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Like Mike

George Sakkestad

Grate Experience: Mike's Cafe covers all the basics--pastas, vegetarian entrees, steaks, seafood and salads--all served up by the knowledgeable, friendly staff.

At Mike's Cafe, simple dishes receive the sort of master-chef flourishes that boost ordinary fare into the gourmet realm

By Andrew X. Pham

MIKE'S CAFE is what happens when the waiter and the chef get to run the show. Mike Wallau orchestrates the service out front; Robert Oliver jazzes it up in the kitchen. Both are former employees of Il Fornaio Restaurant who decided that they could assemble a great show on their own. And they did. Together they run the tightest diner in the area.

In the year and a half since its opening, the diner/sandwich shop managed to elevate itself to a full-fledged restaurant. When I first visited Mike's Cafe during its opening month, the place lingered in that awkward but charming developmental state much like a teenager, all legs and elbows charged with energy and talent. Much has changed since, all of it good and well-considered.

Cushioned dining chairs with matching tables replaced the wire and plastic chairs and wood-topped tables that once lent the place a collegiate mom-and-pop feel. The ambiance received a face lift and now settles into the bistro-diner niche. As for the menu, a calibrated infusion of daily specials tuned up the repertoire beautifully. The dessert choices rose from various flavors of cheesecakes purchased from one dessert specialist to a five-bakery repertoire that includes several home-baked cakes, tortes and lots of other goodies.

Service is seamless. Friendly but not fawning. Timed but not hurried. Knowledgeable but not opinionated. Thumbs up for Wallau and his staff.

And thumbs up for Oliver and his crew in recognition of the affordable yet well-designed sandwiches and fabulous entrees. The menu covers all the bases: pastas, vegetarian entrees, steaks, seafood and salads. Sounds fairly standard but the twist lies in the cooking, where it ought to. Simple dishes receive the master-chef flourishes that boost them into the gourmet realm.

A fresh whole artichoke stuffed with bay shrimp ($4.95) and served on a bed of lettuce eases one into a meal nicely. The sweet shrimp--dressed in mayonnaise, celery, onion and chives--amplify the neutral artichoke with a meaty butteriness.

The Caesar salad ($4.95) backs up as a noteworthy second course. Although it isn't garlicky enough for a real aficionado, each order fills out with perfect romaine lettuce and flakes of top-grade Parmesan. The accommodating and generous kitchen will split salads for those who prefer to share.

One deftly executed special was a chicken breast in Dijon mustard sauce ($14.25). The white wine blended with the Dijon to proffer a surprisingly sharp edge to the pillowy chicken breast. An admirable effect. Contrasted against pan-fried potatoes and vegetables, the spiced meat smacked a snappy punch with every bite.

Irresistible--and sinful--the 12-ounce New York steak ($13.95), aged Angus beef doused with a fresh peppercorn sauce, gives new meaning to good old meat-and-potato grub. Grilled to a light crunch on the outside, the steak reveals a tender red interior, juicy and sweet enough to please any unrepentant carnivore. The green peppercorns, whole and fresh, pop between the teeth like a fine roe.

At Mike's, major-league presentation plays out at minor-league prices. The lively colors seem to tumble right off the paintings on the walls and onto plates parading out of the kitchen. Under a nice sheen of sautéed butter, a cherry red tomato here, a zucchini green there and some squash yellow all around go some way to liven up the entrees. The visual amplifications, so well assembled, make forgivable the overcooked vegetables.

The wine list, though short, offers some good choices. Mellow and somewhat understated, the reds work well with most entrees although there is nothing substantial enough for the steaks.

Smart management shows up in the details. The kitchen, with its hands full, wisely contracted several home bakers to turn out an enviable array of sweets. We sampled an Irish cream chocolate torte ($3.90) and a lemon poppy seed cake ($3.90). Generously sliced and just adequately sweetened, both constitute top-of-the-line products and end the meal on a memorable note.

Wallau and Oliver, once underlings, make success look so easy it's a wonder why larger restaurants fail to measure up.

Mike's Cafe

Cuisine: continental
Ambiance: casual, bustling; good vibes
Menu: $5­$14
Hours: Mon.­Fri., 11am­9pm; Sat.­Sun., 8am­9pm
Address: 2680 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Phone: 415/326-6901

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From the July 25-31, 1996 issue of Metro

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