Zola, Palo Alto

March 2018

Palo Alto (pronounced by Americans doing European authenticity PAW-law AWL-tow) is an upscale town that a lot of older locals would probably say has been ruined by the Silicon Valley diaspora. Many of the houses are older palatial-latino in style and quite lovely. Their price tags start around 3.5 million and go straight north.

This little French-style bistro is in a storefront on a back main street and does a creditable job of francais smell and feel as we open the door, but the high first-window table full of glam Asian university girls spending daddy’s money lets you know you’re not in L’Isle sur la Sorgue.

We were guided to stools at the back near the bathroom to wait for our table but took advantage to look through the nice WhisperKool wine fridge window at some of what’s available here. The wine list is long and full of fun.

Our table was at the front and four of us were able to make enough noise to defend ourselves against the background bruit de guerre Californie. Our server was a callipygous girl who knew absolutely nothing about wine: “It’s crisp”. What? “It’s got a certain crispness to it”. We ordered (I think I remember) a Rully St-Jacques from “Domaine A&P” for $70 which was … wait for it … crisp.

We pulled together for the table beef tartare, roasted beets with goat cheese, leek and spring vegetable tart, short rib “Bourguignon”, and I think one other item. Overall the quality was disappointing, revealing that the not-bad superficial knockoff of a French village bistro hadn’t managed the flavour charm and finesse of just about every minor professional chef in every such eatery in France.

The beef tartare was tough. There was mustard, chopped pickle, and maybe capers but the meat was an inferior cut and so chewy. The roasted beets were underdone and the goat cheese was unconvincing, the tart had a tough dry flavourless pastry the product of somebody trained to avoid salt and butter, and the short rib was just a braised-to-stringiness meat in a dark over-reduced sauce.

Any kind of restaurant food is expensive for a Canadian in the States. I’ve lost the bill but we were careful about wine and I think we got out of there for about $100 US each.

I’m being a worse asshole than usual here, it was after all a nice enough evening, but come on. At a French bistro you want the food to raise in your imagination the village girlfriend you wish you had had: fragrant, inviting, tender, a little bit surprisingly sour, and finally just what you’ve always dreamt of. For that I think you need a different plane ticket than YVR to SFO.

Food 6.8, service 7.3, ambience 8.8, value 7.8, peace and quiet 6.3.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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