Something has happened at the K&L Bistro in Sebastopol in just the past few weeks. Something different. Something great. The food has taken a major leap forward in quality.
Why? Perhaps it was the sting of losing their one Michelin Guide star, when the 2009 edition last October demoted the place from one star to just a mention. Maybe Karen and Lucas Martin (the K and L of K&L) became re-enthused with the love of cooking. Maybe they got new ideas. Who knows?
But I know this: the bistro, which has always been very good, has become brilliant and every bit deserving of that Michelin star and maybe even a couple of them. And it's just happened recently.
To the Martins' unerring instinct for combining high-quality ingredients in interesting and delicious ways, they've added a star to their diadem: elegance. The most beautiful things are not usually the most ornate. Elegance means graceful, tasteful simplicity.
Take the Lightly Cured Hiramasa ($10 ****), for instance. Hiramasa is a yellowtail kingfish. Thin slices of this fresh fish are cured in a light pickle and paired with thin slices of icy cold radishes. A thumb and forefinger pinch of radish sprouts are placed on the fish and the plate is given a visually beautiful, pastel green avocado cream. This dish is simple, but stylish, concise and focused. It signals class and sophistication. That's where the Martins are taking their cuisine, and boy, is that ever the right direction.
A change in the artwork on the walls reflects this change. Gone are the dark paintings, now replaced by Lindy Lange-Grant's soft and cheerful pastels. The tables are still too close together, but on a recent Thursday night there was hardly anyone in the place. More's the pity, because the Wine Country dining scene needs the K&L.
Both Karen and Lucas cook and it's hard to tell who has the creativity and who has the techniques, or whether they both do — as befits a married couple who moved from the city to Sebastopol in 2001 to raise their kids out of the urban environment and practice their artful trade at the bistro. Besides lovers of good food in the French — and sometimes Italian — style, they have a palate for fine wines, as their modest but excellent wine list shows. One of the diners at our table brought a bottle of 1999 Beringer Bancroft Ranch, Howell Mountain Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from home, which was exquisite, so we gladly absorbed the $20 corkage fee.
Service at K&L is impeccable. It's quiet, unhurried, friendly and efficient.
But back to the new menu, or should it be called the "new menu with some old favorites" that customers don't allow them to remove, such as the Macaroni and Cheese ($10 ****). This large ramekin of tender macaroni submerged in a creamy, cheesy sauce topped with toasty bread crumbs is your fantasy mac and cheese come to life. It's made with Gruyere, so you get real cheese aroma and flavor. This is the mac and cheese your mom should have made, but most likely never did.
Even among the major hits of the night, the Smoked Salmon Terrine ($11 ****) stood out. This salmon is not like the candy-sweet, dark orange-red, dried and heavily smoked salmon that's ordinarily seen in these parts. Fresh filets are just lightly smoked and made into a luscious terrine wrapped in black seaweed and formed into the rough shape of a salmon steak. On one side is a mound of lump Dungeness crabmeat — big lumps, not the shreddy, stringy crabmeat that sells for a gazillion dollars at the store. To balance these fruits de mer, a celery root remoulade accompanies the fish. Remoulade is a classic French sauce of a mayonnaise base powered up with mustard, capers, gherkins, herbs, and anchovies. You can see how the flavors could easily get out of hand and stomp all over the delicacy of the terrine and crabmeat. But the Martins don't let that happen, and the remoulade is just a lullaby singing the celery root to sleep.