The decor at Camper, an approximate abbreviation for California Menlo Park, nods to the idea of camping from the comfortable distance of an orderly suburban neighborhood. There’s a framed photograph of a VW van with its tent set up in the middle of a forest. Wooden oars, rescued from someone’s idea of summer camp, are stacked up and pinned against one clean white wall.

It’s an aesthetic that runs closer to glamping—a moneyed, idealized version of camping that’s been repurposed here as classy kitsch. The threat of wild things, makeshift latrines and mosquitoes have all been carefully contained, erased or replaced by recessed lighting, smooth blond-wood banquettes and accent walls painted a soothing tone of slate gray.

With the exception of an appetizer and a dessert served in cast iron skillets, chef and owner Greg Kuzia-Carmel’s menu bears no relation thematically to fireside cooking in the great outdoors. It’s hard to find a unifying theme other than to describe the food broadly as California cuisine. Vibrant sauces drip and spread like watercolors across the plates. Along with dozens of other Bay Area restaurants, Camper is competing for your attention with local, organic and sustainable ingredients. Combining those vegetables and meats into unique and memorable flavors, however, proved challenging. At the end of a recent Saturday night dinner there, the savory dishes all left behind a bitter aftertaste. The scales of salt and spice were consistently off balance.

To start, the fried artichokes ($9) are as crispy as promised and miraculously degreased. But the hearts turned sour with the addition of fennel pollen and a side of purple mustard-yogurt. They were much better, nearly perfect, with just salt and pepper and a splash of fresh lemon. We also tried the cast-iron buttermilk cornbread ($8), which was cake-like. Not a single crumb of it was suffering from dryness. In this case too, it was much better plain without the accompanying smoked honey butter. Both condiments should have amped up the flavors, but instead worked against them. It felt as if the cooks were shying away from a more rustic approach because they didn’t trust the ingredients to stand on their own.

Before the entrées reached the table, we called our extremely kind and helpful server back to the table to order a salad ($12). As written, the menu describes it as “greens plus vegetables” with an avocado-green goddess dressing. But the vegetables were apparently still back at the farm and unharvested. There were sightings of both halves of a white radish, and the end of one lone green bean. It must have stowed away in the mess of lettuces in order to escape the frying pan or the steamer.

There were five pastas to choose from and seven main courses. On paper, the pasta dishes all read like poetry. Because I’d never had it, a gramigna ($23) caught my eye. Had I known that one translation of the Italian word is an “infesting weed” I might have steered clear of it. Served with a few sad fava beans and peas, the pasta looks like a mound of beige ground chuck. The sauce itself was an unfortunate mix of thai basil, mint, ginger and chili. It tasted like gummy spaghetti swimming in a bowl of diluted sriracha. In a rare move, I sent it back to the kitchen. Without any fuss, the server immediately offered to replace it. I opted for the palak panisse ($22), a take on the Indian spinach and cheese dish palak paneer. Of these two vegan choices, the second was certainly heartier, stacked high with wilted spinach, but lacking the richness of butter and the tang of acid. I wouldn’t order it again.

In retrospect, we should have ordered the cheeseburger ($20) or a roasted chicken ($30) instead of ending dinner with steamed cod ($36). It’s a beautiful, photogenic dish with complementing oranges, greens and whites. Yet together, the roasted carrots and green onions, the white fish and rice couldn’t counteract the bitter pine nut romesco. After that, we were eager to try something sweet for dessert. While oozing indulgently, the molten chocolate cake with vanilla bean gelato ($11) seemed like an act of overcompensation for what had come before. It was a scoop of gelato ($6), flavored with bay leaf and mildly floral, that tasted, albeit briefly, like the longed for and necessary palate cleanser.

898 Santa Cruz Ave, Menlo Park