What is California cuisine? I hear that term thrown around a lot, but I've never been quite sure what it meant. I think it refers to the way we infuse various styles of cooking from the many cultures represented here, but I've never thought of that as uniquely-Californian. I've always thought that regional food specialties should strive to represent something you can't get anywhere else, or at least a concept that one does better than the rest of the world. When a certain culture has been making certain dishes for hundreds of years that experience shows when you take a bite. The best pasta I've ever eaten was in Tuscany. The best tortillas I've ever tasted were in Mexico. I would expect that to be the case. But what are people travelling to California for? What do we do better out here than anyone else?
Judging from the menus in today's hip Bay Area restaurants you would think it's duck liver mousse or bone marrow on toast. But are tourists from all over the world obsessing over our vast selection of organ meat and charcuterie? That always seems bizarre to me, especially since I don't ever remember a tradition of sweet breads or pigs feet growing up here as a kid. It seems like we're pandering to the recent Anthony Bourdain explosion or trying to impress our Francophile friends, rather than cook what we know best. That's why, when my wife and I ate at Flea St. Cafe in Menlo Park this past weekend, we finally got a glimpse at what California cuisine might look like. It was simply prepared, it didn't have a chip on its shoulder about culture, and it wasn't aspiring to be anything but itself. I can't tell you how refreshing that is today.
You might remember that Flea St. is the place right near our Redwood City store where I consulted briefly this past winter, working with their staff on spirits education. For all the time I spent there, however, I had never taken the time to eat a formal dinner. As my wife and I finally sat down at the organic produce-focused institution, we were impressed by how casual and confident the menu was about its selections. The kitchen staff at Flea St. is meticulous about their fruits and vegetables – almost obsessive. But there's never any attempt to preach about sustainability, or write "locally-sourced" next to every single entree, throwing it in your face like many spots do today. They trust that you're smart enough to figure out why each bite tastes so good. And each bite does taste really good. At one point my wife said, "They must be tasting every single fruit and vegetable before putting it into each dish because there's no way each this could taste so good otherwise."
The produce department is definitely where Flea St shines. My wife and I both had a full vegetarian dinner and the simplest things, like a single mushroom or a bite of a peach, were the most incredible aspects of each course. When we were in New York a few weeks back, we talked to a bartender who had just visited California and just gushed about all of our fresh berries, stonefruit, and farmer's markets. He and his wife had driven across the whole state, stopped at various fruit stands, and eaten their way from North to South. That's what he missed about California – the freshness of everything. After hearing that outsider perspective, I was proud to be sitting at Flea St. where I can enjoy all of these flavors without the charade. There was a bit of fusion going on – my wife had the gnocci, while part of my veggie sampler featured a tofu block with a hoisin glaze – but mostly it all just seemed so effortless. It was all familiar and nostalgic – ultimately comfort food, just a really spectacular version of it.
Usually when someone asks me for a fun restaurant recommendation on the Peninsula, I send them to Donato's (an Italian place), Santa Ramen (a Japanese soup house), or Pancho Villa (a Mexican taqueria). These are some great places for Italian, Japanese, and Mexican food. But what about a place that's uniquely Californian? A place that showcases all of the culture with all of the great produce? That's Flea St. Cafe, and that's where I'll be sending people from now on. I had one of the best meals of my life there this past weekend and still can't stop thinking about it.