A&E

Hotel dining scene blooms in Menlo Park

Oak + Violet offers farm-to-table fare in upscale setting

Oak + Violet's stuffed whole branzino is served with a side of roasted shallots, fennel and peppers. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

The most buzzed about hotel restaurants tend to be located in major cities, providing easy access to business travelers with sizable expense accounts. Menlo Park is hardly a metropolis, yet the location of Facebook's headquarters on the edge of Menlo's marshlands has spiked demand for luxe accommodations — and great food — near the social media giant's sprawling campus.

Oak + Violet, the California farm-to-table restaurant located in the chic, stylish Park James Hotel, is the latest addition to Menlo Park's burgeoning hotel dining scene. (Other notable players include Michelin-starred Madera in the Rosewood Hotel, clubby Menlo Tavern in the Stanford Park and the year-old Porta Blu in the Hotel Nia.) The restaurant, which celebrates its first anniversary in October, showcases seasonal, simply prepared dishes and the bounty of Golden State produce. The name is an homage to Menlo Park's official tree and flower.

When I first entered the restaurant from the unassuming hotel lobby, I immediately wanted to walk out. That's precisely what the design team envisioned when they installed a north-facing retractable glass wall that opens onto a vast courtyard, smartly furnished with couches, gas lamps and high-top tables. The after work crowd has discovered the space — it serves a separate, limited menu — and packs it most evenings. Director of Food and Beverage Marigene Mabalot pegs the area as a focal point: "The outdoor guests create such wonderful energy and it tends to flow through the entire restaurant," she said.

Oak + Violet's interior exudes California cool with wood finishes, cowhide-stitched walls and billowing drapes. The neutral palette is punctuated by pops of color (violet, naturally) from plush, comfortable dining chairs. A long, partially open air bar straddles the courtyard while a smaller patio at the opposite end of the restaurant offers a more intimate al fresco dining option.

Beverages include an impressive array of local wines and craft beers. Cocktail selections include original creations and fun variations on upscale bar classics. During a pair of recent visits, I enjoyed the smooth and refreshing Lynchburg Lemonade ($14) which added blackberry to intensify the tartness. The Paper Plane's ($14) blend of Aperol, bourbon and amaro delighted with its herbal complexity and bright, mood-elevating orange hue.

The dinner menu lists a dozen shareable plates, including mini lobster tacos with avocado crema ($20), a dish Mabalot cites as a customer favorite. Our party split the charcuterie board ($22), a generous assortment of locally sourced meats and cheeses accompanied by almonds, truffle honey and fresh bread drizzled with a luxurious olive oil. (Minor quibble: Neither the menu nor our server identified the types of meats and cheeses we were served.) Half-shell Pacific oysters with horseradish cocktail sauce ($18 for 6, $34 for a dozen) were a creamy, briny delicacy while stuffed chorizo dates ($15) with Applewood smoked bacon struck a nice balance between sweet and salty.

For my salad course, I reflexively rejected the two kale-based offerings. (Dear kale, these past couple of years have been lovely, but I need to see other greens.) I instead settled on the tomato and burrata salad ($15). While pieces of watermelon added a delicate sweetness to the dish, the tomatoes were a tad underripe.

According to Mabalot, chef Simona Oliveri's menu features a mere five "large plates" to ensure consistent, masterful preparation. I savored the pan roasted king salmon ($34), perfectly prepared to a medium pink. Juices from the filet combined with the accompanying seasonal vegetables —which included fava beans, bok choy and potato leek nage — to form a savory stew at the base of the bowl.

Though it's the sole non-meat main course on the menu, vegetarians have little need to venture beyond the superb toasted farro risotto ($23). I relished the nutty-flavored, slightly chewy ancient grain which was layered with spinach, English peas, asparagus and Pecorino Romano.

On the carnivorous side of the spectrum, the 46-ounce ribeye ($115, including two sides) was the show-stopping choice of my dining companions. Intended as an entrée for two, it could easily have served twice as many. The massive bone-in cut, prepared medium-rare, was tender and buttery. They deemed the sensational steak worth the premium price.

Side dishes were substantial and satisfying. Brussels sprouts ($9) can be a tough sell for some, but Oak + Violet boasts a winning recipe. The sprouts were nicely crisped and caramelized with a tangy balsamic vinegar. Chopped hazelnuts and toasted garlic ratcheted up the flavor. Between two potato options, I gave the edge to the black pepper and sea salt-seasoned Parmesan ripped potatoes ($9) over the slightly oily white truffle French fries ($10).

A light dessert was imperative following the ample portions. The dark chocolate mousse ($8) fit the bill perfectly. Topped with whipped cream and chocolate almond clusters, the mousse was light, creamy and not cloyingly sweet. It was the ideal final indulgence.

Service was earnest, but uneven. Wait staff maintained an easy, good-humored rapport with the table. When we experienced an error on one of our entrée orders, it was quickly rectified and followed by a gracious apology from the manager. A couple of food runners, perhaps new to their jobs, delivered multiple plates to the wrong tables. Bobbles such as these can be avoided with additional training.

The restaurant serves lunch during the week, brunch on weekends and a special courtyard menu daily. Complimentary valet parking is offered for the first three hours, sending a message to locals that Oak + Violet wants you to check them out even if you're not checking in.

Freelance writer Edward Gerard Fike can be emailed at egfike@gmail.com.

Oak + Violet

1400 El Camino Real, Menlo Park (cross street Glenwood Avenue)

parkjames.com/oak-and-violet

650-304-3880

Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Sunday 5-10 p.m. Brunch: Saturday-Sunday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Reservations: Yes

Credit cards: Yes

Parking: Valet (first 3 hours complimentary, $10 after) and street parking

Alcohol: Full bar

Happy hour: No

Corkage: $ 35 per bottle

Children: Yes

Takeout: Yes

Outdoor dining: Yes

Noise level: Moderate to loud

Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent

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