off, the pieces of flank steak had no taste and chewed like leather. Secondly, the lukewarm sauce based on balsamic vinegar, Chianti wine, peppercorns and rosemary should have had flavor, but did not. Haphazard presentation finished it for us (strike three), sending me to the dugout shaking my head and kicking the dirt.

We doubled off the wall with our dessert of poached pears in port wine with vanilla ice cream ($5.95), a perfect completion to a dinner full of ups and downs. What I liked most about this dessert was its simple, clean presentation and the natural sweetness that refreshed the palate.

Silan is a functional Italian restaurant--no more, no less. It's good, but not great, as the decor had first teased me into thinking it would be. Except for the flank steak, service did not miss a step; all other dishes came to the table piping hot. Our waiter was a humble man who answered questions in an honest straightforward manner. Now if only a touch of humility could be infused into Silan's interior design.

Address: 376 First St., Los Altos
Phone: 650.917.0300
Cuisine: Italian
Price Range: $9.95-$25.95
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11am-9pm, Fri. 11am-10pm, Sat. noon-10pm, Sun. 4-9pm

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From the April 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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