Almost exactly 13 years ago, I wrote about Sebastopol’s K&L Bistro receiving its first Michelin star.
At the time, it was somewhat shocking for a neighborhood bistro to achieve the same kind of standing as Chez Panisse, Gary Danko, Bouchon, Dry Creek Kitchen and Farmhouse Inn. It was the year Healdsburg’s Cyrus won two stars and The French Laundry was the lone three-star winner in the Bay Area. For K&L owners Karen and Lucas Martin, the honor was a double-edged sword.
“We never had aspirations for that. We were just cooking and doing what we loved. We just wanted to be this little bistro,” Lucas said. “I mean, at one point we had a crib in here,” said the father of two. “We just wanted to enjoy what we did.”
The international recognition can bring a different kind of diner, Lucas said, with lofty expectations nearly impossible to meet. Known as “The Michelin Curse,” it also can drive chefs to madness — even suicide — trying to keep it.
“I won’t lie; I was a bit disappointed when we lost it (in 2009), but you can’t hone your existence on what other people want. It’s a slippery slope,” he said.
For all of us, that perspective has been a lucky break.
Since then, the restaurant has thrived, doubling in size in 2014 and recently changing up its Parisian character for a more diverse and contemporary menu that includes their son’s ode to In-N-Out’s Animal-Style French fries. In 2019, it’s not only every bit as good as I remembered but actually better in just about every way.
Karen Martin heads the kitchen, and the frites are still every bit as thin and crispy, the service as impeccable, the onion soup as cheesy, soccer games always on in the bar and the wine list as impressive (DuMOL was recently added) as before.
The restaurant is also one of the few places where I think the prices are worth every penny. K&L isn’t cheap, but I’m betting you won’t walk away disappointed. Or hungry. After several cringe-worthy meals at local restaurants at the same price point, K&L was like settling into a warm bubble bath — comforting, decadent and worth savoring each delicious moment.
If you’re on a budget, the bar menu includes some favorite starters under $10 like the Ichiban Ramen, Pork Belly Bao, Buffalo Cauliflower or a Bucket of French Fries with garlic aioli. You will not be able to eat enough of the garlic aioli. Or the fries. Or the French Onion Soup.
K&L Bistro has class without pretension, a sense of fun without being ridiculous and excellence without the affectation of needing to prove itself to Michelin’s “famously anonymous” reviewers. Maybe that’s how you beat the curse — by caring more about good food than good reviews.
Best Bets: Required eating
Butternut Squash Ravioli, $23.50: I rarely rave about pasta. It’s pasta. I don’t often order it anymore, because either the pasta is doughy, the butter has separated, the filling is far too sweet or the whole thing is just a sad mess. This, however, will be vying for one of my favorite dishes of 2019. First off, it’s rounds of delicate pasta stuffed with sweet butternut squash. Then brown butter. Then golden chanterelle mushrooms that are worth the price of the dish alone. With just a hint of lemon, it’s got the flavors sorted perfectly with just enough fat, acid, salt and sweet to make me weep a little with each bite. Look away! I’m crying here.
Chicken Picatta, $25.50: Their best seller and an homage to Bistro Ralph’s legendary Chicken Paillard. Lucas said he didn’t put the dish on the menu until after the Healdsburg restaurant shuttered and his friend Ralph retired the dish. “He’s such a great guy,” Lucas said.
You may notice a theme here with my love of a good brown butter sauce. Here, a thin (but not too thin) breast of pounded chicken gets a light, crispy coating, topped with creamy brown butter, lemon and caper sauce. Instead of Ralph’s fries, it comes with a side of garlicky kale salad so you can pretend you’re being virtuous.
Fried Brussels Sprouts, $8: Another dish that I tend to avoid because too many chefs think they’ve nailed it by serving up raw-on-the-inside, burnt-on-the-outside sprouts. Yielding on the inside, crispy on the outside, with the leaves slightly opened is how they’re best done. Add some Calabrian chili and garlic aioli, and these are simply addictive.
French Onion Soup Gratinée, $12: My vegetarian friend loves this so much that she refuses to ask what’s in the stock. Sorry, but it’s made with veal stock and pig’s feet (yes, that’s what makes it so good). The dark, rich stock is imbued with soft onions and sherry vinegar, topped with a ridiculous amount of melted Gruyère.
Fried Tater Tots Animal Style, $7: Here’s where the menu has a little fun, riffing on In-N-Out’s not-so-secret-menu favorite of piling a jumble of special sauce, grilled onions and melted cheese over their fries. At K&L, it gets an upgrade with crispy tater tots to hold up the whole mess with commendable gravitas. “It’s my 15-year-old’s creation,” Lucas said.
Mac & Cheese Gratinée, $13.50: Um, yes. Please. More. All the creamy Béchamel, made with Swiss and Gruyère cheese. “We don’t break the sauce,” Lucas said of the secret to his cheesy success. For that, I’m eternally grateful.
Buffalo Cauliflower, $7: I wouldn’t get these unless there was a vegetarian at the table, but they’re a great compromise if you’re a wing fan. Lightly fried in tempura, with buffalo sauce and blue cheese. They could be a little more yielding, but they’re not shabby.
Mussels Marinière, $21.50: One of K&L’s signature dishes. Lots of mussels, lots of fries. The sauce is tasty but doesn’t have the boozy kick I usually like. Good for sharing.
Persimmon & Arugula Salad, $12.50: Prettiest salad ever. Simple, classy, amazing. We also loved the more filling Smoked Trout Salad that’s a take on Niçoise, filled with smoked trout, dill crème fraiche, potatoes, pickled onions and capers ($14.50).
Meyer Ranch Burger, $16: A truly excellent burger, with excellent meat. It’s enhanced with add-ons like a fried egg, onions, Gruyère and mushrooms, which are $2, to really make the whole thing hit the high notes.
If you go: Lunch is a lovely time to sit and sip wine with some friends in downtown Sebastopol, and the menu is almost identical to dinner. Weekend brunch is newish, offering up quiche, a mushroom omelets, Benedict Florentine, huevos rancheros, and a lovely Bloody Mary. Happy hour daily from 3 to 6 p.m. and a late happy hour from 9:30 to 11 p.m. with a full bar. On-tap wines are a great way to go, but the wine list is stellar as well (in fact, winemakers are frequent guests). The restaurant is popular with locals, so reservations are a good idea.
119 South Main St., Sebastopol, 707-823-6614, klbistro.com.