by Max Hauser
Scratch, the big new restaurant at 401 Castro, expands an already diverse and successful local restaurant group. Business cards at Scratch describe four related restaurants, all in Palo Alto: Two “Creameries,” Reposado, and the new Gravity wine bar. (Reposado, a novel concept at first, is now one of Palo Alto’s most popular eateries.) Two previous restaurants failed in this ground-floor space after its new building rose some years back. California Roadhouse I thought a competent but routine steak-seafood place. uWink seemed more about high-tech than food. I must tell you know that Scratch is a different and vastly more promising entity. It offers classy regional American specialties at deliberately moderate pricing (main courses, often creatively garnished, run $18-$27 and the so-called appetizers, themselves small meals, around half that). Diverse seating accommodates 230, with an outdoor patio for warm weather. After several meals I’m impressed. I found real class (both obvious and subtle) in Scratch’s kitchen work. A strong guiding vision also shows. Owner Rob Fischer, a successful industry veteran, takes nothing for granted. He’s often there fine-tuning things, watching the service, assisting with countless start-up issues that confront every new hospitality enterprise. I encountered several mistakes from server inexperience or server-kitchen miscommunication. Scratch isn’t yet a tuned, well-oiled machine. But I see this in most new restaurants, and I tend to ignore it, especially when the kitchen shows taste and skill, and the occasional gaffe is corrected quickly, apologetically, and with good humor, as these were. Dishes enjoyed so far include most of the dinner-menu “appetizers” like crab cakes, goat-cheese soufflé, an outstanding grilled-prawn “shrimp cocktail,” and especially the Ahi tuna Niçoise salad (about five times).
Bourbon-glazed pork belly on grits with country greens was another winner. Among dinner entrées, the pork chop (thick, tender, lean, cider-brined) may be the best restaurant chop I’ve had. Grilled salmon was creatively spiced and garnished; maple-glazed duck breast a tender filet with wild rice and huckleberries. Braised “short ribs” (set off with parsnip puree and savory tidbits) was a large portion of lean, fork-tender braised beef. Menu “side dishes” have exceeded their descriptions: “creamed spinach” includes leeks and other vegetables. Stopping at the bar for a late-afternoon “happy-hour” Ahi salad, I heard two separate bar diners raving over the Brussels sprouts, which “come with all kinds of good stuff.” How often do you hear restaurant diners moved to praise Brussels sprouts? Lunch service began more recently. I’ve tried one lunch dish, shrimp “Louis” salad. Characteristically, it had unusual garnishes and presentation, shrimp and vegetables arrayed on a plate with sauce on the side (a format known in earlier times as a “Russian” salad). Scratch’s liquid offerings are unusual. The horseshoe-shaped bar has a polished wooden surface that a neighbor’s professional eye pronounced first-rate. Spirits selection isn’t just large–it’s also unique. Rather than standard vodkas and whiskies, beverage director Saeed Amini scoured the market for US-made artisanal spirits, especially rare small-batch whiskies. Scratch’s diligent bartenders are also making subtle modern cocktails using their own flavor infusions. The large wine list, reflecting the American theme, is wholly US but not just California, and leans toward moderate prices. Again, Saeed Amini opted for quality and value instead of familiarity. He knows the wines well, and can satisfy your tastes if you describe what you want. 4 to 6 PM the dinner “appetizer” menu and many drinks are half-price. My beloved Ahi Niçoise salad is $6, the best deal in town. This “happy-hour” pricing and menu surpass anything comparable locally. Try it–you’ll like it. Scratch, 401 Castro, 650-237-3132, www.scratchmtnview.com