Over the past year or so, downtown Los Gatos has seen a proliferation of new restaurants, and one of the most memorable is the Lexington House. With its farm-to-table ethos and distinguished list of craft cocktails, this place brings a bit of San Francisco-neighborhood hipness to the tony Silicon Valley enclave.

A partnership involving Stephen Shelton and Jimmy Marino, the former bar managers at nearby Cin-Cin, and Chef Philippe Breneman, a South Bay native, the Lexington House has a great thing going.

And clearly, the word is out. When we arrived around 8:30 one Friday evening, the front patio was swamped, as was the standing rail just inside the front door. We finally had to ask another patron where to find the hostess.

Chickpea and summer squash "tikka masala" is one of the menu items at Lexington House in Los Gatos, Calif., on Tuesday, July 15, 2014.  Lexington
Chickpea and summer squash "tikka masala" is one of the menu items at Lexington House in Los Gatos, Calif., on Tuesday, July 15, 2014. Lexington House has a winning combination of craft cocktails and farm-to-table dining. Bartending phenoms Stephen Shelton and Jimmy Marino feature fresh ingredients and local spirits to create superb drinks to match the quality of Chef Philippe Breneman's elevated yet unpretentious food. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group) ( Patrick Tehan )

The wait for a table turned out to be 45 minutes that evening; on a relatively quiet midweek visit, expect a good 20 minutes' wait -- which is the downside at a no-reservations restaurant, a trend among the new breed of casual fine-dining establishments.

Fortunately, Shelton and Marino's highly praised cocktails make the wait worthwhile. The refreshing Mr. Pimm's House ($11), served on the rocks, went down like Kool-Aid at a kids' party. Stay Gold Ponyboy ($11), made with cream sherry and rum distilled in Mountain View, is an ideal after-dinner sipper.

When seated in the dining room -- a rustic-modern space with exposed brick and gleaming, polished wood -- we turned our attention to the short but bewitching wine list from California boutique producers and the dozen or so top-notch craft beers.


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Breneman, who has worked at several restaurants in the Bay Area, and was a sous chef at another Los Gatos favorite, Dio Deka, proves his talent by not just by allowing the excellent ingredients on the menu to shine, but by elevating them -- teasing out flavors, emphasizing texture and plating them artistically yet without an ounce of pretension.

Even the humblest ingredients become special in his hands. Take, for example, the grits that were on the menu during my visits -- the vegetarian option among the entrees. A chef needs moxie to feature grits, typically ascribed to side dishes, as a main course. Breneman makes them rich and creamy, with accents of tangy chevre and a puree of nettles. The addition of caramelized, roasted carrots and fennel brings sweetness, and curls of raw rainbow carrots on top lend texture. I hope they come back on the menu soon.

If it is not offered when you order, make sure to request the homemade bread. Through the week it's a tender brioche that would be good toasted in the morning. On weekends, the choices are more creative. During one visit, we had a delicious Kalamata olive pain d'epi, and our server happened to mention that on the previous weekend sous chef Jennifer Pender had made bacon biscuits.

Flat iron steak au poivre is one of the menu items at Lexington House in Los Gatos, Calif., on Tuesday, July 15, 2014.  Lexington House has a winning
Flat iron steak au poivre is one of the menu items at Lexington House in Los Gatos, Calif., on Tuesday, July 15, 2014. Lexington House has a winning combination of craft cocktails and farm-to-table dining. Bartending phenoms Stephen Shelton and Jimmy Marino feature fresh ingredients and local spirits to create superb drinks to match the quality of Chef Philippe Breneman's elevated yet unpretentious food. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group) ( Patrick Tehan )

During my first visit, the mushroom and peanut shumai ($14) were new to the menu, and this Breneman riff on a Chinese dumpling is now a contender for my "best bite of the year." The four dumplings are served with a pea puree, infused with the heady scent of kaffir lime and a drizzle of peanut oil, for a lush layer of flavor.

Another appetizer -- perfectly cooked marbled potatoes, crumbles of bacon and a poached egg ($13) -- had a sweeter profile than I expected, thanks to the addition of fennel, but the more I ate, the more it grew on me. Still, I didn't find it as compelling as the shumai.

While bringing that appetizer to the table, our server turned swiftly back to the bar to get two plates, a testament to the level of service here. It is no small thing when a server anticipates diners' needs, rather than forcing them to ask for something and then wait for it after the food is on the table.

The flat iron steak ($34) is well-seasoned with pepper (but not too much) and served with a delectable brown butter vinaigrette. The chicken ($24) is cooked sous vide, making it moist and tender. It comes served with a pleasantly spicy portion of broccoli.

But diners willing to take a chance on something different will be handsomely rewarded with the calamari ($15). Typically a starter, Breneman's main-course version is an absolutely delicious surprise.

Curls of filleted calamari, together with some baby squid, were served in a bright broth with an ideal balance of savory and citrus; pancetta adding depth, lemon brightening the dish. Dainty Sea Island red peas gave it an earthy sweetness, and garnishes of celery and gremolata added a pop of color and freshness. I traded plates with a friend to sample her chicken, and, although it was excellent, I couldn't wait to get the calamari back.

The two desserts ($10) were a mixed bag. The Dessert in a Jar was essentially a cheesecake made with mascarpone and goat cheese, which added a pleasing tang. But the cherries were sweet, instead of sour. For me the sour ones lend far more depth to desserts; so this one fell flat.

However, the peanut butter cookie -- which resembled warm crumbled cake, served with kisses of bittersweet chocolate ganache -- was divine. Its best element was the homemade Bit-O-Honey -- a nutty-sweet, chewy nougat.

Though Los Gatos diners are spoiled by many excellent choices available to them, the Lexington House is yet another reason for the rest of us to envy them.

Email Jennifer Graue at features@mercurynews.com.

The Lexington House

* * * ½

40 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, 408-354-1600,
thelexlg.com
The Dish: Though farm-to-table dining and craft cocktails are trite terms these days, the Lexington House in downtown Los Gatos is the real deal, serving original drinks with house-made bitters and locally distilled spirits, plus food from a Santa Cruz Mountains farm.
Prices: Appetizers $11-$14; entrees $15-$34; desserts $10; cocktails $10-$13; beer $5-$20; wines by glass $11-$18, by the bottle $44-$175.
Details: Bartending gurus Stephen Shelton and Jimmy Marino and Chef Philippe Breneman are no strangers to Los Gatos. Shelton and Marino ran the bar at nearby Cin-Cin; Breneman cooked at Dio Deka. Together, they've struck a chord with diners, if the crowds are any indication.
Pluses: Practically every dish is as good as the next, and Breneman truly knows how to elevate ingredients and make them memorable.
Minuses: Reservations are accepted for only large parties, so expect a wait any night, especially on Friday and Saturday.
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m.; occasional pop-up Sunday brunches are announced on Facebook.
Policy: Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously; the Mercury News pays for all meals.