The year-old Hotel Nia sits adjacent to the ambitious Facebook complex at the intersection of Highway 101 and Marsh Road in Menlo Park, with buildings wedged so tightly into a V-shaped lot it looks like cars zipping up the highway off-ramp might jettison right into the construction site. Once you make it through neighborhood streets to the upscale hotel's front entrance, however, you'll find a place of cool restraint that puts the gleaming glass faÃ§ade and the hubbub of its location gently aside. And that's just the lobby.
When you first enter Porta Blu, just inside the Nia's front door, it's a bit like walking onto a movie set. It's beautiful in a neutral sort of way, blending a perfectly landscaped outdoor area -- complete with pool and bowling green -- with the restaurant's clustered seating and sophisticated decor. It's both chic and industrial, familiar and intimidating. There's a full sampling of the Silicon Valley spectrum: the hipsters flaunting bodies honed at full-service fitness centers, the hotel patrons whooping it up over some drinks, the business set hunched over a shared laptop. And just like a movie set, everything is very tasteful, larger than life and maybe a little bit safe.
After walking around the grounds, I thought, well, there's nothing to not like. The restaurant vibe is sleek and streamlined, with artful touches like blue doors (hence the restaurant's name) and what look like rolled-up carpets hanging from the ceiling, immense blue-printed banners, distressed wood pillars and weird plush chairs that you can disappear into. The big appeal is the classy restraint of that indoor-outdoor setting, which expands the seating capacity on nice days and evenings.
The restaurant purports to merge Mediterranean influences with Silicon Valley sustainability, though there's little on the menu that looks like it's breaking new ground. On the lounge menu, offered all day, there are flatbreads and sliders, burgers and chicken wings, along with variations of the currently pervasive avocado toast and tuna tartar. To its credit, each of the offerings we sampled showed enough imagination and finesse to rise above the same old, same old.
Chef Michael Riddell, formerly of the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, is focused on Mediterranean flavors. Over time the restaurant's dishes have morphed from traditional tagines and mezze plates to more California-style offerings with a Middle Eastern edge.
One recent weekend, with delicious cocktails firmly in hand ($14-$16 for specialty drinks), my companion and I sampled the lounge menu. The mushroom flatbread ($13) was perfectly done, with a crisp base loaded with mushrooms and garnished with arugula, then drizzled with plenty of truffle oil. Moist, juicy chicken wings ($16) were jazzed up with flavored yogurt and pickle relish -- a colorful and flavorful variation. Pork belly sliders ($16) were fine, but nothing to get excited about. Servings were extremely generous and we left feeling like we got our money's worth.
Dinner, on the other hand, was a mixed bag. While our dishes were generally prepared well, with lovely presentation, only a few really shone. The exception was the citrus honey shrimp appetizer ($14), five perfect, little, sweet and tangy shrimp garnished with orange bits and coupled with flavored tabbouleh. The roasted beets and artichokes ($14) were a pretty melange of colors and textures but lacked presence. The same must be said about our side of honey-roasted carrots ($6), which had no detectable sweetness despite the menu's description.
Of the main courses, the winner was Mary's chicken ($28). The generous portion was moist and flavorful, with a terrific citrusy crust. It came with a cobalt-blue eyedropper bottle to dab on a little extra vinegary zip -- a bit precious but fun all the same. Monterey black cod ($28) needed some flair and could have used another minute under the heat. And the Mount Lassen trout ($29), a salmon-like steelhead, came with a delicious quinoa crust and tangy marinated vegetables. And do note that when you ask for still water you are ordering a bottle ($10).
Pricing is high, though dishes are tasty and generally well thought out -- Porta Blu is, after all, an upscale hotel restaurant. Staff members are exceptionally polite and gracious, from the reservation-taker on the phone to the valet parkers by the front door. Servers were personable and helpful in making suggestions but service itself ranged from quintessentially professional to well-meaning but careless.
On each visit, our waiters started off attentive and charming but then drifted off. At dinner, main courses arrived while we were still working on our appetizers, and plates were cleared while our forks were still moving. At one point we were flagging down anyone who walked by to beg for our bill. Admittedly it was a busy night and to management's credit, an item was removed from our bill to make up for poor timing.
There's an extensive brunch menu -- this is in a hotel after all -- and weekly cooking classes ($25-$65) that range from baking cupcakes to date-night dinners to a seafood competition.
A warning about parking: There is no self-parking at the Nia, and a sign by the valet stand reads $35. After slamming on my brakes and doing a quick U-turn to park on the street, I was told diners receive a three-hour voucher for the valet service, though the grace period can be extended.
I have a friend who is crazy about hotel dining. Me, I'm a bit more ambivalent. But Porta Blu did win me over for the most part: It's a restrained, classy and calm sanctuary with a modern Mediterranean-California sensibility. It's sleek and contemporary without feeling cold, and the menu is vibrant enough to warrant another visit.
200 Independence Drive, Menlo Park
Hours: Brunch daily, 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Lunch daily, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner Monday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.; Lounge daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, custom cocktails
Happy Hour: No
Noise level: Low