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[whitespace] St. Michael's Alley
Christopher Gardner

Floor Show: Ryan Anderson's show-stopping creations find a suitable setting at St. Michael's Alley, remodeled with tile flooring and a sunny paint job.

An attractive and stylish update at St. Michael's Alley puts this Palo Alto landmark on the fast track for big Emerson Street success

By Christina Waters

REFRESHING ONE OF THOSE cozy old spaces that riddle Palo Alto's downtown, St. Michael's Alley has breathed smart bistro attitude into its latest incarnation. Joining the vivacious dining scene that makes Emerson Street a foodie's prime destination, the new, improved St. Michael's Alley is a study in polished wood wainscoting, sunny yellow walls and a good-looking clientele.

From the blackboard listing near the diminutive bar, we chose an Obester Sauvignon Blanc ($5.25) and an excellent Page Mill Pinot Noir 1996 ($7.75) to join with a basket of three breads and unsalted butter. Soft gray tapestried banquettes line the back wall, and a growing throng was hugging the front entrance--reservations are a must--as we sampled the tart rye bread and made our menu selections.

The inflections of cilantro here, roasted red pepper there and one shrimp spring roll appetizer underwrite the menu's subtitle, "Hearty California Cuisine." Otherwise, the eclectic listings that include plenty of inventive potato, grilled meat and seafood dishes tend confidently toward what I'd call New American cooking.

A case in point was my luscious starter of corn and scallion pancake with smoked salmon ($7.95). I was presented with a light, tender pancake--hot and steaming from the griddle--that was studded with corn kernels and centered with a generous dollop of crème fraîche. Three slices of smoked salmon, rolled into slender cylinders, radiated outward from the center, and everything was lightly strewn with garlic chives. It was a wonderful dish that updated the time-honored smoked salmon appetizer.

Candice's salad of tossed baby greens ($4.25) arrived with an equally distinctive roasted shallot vinaigrette. The lettuces were full of flavor, as were toasted walnuts and sweet cherry tomatoes tossed into the mix.

Fresh pink tulips at our table opened along with our wines by the time our main courses of Chilean sea bass ($19.95) and an evening special of wild mushroom ravioli with goat cheese ($12.95) arrived. The pan-roasted filet of sea bass was liberally sauced with a subtle cilantro and lime-spiked beurre blanc, a smart concept smartly executed. Our respect for the kitchen grew with every bite. Orzo, always a playful pasta shape, had been tossed with a red pepper puree--nice effect--and the season's fine asparagus arrived beautifully grilled. All the flavors made sense with each other--the whole dish was thoroughly satisfying.

We also liked the ravioli, whose pretty round shapes showed off their handmade status. Each tenderly chewy pasta sphere was filled with a delicate mushroom duxelle, and the whole was sauced with tomatoey red bell peppers, dotted sparingly with goat cheese (which melted into something wondrous in the heat of the pasta) and dusted with fresh parsley. Rich, vibrant--it was all believable food, and very clearly freshly prepared moments before it arrived at the table.

Serving dishes are generously portioned and the staff is genuinely warm. It does, however, tend to slow down when the place is packed--as it was last Thursday night--so allow plenty of time to enjoy your meal.

Candice let it be known not only that she loved the sea bass--and finished it up by way of proof--but that she'd return to St. Michael's Alley just for this dish alone. I'd come back for another taste of that splendid asparagus; the chef obviously respects this most delicate of spring veggies. Actually, I'd come back for another slab of the chocolate cake. The dessert selection includes a chocolate layer cake ($4.75) dense enough to cop its own listing on the periodic table of elements, as well as an archetypal crème brûlée ($4.95). So intensely chocolatey, so moist was this cake--the kind that only Walt Disney's mother could have made--that I questioned its legality more than once. Both desserts flourished in the company of a glass of Bonny Doon Vineyard's incomparable Muscat ($5.50).

St. Michael's Alley now boasts culinary ambiance as distinctive as its name. All this great dining on Emerson Street ... must be some sort of geographical feng shui.

St. Michael's Alley
Address: 806 Emerson St., Palo Alto
Phone: 650/326-2530
Hours: Opens at 5:30pm Tue.-Sat.
Cuisine: New California cuisine
Chef: Ryan Anderson
Prices: moderate

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From the April 22-28, 1999 issue of Metro.

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