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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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3 people like this
Posted by Cindy
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 8, 2015 at 5:49 pm

Turn Restaurant in Los Altos looks nice, but why are there no prices listed on the menu ? Isn't that more of a NY thing ? I want to know how much something costs before I consider what to order.

Like this comment
Posted by Humble observer
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 8, 2015 at 8:23 pm

It sounds appetizing. But with, sadly, an undercurrent of bitterness to all the locals aware that A. G. Ferrari (a valuable local delicatessen) lost its lease -- effectively, was kicked out -- to free up the space now occupied by this business. (Still a topic of conversation in downtown Los Altos, I heard it this week.)

A restaurant can become a community institution -- but it is never quite the same if built at the cost of destroying another, long-established one.

6 people like this
Posted by Humble observer
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 8, 2015 at 9:03 pm

A food question from the review. Other than labeling, what makes Turn's pizzas "New York" style?

To review a little pizza history (per the Italian-American food historian J. F. Mariani), the US classic pizza style (originally popularized in New York) is a modified descendent of the original Italian pizza, which was from Naples. The NY style differs basically by being much larger (Naples pizzas are always individual-portion sized), and having a more prescribed topping format that often includes layers of both tomato sauce and cheese.

The plated pizza in this article's photo set might be individual-sized (hard to tell), but it has free-format toppings in the Italian style (without the usual tomato-sauce and cheese layers of US pizzas). Seeing just the picture, I'd take it to be an Italian rather than a US pizza style (but served in the US -- you can tell, because it's already sliced into wedges). In fact, all (six) pizza versions listed on Turn's (PDF) menu read more like examples in my Italian, rather than my US, pizza cookbooks. Leading Turn's list is the signature pizza of Naples, which tradition says was named for the visiting queen, Margherita.

Trevor Felch, could you please clarify why you described these pizzas "New York-style, not Naples" ?

3 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Oct 9, 2015 at 12:11 am

AG Ferrari seems to have failed in a lot of locations. I don't think think there was anything unusual or nefarious about its failure in Los Altos.

5 people like this
Posted by Humble observer
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 9, 2015 at 9:40 am

chris, I gather you weren't following these events at the time (one of several changes that got a lot of attention in the neighborhood when they happened), but AG Ferrari in Los Altos didn't "fail," rather it lost its lease, as I mentioned already.

5 people like this
Posted by Trevor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 20, 2015 at 3:42 pm

Hi folks! Yes, the owners and/or chef wrote on the restaurant's website in the "about" section that the pizza is "New York- style." On the menu it is simply "stone oven pizza." I would not consider the pizza to be any particular style, perhaps closest to a flatbread/California Pizza Kitchen crust. It is definitely not traditional New York- style, however.

2 people like this
Posted by Ho/Hum
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 20, 2015 at 5:23 pm

I thought the food was blah and inauthentic in the sense of comfort food. American comfort food is best made and eaten, at home.

This is also true of German, Vietnamese, and Italian comfort foods. They just don't rate going out for, and spending righteous money on.

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