A&E

Spanish-influenced and chic, Asa delights with intense flavors

Los Altos restaurant offers elevated gin and tonics, classy service

Asa elevates the classic gin and tonic by infusing the gin with edible flowers. Photo by Sammy Dallal.

A pre-dinner gin and tonic offered the first clue that our meal at Asa was going to be memorable.

Here, the classic G&T ($15) is elevated to new heights of trendiness by infusing the gin with edible flowers. The result is a delightful, Day-Glo-purple cocktail that speaks to Asa's penchant for steeping, rendering, brining, marinating and otherwise slow-prepping to elicit deep flavors and vibrant colors from its Spanish and Italian-influenced fare.

The second indication that we were in for a lively dining experience was Bruno, maître d' extraordinaire. Fleet of foot and quick of tongue, Asa's head waiter is a throwback to an age when serving was a profession, an art even, requiring equal parts storytelling, smarts and savoir faire. Bruno sets the tone for the wait staff, and the result is mostly attentive, deferential service at this 2-year-old hot spot.

Airy and vaguely industrial, Asa is probably the sexiest restaurant in downtown Los Altos, buzzing with patio diners long after the sidewalks have otherwise rolled up on State Street. A concrete floor and wood-and-neutrals palette lend a hard-edged coolness, but warm lighting and eye-catching white lanterns floating above soften the room and create a contemporary, chic vibe.

Named after owner Andrew Welch's 3-year-old son, Asa (the restaurant) has a new sibling as of this week. According to information available at press time, a Los Gatos location of Asa was set to open Thursday, Oct. 3. The new south bay location, just a few miles from Welch's San Jose home, is not far from The Basin, the Saratoga restaurant he owned for almost two decades before opening Asa.

Asa does not hold itself out as a Spanish restaurant per se, but the well-curated, seafood-inspired menu tilts decidedly toward Barcelona with a nod to Northern Italy. A strong California cuisine ethos underpins everything, with executive chef Roberto Juarez employing only seasonal, top-notch ingredients with all the expected catch phrases: organic, local, line-caught, hormone-free, sustainable and the like. Juarez previously ran the kitchen at The Basin.

You'll pay for this obvious attention to quality, and the servings, especially the main dishes, are not exactly super-sized. So, unless you spring for a starter and a main, and perhaps also share a salad with your dining companion, there is a chance you could stroll out happy, but still a little hungry. Accordingly, at least to this rather parsimonious critic, Asa falls into the "special occasion" category.

I started one meal with the watermelon salad ($13). If summer had a flavor and could be served on a plate, it would taste like this classic sweet-salty pairing, with a wedge of succulent watermelon, sweet tomatoes, feta, basil and a little lemon zest for a citrusy brightness. If decadence could be served on a plate (and at Asa, it often is), it would take the form of Asa's duck-fat roasted potatoes ($10), which tasted like airy puffs of duck in carbohydrate form. Served oven-hot atop a bed of housemade aioli, this tapas-esque starter was a delicious indulgence.

The duck puffs -- I mean, potatoes -- also appeared alongside the Petaluma chicken entrée ($32), a diminutive but fork-tender breast, brined for 24 hours in a citrus-herb marinade made tangy with vinegar and savory from the addition of cured Spanish anchovies known as boquerones. The liberty duck ($37) was similarly succulent. Brined and pan-roasted, the ridiculously tender breast was served alongside a confit of duck leg with a smear of rhubarb compote and a dollop of huckleberry and raspberry sauce. A small serving of tender rainbow chard rounded out this pretty plate.

Back on the starters side of the menu, the intensely flavorful paella Valencia ($18) was my favorite dish. Any paella connoisseur knows that the most divine aspect of what is widely considered Spain's national dish is the socorrat, the crusty, crispy bottom of the paella that becomes deliciously caramelized while cooking. Asa's muffin-sized version of paella is all about socorrat. A crispy, saucy paella cake is drenched in an intense, chorizo-infused shrimp stock, with liberal amounts of saffron and smoked paprika. This a bold paella is for palates that relish intensity.

The "Bowl of Soul" ($36) was similarly intense, with layers of savory seafood flavors. It was described on the menu as a fish soup with an "ethereal" broth. I would agree.

Even a scoop of chocolate sorbet ($9) for dessert tasted preternaturally intense and creamy given that it was non-dairy.

A notation at the bottom of the menu gently asks early diners to observe a two-hour seating limit, which seemed ironic as we tried, in vain, to summon a waiter for our check on a busy Saturday night. When we finally got the bill, we were chagrined to find on it a cocktail we had not ordered. These were small bobbles that were graciously and apologetically dealt with.

For a subsequent meal, we were lucky to get Bruno as our waiter. There were no bobbles. He gracefully responded to our probably annoying request for him to tell us "his story," and then capped off our meal with small, complimentary glasses of port. It was a classy gesture that spoke to the feeling of warmth and neighborliness Asa cultivates.

Asa

242 State St., Los Altos

650-935-2372

asalosaltos.com

Hours: Closed Sundays. Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4:30-10:30 p.m.

Credit cards: Yes

Reservations: Yes

Catering: No

Takeout: Limited

Outdoor seating: Yes

Parking: Street

Alcohol: Full bar

Bathroom: Excellent

Noise level: Moderate to loud

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