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Exotic Straits

[whitespace] Straits Cafe
Christopher Gardner

Sweet Endings: A gorgeous banana pudding (above) finishes a meal in style at Straits, the new Palo Alto restaurant of chef Chris Yeo (circular photo).

Chris Yeo's emporium of adventurous Singapore stylings unveils a sister ship in Palo Alto, to an avid throng of adventurous diners

By Christina Waters

BLENDING CULINARY motifs from India, China and Thailand, the food of Singapore is anything but timid. Lemon grass and peanut sauce, curry and ginger, fresh fruit and chiles all massage an exotic array of fresh fish, spiced meat and succulent noodle specialties in a regional gastronomy pioneered in the Bay Area 10 years ago by chef Chris Yeo. Now, Straits Cafe has opened at a busy corner of El Camino Real and Lambert Street, between Stanford and the gateway to Silicon Valley in Palo Alto. It's smart-looking, suggesting a contemporary seagoing ambiance, with its heartwood cabinetry and art-glass lighting fixtures. Blood-red wall sconces join rustic wing-backed chairs as the main dining room's sole decor. A spacious patio affords all-season dining, thanks to heat lamps, but clearly the action is inside, where a sleek bar and dining room practically levitate with the intensive noise level that has fin de siècle cachet.

Glasses of Frog's Leap Sauvignon Blanc ($7) emerged from an exciting listing of fine California wines, although--if someone else is driving--there's a glamorous mango-flavored Cosmopolitan or even a tall, umbrella-topped Singapore Sling among the creative, adult beverage possibilities.

Presentation is powerful at Straits, from the lavish fresh fruit and herb garnishes to the beautiful raku-glazed plates. Service on our two visits was uneven, highly attentive during the evening, casual to the point of uncommunicative at lunch. Still new, Straits is fine-tuning both kitchen and service. A shortage of pretty iron pots was finally revealed to be the problem when my order of black tea arrived practically at the end of a meal. At a nearby table a waiter was briskly explaining the menu, offering enlightenment about seasonings and spiciness, while at our table the menu was provided with nary an encouraging word.

Still, the menu is wonderfully diverse. Foie gras, served in a complex sweet and spicy sauce with large wedges of pineapple, was rich and buttery ($12.95). Another order, of Murtabak, proved problematic. Thick, moist Indian roti prata bread had been filled with spiced minced beef and onions and served in an enormous mound of extremely rich, sweet, doughy sandwiches with a thin coconut curry sauce ($7.95). A meal for a soccer team, yes. But an appetizer before a main course, hmmm.

"This is the perfect place to bring someone you're not speaking to," my companion joked, as the enveloping roar reverberated off bare floors, walls and ceiling in an increasing cascade. The sound level lowered during the day, when we worked our way through a multistage Yu Sang entree salad festooned with lovely lettuces, carrots, pickled ginger and shimmering ahi tuna sashimi, tossed in a fiery ginger-plum dressing ($13.95). Less memorable was a costly ($28.95) order of chile crab, which arrived mere moments after ordering. Overcooked to the point of toughness and swimming in a sweet, gooey variation on lobster sauce, it was unbelievably messy to negotiate. Had the waiter bothered to check on us, we might have had the time to take him up on a late offer to replace the crab, but as it was, the house graciously chose not to charge us for this house specialty. An order of stir-fried long beans came undercooked, though its chile and dried shrimp coating was outstanding. Crisp shallots topped this potentially fine vegetable dish.

Struggling to see our dinner entrees--pin spots are mysteriously aimed at the floor, leaving tables in murkiness--we disliked an order of Tahu Goreng fried tofu ($8.25). Fat unseasoned triangles of tofu arrived simply fried. A barely moist topping of spicy peanuts failed to penetrate the tasteless tofu interior. None of the elements appeared to be talking to each other. Another colorful dish of sweet and sour eggplant offered only four strips of almost-raw eggplant, along with a huge host of sautéed mixed peppers ($8.25). The vinegary sauce contained a haunting fragrance of cloves--too bad the eggplant underwhelmed.

Triumphant, however, was a dazzling presentation of striped bass steaming in a ginger-leek broth on a transparent island of garlicky chow fun noodles ($16.95). It was a brilliant juxtaposition of exquisite moist fish with sensuous noodle underpinnings, topped with tender leek greens and crispy onion threads.

Desserts are drop-dead gorgeous, artfully arranged like edible sculptures. A mango mousse arrived as a golden pyramid, cascading fresh berries and fruit ($6.25), while an order of bronze-hued coconut and vanilla crème brûlée lived up to its name, marrying French cuisine and tropical nuance in each spoonful ($6.95). A favorite turned out to be a pale green cone of banana pudding, flirtatiously cloaked in a banana leaf and set upon twin pools of extravagantly rich caramel sauce and crème Anglaise. Warm caramelized banana slices lay at the feet of this wildly wonderful dessert--one of the best places to start your journey through Straits.

Straits Cafe
Address: 3295 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
Phone: 650/494-7168
Cuisine: Singapore exotica
Entrees: Moderately priced
Extras: Full bar, outdoor seating

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From the December 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro.

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