You know how you can look at a book on your shelf for years and never read it, but then one day you decide to pick it up, and it turns out to be a great read, and you wonder why it took you so long to finally read it? That’s how I feel about Palo Alto’s Bistro Elan.
I’ve driven or walked by the restaurant dozens of times, but for some reason never stopped in. Last week, my plans for a restaurant review visit nearby fell through, and I needed a Plan B. And there was Bistro Elan.
The minute I walked in, I knew that I had been remiss. The restaurant has the clean and elegant look of a classic bistro, from its waiters in black bow ties to the white tablecloths. But it’s the food that really made it clear that I’d been missing one of Silicon Valley’s gems.
Chef Ambjorn Lindskog and his wife, Andrea Hyde, have owned the restaurant for 15 years, and their attention to detail is apparent, with fresh-cut flowers and an appealing backyard patio that feels like a secret garden.
The menu is French at its roots but with a California sensibility given its reliance on local and seasonal produce. The kitchen sources most of its produce from the California Avenue farmers market right out the front door. The result is a short but instantly likeable menu that reminds me anew of why we’re so lucky to live and eat in Northern California. There’s a brief but well-chosen (and reasonably priced) wine list that’s strong on both California and French wines.
Meals start with excellent bread and a little bowl of bright-green Castelvetrano olives. For me, the starters are the most exciting part of the menu. Make a beeline straight to the Kashiwase Farms peach and feta salad ($12.75). The supremely delicious peaches are at their peak now, and their sweetness is made for the sharp, salty tang of the feta. What really seals the deal is the draping of papery slices of La Quercia prosciutto over the top. So simple. So good. I would eat this all year long, but the peaches will be gone all too soon, and that’s part of what makes this salad so appealing. Enjoy it while you can.
The same is true for the English pea pancakes ($13). Bright-green, fresh-shelled peas and juicy, sweet cherry tomatoes create a bed of jewels on which lie delicate, supremely light pea pancakes made from those same fresh peas.
Also very good is the Dungeness crab salad with avocado, grapefruit and pistachios ($14) and the superb house-cured gravlax ($13.50), velvety ribbons of salt-cured salmon paired with sliced Chioggia beets, avocado and watercress with an electric lime and ginger vinaigrette. The tangy chilled cucumber soup ($9.95) is as refreshing as it is delicious.
Duck confit is good way to gauge the kitchen’s proficiency. Bistro Elan’s well-rendered version ($21) of the dish is juicy and deeply flavorful without being too salty. The creamy leek and Parmesan risotto served with it is good, too. I loved the sautéed Alaska halibut ($26). The fish was expertly cooked, flavorful and moist, and the brown-butter shallot sauce dribbled over it had me spooning up every last bit.
For dessert, you would be hard pressed to find a more perfect chocolate soufflé ($8). The flourless chocolate cake is a solid choice, as is the nectarine frangipane tart (both $8).
Bistro Elan isn’t perfect. Servers can take the French bistro thing a little too literally and come off as rather officious and irritable, but the staff is nevertheless professional and attentive.
The flatiron steak and frites ($28) is a mainstay of bistro menus, but the beef was strikingly bland and less than tender. While the kitchen handled other seafood dishes well, the pan-seared yellowfin tuna ($25) fell flat. The fish itself was cooked a few minutes too long, and the abundant béarnaise sauce overpowered the flavor of the fish. The pluot crisp ($9) was clunky, overly sweet and an inexpertly thrown together dessert.
But the quiet sophistication of the dining room, the superior produce and generally well-prepared food make Bistro Elan a standout restaurant that deserves your attention.