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Gourmet Bustle

George Sakkestad

Kitchen Magicians: Zibibbo's mezzanine overlooks the cooks in action, producing items like goat cheese crouton salad.

Zibibbo gets its name from an Italian grape, its esprit from wood-fired ovens

By Christina Waters

BY NOW le tout Palo Alto has taken a peek inside the eye-popping culinary remodel at 430 Kipling St. Zibibbo--the Sicilian name for the muscat grape--is the brainchild of Jody Denton and Marc Valiani, chef/partners of Restaurant LuLu in San Francisco. And the southern Mediterranean aromas pouring from the restaurant's oak-fired ovens have been attracting as much attention as the acid-blue neon sign out front.

Zibibbo can host 280 in its cozy bar, plush outdoor garden areas and mezzanines overlooking sprawling tiers of booths--all pulled together by a menu that roams from southern France straight into Morocco and Spain. Fans of LuLu will find the wood-fired favorites that powered these chefs to national attention.

The dimly lit mezzanine seating affords a killer view of the restaurant's mission control--an archipelago of workstations, oak fires, burners and rotisseries where 10 cooks--many wearing headsets--and as many servers finessed the feeding of the overflow crowd. The miracle was that given the sheer size of this operation, our dishes managed to arrive freshly created and looking great.

We loved our trio of small plates--consumed along with glasses of a peppery Sangiovese Monteviña Amador 1995 ($6) and a Côte des Nuits 1993 from Tastevin-Boisset ($7.75). A terrific warm Moroccan baby beet salad ($7.95) showcased tiny beets and carrots, roasted and sweet and drenched in a honey/lime dressing on a bed of wilted beet greens.

Another plate came with sturdy cured ham and shaved Manchego cheese, sided with Medjool dates ($3.50)--an utterly solid concept that proved much too sweet to play appetizer. An order of cured salmon with fried capers ($6.95) played each ingredient off the other--buttery fish against salty caper nuggets. We could have made a meal out of small plates alone, filling out the food groups with the iron-skillet mussels and Spanish anchovies with roasted gypsy peppers. But the oak fires beckoned.

My white truffle honey-glazed quail ($14.95) was a vision of power brasserie consciousness. Around a central core of frisée and slender green beans, three quail halves inclined vertically. Fat croutons dotted the greens, while transparent coins of red potato crowned the entire dish.

The emphasis lay decidedly on the "honey" side of "white truffle honey glaze." Quail, especially impeccably roasted and moist like this was, does love honey, it's true. But I would have enjoyed a bigger hit of the earthy white truffle essence. A side order of fava bean puree ($3.95) was long on blandness, joined by spiritless wilted greens and precious little pancetta.

Charlie found enlightenment in the form of miraculous grilled tuna steaks ($16.50). Served in a deep dish to capture cooking juices, the rare tuna arrived gently crusted with peppers and a roasted tomato harissa, resting on an aromatic bed of braised fennel and baby leeks. The tuna itself was just plain perfect--complex yet forthright, it made a clear contrast to a fussy side order of butternut squash gratin ($3.50).

As the gourmet hustle continued down below, we settled on desserts, roast pumpkin tart and pomegranate sorbet (both $5.50), along with coffee ($1.35) and cappuccino ($2.50). These final salvos proved a mixed bag. The sorbet was technically perfect: tight crystalline structure accented with pomegranate seeds. Alas, the sorbet lacked assertiveness and the fresh fruit was stridently not quite ripe. The pumpkin tart was pretty, a slender wedge whose overly sweet filling tasted commercially prepared. The crust was good, but what really worked was the mountain of barely sweetened whipped cream on the side. We added the cream to the sorbet and ended up with a wonderful finish.

Cuisine: Southern Mediterranean meets California
Chefs: Jody Denton and Marc Valiani
Chef de Cuisine: John Hennigan
Menu: Starters $2-$7, sushi $2.50-$9, entrées $11.50-$15
Hours: Lunch daily 11:30am-5:30pm; dinner daily 5:30-10:30pm (until 11:30pm on weekends); breakfast daily 7:30-11:30am; brunch Sat.-Sun. Reservations recommended.
Address: 430 Kipling St., Palo Alto
Phone: 650/328-6722

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro.

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