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Photograph by Paul Myers

Italian for 'Delicious': At Lavanda, chef Griesbach, center, serves up food that gets better with every bite.

Sea Change

A masterful chef re-emerges in the heart of downtown Palo Alto

By Christina Waters

THERE ARE DAYS when it's good to be a restaurant critic. Last week offered one of them in the form of dinner at Lavanda, the newest showcase for the gifts of chef Clyde Griesbach.

Many years ago, when he finessed Italian specialties from the helm of Paolo's, Griesbach served me a plate of pasta--simply tossed with fresh tomatoes and basil--that remains one of my most treasured culinary memories. Then came Marbella, Azur, Goosetown Café--Griesbach has left a trail of great dining wherever he's cooked. His latest sophisticated endeavor comes in the form of Lavanda, an urban grill set in the ultimate location, at the top of University Avenue in Palo Alto.

Whether the choice of name--Italian for lavender--is ideological or simply a design concept, is of no particular importance. The décor is spare: lean, polished wood floors, high-padded banquettes, a mezzaluna wine bar and a few subtle lighting appointments of graceful frosted glass. Lavanda's strong suit is an unusual and wide-ranging wine list and food that just gets better with each bite.

Noelle and I met in the tiny lounge for some predinner unwinding. I nursed a balloon of d'Elissagaray Basque Blend 2000 ($8), while my companion splurged on a Talley Chardonnay 2001 ($12), both beautiful wines that were perfect with our meals.

The menu tempted us with eclectic small tasting plates, but other possibilities beckoned farther down the menu. California spins the Mediterranean here. Pan-roasted clams are paired with spicy lamb chorizo; grilled quail comes with house-cured pancetta vinaigrette; Sicilian poached fish is enhanced by prunes, capers and pine nuts. Sides of robust vegetables--white beans with sage, spinach with garlic, fried potatoes and goat cheese--are available a la carte, something to consider when ordering. And Lavanda even stocks that most glamorous of sparkling waters, Badoit!

Noelle's colorful lime-cured salmon gazpacho tasted like an upmarket ceviche laced with huge ripe slabs of avocado and topped with lime crème fraîche ($8). My lobster salad was opulent--what else?--and sensuously moist ($17). Steamed perfectly, the succulent white flesh was presented in its curved shell atop a nest of green beans and intensely marinated cherry tomatoes. The delicate claw meat rested on a fluff of greens beneath coarsely cracked peppers and a drizzle of creamy lime dressing. Generous as well as rich, this dish could easily have worked as an entree.

A soft white napkin filled with excellent sourdough made us continual offers we couldn't refuse. Rather top-heavy with staff, Lavanda's kitchen seemed inundated last week, and our dinner took its time finding us. When it did, it was worth the wait. Noelle's roasted sea bass came with a crystalline crust of sea salt and earth-flavored chanterelle mushrooms ($24). Roasted garlic and tomatoes, along with a sprig of rosemary, bathed the tender fish with a Mediterranean perfume.

My roast guinea fowl--a delicious and tender creature--came in a huge portion of leg, thighs, thick wedges of supple breast--all lightly napped with honey-tinged juices on a pillow of beet jam and sautéed chard ($20). It was a sensational dish by any standards, but especially for the price.

Griesbach has no peer when it comes to lavishing attention on fish and fowl--and this dinner nailed his already solid reputation. To wrap up the meal, I selected a quartet of cheeses from a well-chosen array that included--to my amazement--a pungent époisse (normally not seen outside Burgundy), a Petit Basque, some luscious ripe chèvre and a creamy Montbriac blue ($12). The pliant formaggi arrived on a beautiful green plate appointed with figs and toasted hazelnuts.

Predictably, Noelle went for Griesbach's signature grilled coconut cake, served with a miraculous "tart" of ripe diced mangoes frosted with lime sorbet ($8). A caramelized lime slice and bouquet of fresh mint peeked out of the cool sorbet. Destination dessert and more. A sinful night in Marrakesh.

Lavanda Restaurant & Wine Bar
Address: 185 University Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650.321.3514
Hours: Lunch Mon-Sat 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner nightly 5-10pm
(till 11pm weekends)
Cuisine: Mediterranean grill

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From the October 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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