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Upscale comfort food is hit-and-miss at Turn Bar & Grill

Cuisines evolve over time. Still, the popularity of American comfort food gone upscale hasn't faded away since the Recession a decade ago. Remind me, how many "neighborhood bistros" with bacon-heavy plates, "Neapolitan" pizzas and spruced-up burgers are there in the Bay Area?

Lots, but not many in quiet downtown Los Altos. It has always been hard to park at noon in Los Altos, but the area gets sleepy after sunset. There is some buzz now on Main Street when happy hour rolls around, thanks in large part to three-month-old Turn Bar & Grill.

Bacon? At Turn, it appears in mac and cheese with Gorgonzola and aged white cheddar, and also in the excellent, lunch-only chicken avocado club that curiously doesn't have the typical stacked layers of a club sandwich. Burger? Of course. Pizza? Seven different pies, but New York-style, not Naples. Fried chicken? It's the most frequently ordered item.

Turn doesn't shy away from checking off every trend of the of the moment. It goes without saying that everything at Turn is homemade, and the kitchen strives to be seasonally appropriate with fresh ingredients. All of this leads to a borderline overwhelmingly extensive menu where baby lamb chops are a starter and the quinoa salad is in the same category as the burger. Bone marrow with sriracha jam, short rib sliders, burrata with tomatoes -- yes, all the social media generation's greatest hits are there.

It's great to have abundant choices, especially for a restaurant geared toward being accessible to discerning eaters and to families. But as often happens in cases like this, more choices mean most dishes don't quite fulfill their potential.

The pizzas ($14-$17) from the clearly visible stone oven encapsulate exactly where Turn is at the moment. Choices range drastically from a basic margherita to cured salmon to pork belly and figs. I was enthralled with the portobello mushroom, roasted pepper and artichoke pie that effortlessly balanced the primary toppings with the not-so-subtle additions of manchego cheese and truffle oil. Unfortunately, a pizza is only as good as its crust. The dense, flabby texture and bland taste of Turn's need help.

Order the kale salad ($16). Seriously. The ever-hip yoga cuisine favorite basks in its bowl with sherry vinaigrette, almonds, corn, tomatoes and grilled shrimp. Yet it falls in the no-man's land of being too small for an entree salad with just three little shrimp, yet a bit too substantial for a starter. An ahi tuna poke ($16) small plate boasts gorgeous diced ruby-hued fish begging for more seasoning next to a pool of wasabi sauce. The sauce is needed, but it's too ferocious even for most spice-lovers.

Entrees come with the same mixed results. The braised short ribs ($26) cry out for a robust supporting element, though a garnish of Gorgonzola helps a little. The lone fish entree, Alaskan halibut ($34) is perfectly cooked, the accompanying red pepper puree serviceable but the dollop of corn-tomato-fava bean succotash too skimpy to play much of a role.

And no, that price is not a misprint. The halibut is priced in the big leagues with some seriously ambitious kitchens around the Bay Area. Interestingly, the same halibut, sans succotash, is $19 at lunch.

For sweets, a chocolate ganache tartlet was irresistible with a sprinkle of sea salt, while the berry cobbler reminded me too vividly of the mundane pizza crust (Salt! Sugar! Something to give flavor!). Drinks are also a weakness. The standard California wines, familiar cocktails and vaguely interesting craft beers are the type that would have been exciting a decade ago. Apparently, the cocktail menu is getting a revamp soon, as is the food menu with a new chef, Mark Laverty, taking over this week.

Despite the initial menu missteps, the place fulfills the vision of husband-and-wife owners Jim and Julie Otis. Jim is a lifelong Los Altos resident who has been involved with the restaurant industry for years, while Julie works in the high-tech sector. Turn really is the all-ages gathering spot for good times that the couple intended to create. Everyone is having fun.

It gets loud at prime time in the 135-seat space with numerous wood elements and high ceilings. Conversation mixes with noise from the plasma TVs flanking the lively horseshoe-shaped bar. There are even TVs in the bathroom so you don't miss a pitch. The primary dining room boasts a warehouse-industrial character: bare black tables, comfortable leather booths, and dangling Edison lights. Locals may hardly recognize that this is the former A.G. Ferrari Italian market. For lunch or a rare balmy evening, or if you're freezing (as I was on every visit, due to the powerful air conditioning), the patio seating on Main Street can't be beat.

Servers pace meals well, quickly offer recommendations when asked and were kind enough to offer a free iced tea when the kitchen was closed by dessert time at lunch.

Turn Bar & Grill won't transform Los Altos into an international dining destination, but with a bit of attentive adaptation in the kitchen, it stands to become a neighborhood favorite as the years turn.

Turn Bar & Grill

295 Main St, Los Altos



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