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Fresh Choice

Christopher Gardner

Fresh Attitudes: Entrepreneuse Jesse Cool and pastry chef Christine Gutierrez offer the best of the fresh at Menlo Park's Flea Street Cafe, a California Bistro where vegetables receive top billing.

The kitchen at Flea Street Cafe--where organic attitudes rule--continues to spin seasonal harvests into edible gold

By Christina Waters

REFLECTING THE artistic sensibilities and deep devotion to seasonal, organic produce of its entrepreneuse, Jesse Cool, Menlo Park's Flea St. Cafe is at once a cozy California bistro and a performance arena where vegetables receive top billing.

Which is not to say that the wine list isn't inventive, we noted, glancing across an array of mighty zinfandels, hard-to-find vintages from the Santa Ynez and Amador County winegrowing regions, plus plenty of top local offerings. We chose a split of Ridge Zinfandel 1991 Lytton Springs ($20) and a glass of berry-filled Pinot Noir 1994 from neighboring Page Mill winery ($7). Red wine is the perfect match for vibrant vegetable creations.

A series of dining rooms appointed by antiques, floral accents and hanging plants, Flea Street is enormously appealing. Little glass and unmatched antique china pots, bowls and cruets hold cracked pepper, sea salt and fruity olive oil--thoughtful details. There's nothing ordinary in sight. Especially on the menu.

Cool's devotion to the best of the fresh is a South Bay legend. We considered little dishes of green onion noodle cakes, or mini tostadas stuffed with marinated seafood. Caramelized onion, spinach and goat-cheese ravioli, or fresh rainbow trout stuffed with shiitakes and garlic on a bed of flageolet beans also tempted. But since my trusty companion Rebecca is a woman hopelessly devoted to the potato, I knew it was to be the potato pancake with Spanish capers and house cured salmon that would win her over. As she considered a potato entree as well, I became better acquainted with the exquisite zinfandel, each taste a poem written by winemaker Paul Draper.

At Flea Street Cafe, just like at every corner bistro in the south of France, you are presented with some fresh-baked bread--in this case an herbed foccacia and tender buttermilk biscuits--along with a saucer of olives. Tiny green olives, crinkly black Mediterranean cured olives, fat kalamatas--all so perfect with red wine and bread that entire meals have begun and ended at just this point.

My salad of vibrant greens, sliced beets and even rosy, beet-enhanced vinaigrette came on a round plate bordered with handpainted turnips ($7.95). I accompanied each bite of the greens--whose rich full flavors redefined the whole point of escarole, oak leaf and rouge d'hiver lettuces--with creamy, sharp Costello blue cheese and crisp Golden Delicious apple slices.

On a whole other plane of the fresh flavor spectrum, my companion was working her way through golden layers of potato pancake. Now here's starch fit to rule the world, I thought, admiring the sweet contrast of caramelized onions, the plump dollop of dill and shallot-laced sour cream, and the trio of very pungent long-stemmed caper berries that accompanied this earthy dish ($8.95). Referring to a silken ribbon of delicious house-smoked salmon that acted almost as a garnish to this paradigm of potatoness, my companion said without a trace of irony, "I don't think it really needs the salmon."

Each entree was a summer garden on a plate. A filet of fresh local halibut had been lightly grilled before being placed on a bed of lettuce all-stars including baby sorrel, and topped with a creamy mango coulis ($16.95). Like Inca jewels, purple potato nuggets encircled the aromatic seafood. I was well into my buttery halibut when my companion finally brought herself to dismantle the gorgeous tower of garlic mashed potatoes that formed the central bauble of her farmer's pie ($14.50). A tiny puff pastry cap and a tender layer of red chard topped this six-inch tribute to organic spuds. All around twinkled tiny veggies glistening in a wild mushroom sauce; golden calendula petals drifted prettily here and there. Tiny beets, succulent shiitakes and portobello mushrooms, onions, roasted baby fennel, carrots (which she thought too al dente, but I didn't), asparagus (at the very end of its seasonal range and, hence, not at peak sweetness) and those fabulous potatoes. It was enough to make a grown woman swear off her carnivorous ways.

For dessert, we split a satisfying creation involving a hazelnut/anise biscotti (two would have been even better), a to-kill-for semisweet chocolate truffle, a perfect, ripe strawberry and a glass of Bonny Doon Vineyard's elegant garnacha port ($7). All elements balanced splendidly, bearing the cafe's strong local, regional, handcrafted message. For its expertise, attentive service and joyful fidelity to organic produce, Flea Street continues to dance in the vanguard.

Flea Street Cafe

Address: 3607 Alameda de las Pulgas, Menlo Park
Phone: 415/854-1226
Cuisine: New California Country
Hours: Lunch Tue.­Fri., 11:30am­2pm; dinner Tue.­Sun., 5:30­9:30pm; brunch Sun, 9am­2pm. Closed Mon.
Service: on target
Extras: organic produce, most from Stone Free Farm, Watsonville
Entrees: $14.50­$22.95

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From the June 20-26, 1996 issue of Metro

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