A&E

Perfectly unpretentious

Michelin-starred Madera offers top-notch cuisine in relaxed surroundings

"Sometimes you forget just how good food can taste," said my dining companion, who was halfway through her appetizer of kampachi yellowtail, kumquat, cherry bomb radish, yuzu, avocado and buttermilk ($21).

The presentation offered by the kitchen at Madera, the Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel's restaurant, was a work of art, like an ancient Roman grass crown, but edible, more colorful and with a blissful combination of ingredients. My companion stared at the dish for a long moment, then sighed before digging in.

"It was so beautiful, I almost didn't want to eat it," she said, "but I'm so glad I did."

I started with the foie gras terrine ($23) with rhubarb, strawberry and a walnut-and-espresso financier. It wasn't exactly a terrine, rather a deconstructed extract of what it would have been in the terrine. It looked more like dessert than I had expected. Where was the duck liver?

The chunks of rhubarb held a nice balance of bitter and sweet. The tiny strawberries, I was convinced, had been flown in from France. I was surprised to learn they were grown in Palo Alto. The financier was a small, flavorful almond cake and the tiny pieces of walnut added crunch. But, where was the foie gras? The only other ingredient on the plate looked like dollops of whipped cream. That was the foie gras, cleverly whipped into the cream. The flavors were more subdued than if the liver had been seared -- subtle, but not lost. Definitely rich, definitely foie gras, definitely delicious.

Madera, which occupies one wing of the Rosewood in Menlo Park, is bouncing back after losing its Michelin star in 2015. It regained the coveted star last year. Earning a Michelin star is very subjective -- especially in the United States -- but suffice it to say, it is a mark of distinction but not a guarantee.

Madera is a large airy space with an open kitchen on the left, just beyond hotel reception. The kitchen was strategically placed so the dining room and terrace could maximize sweeping views of the foothills as well as the open sky above. That evening, at dusk, the expansive sky was the color of an iridescent, purplish-pink Easter egg. Breathtaking.

Besides the open kitchen and terrace, Madera boasts a glowing fireplace, well-spaced tables, a vaulted ceiling, upholstered banquettes with comfortable pillows and an ever-buzzing waitstaff. The Rosewood bar is located elsewhere on the property.

I would define the restaurant as elegant-casual. Elegant in its ambiance and fare, casual in the range of attire of the guests. Male dress ranged from sports coats to shabby blue jeans with untucked shirts. Women, by and large, were in dresses and business attire.

In the kitchen is California native and California Culinary Academy graduate Reylon Agustin, whose career has taken him to Michelin-starred restaurants in London working under Gordon Ramsay and in the Bay Area, working under renowned chef and restauranteur Traci Des Jardins. He was appointed Madera's executive chef earlier this year.

Our waiter greeted us by name. He was knowledgeable, friendly and professional, paced the meal perfectly and attended to all the amenities that define a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Soon after we ordered, an amuse-bouche of chilled vichyssoise with drops of mustard oil arrived. It was a nice touch while the sommelier uncorked the wine.

The wine list contains 99 pages of the greatest labels on the planet. Paul Mekis, who made his mark at Plumed Horse in Saratoga, has assembled one of the best wine lists on the Peninsula. Awarded Wine Spectator's Best of Excellence 2016, it's an oenophile's dream. The prices, though, caused heart palpitations. Many of the reds ran into the hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars per bottle. Fear not; a sommelier does more than build a wine cellar. He or she is expert in finding the perfect pairing that will please both the palate and the pocketbook.

For entrées, the Yukon gold potato gnocchi ($30) was served with green garlic, Sicilian pistachios, black truffle and parmesan -- and other ingredients, as no plate was as simple as the menu indicated. There was chard and hedgehog mushrooms, yellow edible flowers and chives. The gnocchi had been sautéed, which turned the Yukon golds more golden and gave the pasta a welcome firmness and texture to match the woodsy shaved truffles. The presentation was beautiful in a black earthenware bowl. Surprisingly, flavors didn't leap from the bowl. Despite the Perigord truffles, the dish was mellow and refined, but each ingredient was evident, central to creating a harmonious whole.

The Schmitz Ranch lamb loin ($41) featured several generous pieces of rare lamb with tiny braised artichoke hearts, eggplant, morels and sea beans, seasoned with Lebanese seven spice. The seared meat was firm but tender, savory but not gamey, and spiced just enough to add a dimension of flavor.

One dessert was crazy good. The kung fu tea chocolate ($12) was served inside a glass filled with soft chocolate ganache, tea ice cream, poached Asian pear and chocolate dacquoise cake. The dessert came on a small wood tray with a tea pot filled with liquefied chocolate that was then poured into the glass. Chocolate over chocolate over chocolate over pear, what's not to like? As a bonus, there was a white chocolate wafer imprinted with a kicking Bruce Lee at his kung fu best.

Another dessert, the fraise des bois ($12), was a ring of white chocolate mousse, strawberry sorbet and a yogurt sponge cake surrounding a gentle basil coulis. The artistic presentation caused one to pause -- but not for long.

The dinner tab for two, three-course meals with wine and tip was $378.

I returned for lunch because I wanted to see what a $20 hamburger was like. The oak-grilled Sand Hill burger with white cheddar, lettuce and applewood bacon on a soft bun was about 4 inches thick. Only a starving python could have wrapped his jaws around that burger. It was really good though, and I didn't need dinner that night.

There was a bit of showmanship pulling into the Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel with Teslas, Porsches and Ferraris lined up, but there's no pretension inside Madera, just pleasant ambiance, great food and a staff eager to please. While prices were high, they were not absurdly so for Michelin-star quality.

Madera

Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel, 2825 Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park

650-561-1540

maderasandhill.com

Hours: Breakfast daily, 6:30-10:30 a.m.; lunch, Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner daily, 5:30-10 p.m.; brunch Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Reservations: yes

Credit cards: yes

Parking: valet and self-parking

Alcohol: full bar

Happy hour: no

Corkage: $50

Children: yes

Takeout: n/a

Outdoor dining: terrace

Noise level: moderate

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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