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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Christopher Gardner

Bird Meets Grill: Spit-roasted chicken takes a starring role on the Bandera menu.

Like its designer sibling, the Rutherford Grill, glamorous Bandera fills Los Altos with the scent of oak-fired cuisine

By Christina Waters

TO WALK INTO BANDERA--where American cooking rules the roost--is to be embraced by the earthy perfume of oak fires. Ablaze with a good-looking crowd armed with big conversations and appetites to match, this oversized, glorified, upscale diner caters to inquiring carnivores in search of a little home cookin'. What they get at Bandera is home cookin' with handfuls of pizzazz, wrapped around a horseshoe-shaped bar that is the heart and soul of the place.

Red booths rise in terraced plushness on each side of the central bar, where I sipped a Storybook Mountain Mayacamas Zinfandel 1994 ($5) last week while awaiting my dinner date. Housed in a contemporary oversized Craftsman bungalow in the heart of Los Altos village, Bandera sports open-beamed ceilings, an exhibition kitchen and the famous oak-fired grill that fuels the menu--a menu proclaiming that you're in for big, bold food, long on comfort (and, presumably, calories too) and short on fuss. The spit-roasted chicken, which I've inhaled on other occasions, merits its central location on the short menu. But I was getting hooked on the idea of seared salmon when Alan arrived and we took our act over to a big booth. Overlooking a host of cooks creating dishes the size of Montana, I abandoned the monochromatic zin for a glass of delightful Groth Cabernet 1993 ($8.25). Alan offered me a sip of his David Bruce 1994 Pinot Noir ($5), and I had to admit it radiated style as well as berry-hued substance.

Yes, we were going to order way too much food, we told one of four servers who approached our booth. To back up that claim we quickly took possession of two enormous grilled artichoke halves ($5.95) and a deep plate of utterly sinful jambalaya ($9.95) accompanied by cornbread so rich, so filled with corn kernels, olive oil and honey sweetness, that eating it should have been an illegal act.

Why doesn't everybody grill artichokes? I mean these were absolutely light years better than any others we could remember, permeated lightly with oak, criss-crossed with grill marks, tender, sweet and bathed in olive oil, served with a mustardy, tangy remoulade sauce.

The jambalaya was the flirty kind that sneaks up on you and waits until you've just about swallowed to kick in its firepower. This beautiful crimson-toned dish offered up lots of roast chicken, okra and fatty (Alan thought too fatty) Andouille sausage mingled lushly with basmati rice and tomatoes. Destination jambalaya, I'd say.

Next came two very large platters bearing entrees: mine a very moist, seared filet of coho salmon marinated in tamari soy, a bit of turbinado sugar and garlic ($17.95); Alan's a plate of apple-cured pork tenderloin sliced into plump rounds in a spiced apple butter sauce that was nothing short of country-style heaven ($16.95). With my salmon came a tangle of braised red cabbage topped with goat cheese, the two ideas making sweet/tart chemistry together. Alan's pork plate contained sumptuous mashed potatoes laced with scallions and just the tiniest bit of garlic. By squeezing some fresh lemon on my sweetly marinated salmon, I coaxed some needed edge into its rich flavors, but all in all I'd say we were grinning stupidly throughout most of our meal.

Served attractively but without self-conscious artistry, each dish we'd tried was expertly prepared. But mainly this is a kitchen that front-loads its culinary skill and then gets out of the way, letting gorgeous ingredients and sexy flavors strut their stuff.

A shared deep-dish serving of crème brûlée ($5.75)--along with espresso ($1.75)--was yet another case in point. Bandera provides a sea of crème brûlée, topped with a perfect if sturdy burnt sugar topping. Nothing delicate here, except for the quivering perfection of the interior. "It's American," Alan pronounced. "A big crème brûlée for a big appetite, by God." Alan often gets carried away by big-shouldered cookery--and he was pretty near transported by Bandera, where big is more than just a three-letter word.

There turn out to be a half-dozen Banderas all over the West giving theme/chain dining a very good name. Catering to meat-lovers and those weary of precious trends and culinary curiosities, the Los Altos installment deserves its reputation. Just abandon your diet for the evening.


Cuisine: new and heartland American
Ambiance: full-bodied and welcoming
Entrees: $9.95­$18.95
Hours: from 5pm Mon.­Fri.; from 4:30pm Sat.­Sun.
Address: 233 Third St. (off San Antonio Road), Los Altos
Phone: 415/948-3524
Reservations not accepted.

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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