Chafik Larobi, executive chef at Zitune restaurant, recalled his first impression of downtown Los Altos years ago. “I said, this town needs a nice little place people can go to (dine) without having to drive to San Francisco,” he remarked. He was referring to a unique, high-quality restaurant that draws diners from all over.
Destination restaurants in Los Altos? Believe it. And business could soon pick up in a big way.
Zitune and Sumika, both in downtown Los Altos, appear in The Michelin Guide for San Francisco, Bay Area & the Wine Country Restaurants 2011. Inclusion is a high honor. Michelin is regarded worldwide as the premier rating guide of restaurants.
“It puts us, as well as the rest of Los Altos, on the culinary map,” said Vincent Osar, Zitune general manager.
Anne Stedler, Los Altos economic development manager, agrees.
“This is a big deal, and a big deal for Los Altos, too, especially in the competitive Bay Area food scene,” she said.
Zitune (Moroccan for “olive”) received a “recommended” rating in the 2011 guide for its Moroccan cuisine.
“Zitune is more of a Mediterranean fantasy, marrying culinary skill, contemporary flair and a generous taste of chermoula … with a well-to-do feel,” according to Michelin. “Zitune is popular for business lunches as well as after-work drinks.”
Larobi co-owns Zitune with Kim Auerbach.
Sumika received Michelin’s Bib Gourmand Award (restaurants serving two entrees and drinks for under $40) for its yakitori cuisine – specially grilled and skewered chicken and beef dishes.
Michelin remarks: “A South Bay haven for the local Japanese folk, Sumika’s crowning glory is its glass-enclosed binchotan charcoal grill.”
The 4-year-old restaurant is one of the first in the Bay Area specializing in yakitori cuisine. It’s also the only one on the Bib Gourmand list, said owner Kuniko Ozawa.
“People say it’s just like Tokyo,” customers have said, paying Ozawa a compliment. “Our sales have already increased (since the Michelin mention).”
When the Los Altos Hills resident opened the 49-seat Sumika, approximately 80 percent of her customers were Japanese. That percentage has since flip-flopped as word reached non-Japanese diners about the quality of the food.
Ozawa said the restaurant, also led by general manager and chief chef Yoshiyuki Maruyama, draws business people as well as the general public.
The charcoal used for grilling seems to be the key ingredient. Sumika imports binchotan charcoal from Japan. The restaurant also uses high-quality meats – organic chicken from Petaluma Poultry and Kobe beef.
Offered customer Mark Vernon, chief operating officer of Ridge Vineyards: “I can say without hesitation that Sumika absolutely deserves the recognition that Michelin has given them.”
At Zitune, Larobi and Osar view the Michelin recommendation as validation of their hard work. But Larobi said his motivation is leaving customers happy, not the Michelin rating in itself.
Larobi, a native of Morocco who opened the 75-seat Zitune at the end of 2006, speaks with passion as he shares about wanting to take his restaurant’s already high-quality cuisine “to another level.”
“We don’t isolate the food (quality) from the service,” he stressed. “It’s the whole package.”
“Zitune is very good,” said Dr. Zeala Miles, a diner from Los Altos Hills. “We really enjoy the atmosphere.”
For more information on Zitune, located at 325 Main St., call 947-0247 or visit www.zitune.com.
For more on Sumika, 236 Central Plaza, call 917-1822 or visit www.sumikagrill.com.
What Is The Michelin Guide?
You might be thinking, “Why is a company that manufactures tires publishing a restaurant guide that’s the talk of the culinary world?”
In 1900, as Paris prepared for the World’s Fair, Michelin brothers Edouard and André created a restaurant and hotel guide so that vacationers traveling on their tires would take less risky, more practical journeys, and of course, have places to stop.
The idea took off. The guides, packaged in little red books, have, as Michelin puts it, “been placed in knapsacks and on dashboards ever since.”
The key to the guide’s success is its “famously anonymous” theme. Seasoned “inspectors” simply show up – sometimes six to eight times in one year – unannounced, and dine like any other customers. Announcements of recognition arrive at restaurants in nondescript envelopes.
“We almost threw ours away,” said Zitune general manager Vince Osar, thinking it was junk mail.
Fortunately, he opened it – and the celebration began.
For more information on the Michelin Guide, visit www.michelinguide.com.