Dining at Hay Market last week, I saw something I haven’t seen in a long time: a line of people waiting for a table. The line went out the door and onto the sidewalk. The happy crowd sipped pints of beer and glasses of wine as they waited.
Inside the new Willow Glen restaurant, it was noisy and a little hot as everybody talked and ate and drank and generally enjoyed their seat in what is easily the most exciting restaurant to open in Silicon Valley in years.
Hay Market is just the kind of restaurant Silicon Valley needs. It’s a friendly neighborhood place with a hip, urban vibe, modest prices and an eclectic menu that dispels the notion that the South Bay is a parochial culinary backwater.
Hay Market is the work of San Jose native Joe Cirone. As a restaurant consultant, Cirone opened restaurants all over the world, but this is the first restaurant he calls his own. He said he was tired of living out of hotels and wanted to settle down in San Jose, a city he said is “starving for culinary attention.”
Silicon Valley does not need any more steakhouses, mediocre Chinese restaurants, pizza parlors or chain restaurants. It needs neighborhood-based, chef-owned eateries that don’t cost too much and where the kitchen’s creativity can shine. At Hay Market, Cirone has given the hungry South Bay just what it needs.
The restaurant serves globally inspired American comfort food. There’s an eclectic, adventurous spirit to the menu. You’ll find dishes you won’t encounter anywhere else. Cirone also sources his food from local and sustainable sources, too. Am I swooning?
The menu changes daily, but there are a few mainstays. Starters are particularly strong. Duck, duck and duck ($11) paired a glazed duck wing with duck p‰t- and duck rillettes. While the wing was too tough, the little ramekin of duck pate- was absurdly, silkenly rich and delicious. It was like duck-flavored butter. It’s no wonder it’s served in such a small amount. Any more and your eyes would tumble back into your head in pleasure overload. The rillettes, slow-cooked meat rendered into a spreadable consistency, are great, too.
The oyster kimchi ($10) is an odd but good dish. Raw oysters occupy a spicy mound of house-made kimchi, a delicious combination of similar textures. The addition of two kale-filled knishes seemed out of place and didn’t add much. Jewish-Korean? The petite fried egg and Napa cabbage slaw served on the side was superfluous, too. Just give me more kimchi.
You don’t see beef marrow ($12) many places, but Hay Market’s version is stellar: two bones split lengthwise and served with pur-ed parsley, capers and coarse salt. Scoop a little marrow onto a crouton, dab on some parsley pur-e, add a few capers and some salt, and I defy you not to sigh with audible pleasure.
The duck meatloaf ($18) is out-standing. Duck is a meaty bird, but it tastes downright beefy here, ground and formed into a rough patty. It’s served with a cauliflower-carrot pur-e and roasted sweet potatoes.
The beef cheeks ($18) might be the best I’ve had. The beefy nuggets are wet-braised to achieve a beautiful, pleasantly leathery black exterior that contrasts wonderfully with the succulent meat within. The whole-grain mustard jus and horseradish-whipped potatoes make for a delicious trilogy.
On my dinner visit, most of the dishes skewed rich and hearty, so the olive oil-cured black cod ($19), afloat in an herby nage (a brothy sauce) and cooked to delicate perfection, was a study of Japanese restraint on a plate.
Desserts are good enough. I liked the plum clafoutis with marsala-spiked cream ($6) and the chocolate, chocolate and chocolate ($8)—chocolate milk poured over crumbled up chocolate crumble cake and bits of milk chocolate. In a word: chocolaty.
The restaurant does a great job with lunch, too. I had an excellent vegetarian banh mi sandwich ($7) made with delicately pickled vegetables that can stand up to the best of those in Vietnamese restaurants. There’s a winning hot dog ($5) served with apricot relish and an outstanding BLT ($8) stacked with smoky, private-label bacon made by Cirone’s dad.
Servers are competent and confident and can speak about the food with knowledge and enthusiasm. Cooks also act as food runners, meaning the person who made your food is often the one to set it before you. As good as Hay Market is, it’s by no means perfect. As I mentioned, it can get really loud. The communal tables are fine for lunch, but come dinner I’d prefer the privacy of a table of my own. (In my perfect world Cirone opens another restaurant with more space and turns the current location into a casual lunch spot.)
The three large-screen monitors that play a random selection of foreign films and documentaries were a creative solution to cover up an ugly wall, but they’re out of sync with the country-chic d-cor that pervades the rest of the place. But I’m more than happy to let these things go. Hay Market fills a hangar-size gap in Silicon Valley’s restaurant scene. It’s just the kind of place the South Bay needs and deserves.