Disappointing Dining in San Jose (with some exceptions)

Last night, Peter took me out to Paolo’s Restaurant to celebrate our 22nd anniversary. We honestly hadn’t been there in a dog’s age, but it has held a place in our heart thanks to previous romantic dinners there. It’s one of San Jose’s oldest restaurants, known for its elegant Italian cuisine, and Peter had a hankering for their veal saltimbocca.

Sadly, it was another disappointing upscale dining experience in San Jose. After we’d perused the wine list, our server asked if we were ready to order — and we had to point out we’d received no menus in order to see what the offerings were, other than the special of the day she’d told us about. Then when we ordered — the saltimbocca and the special (halibut) — our server confirmed by saying “the halibut and the fish, then!” and we had to call her back and make sure it was the halibut and the veal saltimbocca. The food came out surprisingly quickly, which isn’t bad and these are after all, dishes which can be cooked quickly if all the prep has been done. But I suspect the speed is also due to the fact that much of their business must be coming from the theatre patrons going to nearby shows at the Center for the Performing Arts. It may date our last visit, but then our date coincided with a show, and Paolo’s had put out a buffet to cater to people who wanted to dine and dash in style. It may be the buffet wasn’t a hit, so now all dishes are designed to come out quickly.

Unfortunately, Peter’s veal saltimbocca was disappointing. He thought it tasted frozen. Not having tasted it myself, it might just have been too dry or overcooked (having made saltimbocca myself, I know it’s really easy to accidentally overcook it.) He bit down on something hard and found the stem of a large sage leaf inside. When our waitress came up to “see how things are” (note to restaurants — on a romantic date, I don’t want to be talking to your staff unless I need their attention), I thought I may as well point out the stem, and that the chef may want to be more careful in prep, because it was an off-note. She offered Peter a refire, but once you have to send back a dish on a romantic date, the experience is ruined, as the lovers have to take turns watching each other eat. It wasn’t that bad, but it really wasn’t that good. My halibut was ok, with no faults on the chef. It’s a bland fish to begin with, and it was seasoned and cooked just enough. But then the waitress sent up the a manager to quiz us about our concerns, and I thought I would just die. He told us we’d get an extra dessert to make up for it, and I imagined the chef spitting in it in anger. For the record, we ate the desserts, which were delicious, and I’m pretty sure (I hope), they had no markings of kitchen revenge.

Unfortunately, it’s not our first disappointment with a San Jose restaurant that should have been better. We celebrated Valentine’s Day at McCormick and Schmick’s. First of all, they confused our reservation, which was for 5:30 pm. They couldn’t find us, but seated us anyway. Later, at 7:30, Peter got a call asking if we were a no-show, and had to tell them we had shown up at 5:30, the time we’d scheduled dinner, and the time we’d confirmed before coming over, only to have confused people at the front. Peter’s steak was still bloody on the inside, and he did have to send it back for a refire, so I was almost done with my steelhead before he got his dinner. It has a nice location, looking over at Plaza de Cesar Chavez, but we left a big tip for the waiter, and I don’t think we’ll be back.

And then there’s Morton’s, which I’ve already written about. And A.P. Stump’s, with such boring bland food it’s demise was overdue.

So is there any decent romantic dining to be had in San Jose? Yes, but in unexpected places. A former employee told us about 71 St. Peter , a small romantic bistro (at 71 San Pedro street — get it?). The menu is always small, and seems to be different each time we go, but whatever we order, it’s always delicious. If your timing is right, you can get a seat outside, right on San Pedro street, so you can enjoy the party people strolling past. We’ve twice dined there during the zombie crawl (which often coincides with our anniversary, go figure), and luckily, the restaurant has some voodoo which keeps the zombies at bay. The staff always hits the right note, making sure you’re comfortable, but not interrupting conversation. And while the dishes are just as good, they’re less expensive than they are at other San Jose counterparts.

Another personal favorite of mine is Chez Sovan, the Cambodian restaurant on Bascom Avenue. It’s also not marketed as quite as upscale, but the food is delicious. Peter doesn’t like Asian cuisine so much so it’s only a destination for my celebrations (like my birthday), but their appetizers were fine for his palette. And then I got such delicious ice cream for dessert.

So I don’t know what’s up with fine dining in San Jose. For one thing, Peter and I cook nice food at home more often now, so we know grades of meat, we know what should be in a dish, and our own quirky preferences (i.e. I like my pasta mushy, so I don’t order pasta dishes, because my special request is an affront to pasta-loving chefs.) San Francisco restaurants typically don’t disappoint — the only one I can remember as bad was a sorry pizza place in North Beach. So why can’t San Jose deliver? I understand it may be difficult to bring forth one’s cooking talent at an upscale McChain or with  56 year old recipes, but, good god, it can be done. (At the very least, you should be able to cook a steak to the proper temperature.) Looking at Yelp, it looks like the gourmands are fleeing our downtown for Saratoga and Cupertino, but I’d rather have someplace great to eat in my own city. So I keep hoping, but it may just be that the little places like 71 St. Peter and Chez Sovan are really where the San Jose’s dining soul lives.

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