My brother Kevin has a list of restaurants/joints he needs to hit whenever he visits New York. We always go to Sushi of Gari for their chirashi, we get a hot dog from Papaya King (we are devoted to Papaya King on 86th and 3rd), we have to have great pizza somewhere (Grimald’s still reigns supreme over DiFara, Lombardi’s, Patsy’s, John’s, Artichoke, Otto, Saluggi’s, Keste, Motorino, Co., etc), and we throw in a couple of new restaurants to try. Just as he has his essential NYC places, I have my favorite spots in the area generally known as “Silicon Valley” where he lives.
Ever since he moved to Palo Alto to attend Stanford Kevin’s loved his
car laid back California lifestyle and the food here (a vast improvement from the small town in PA where we grew up). I think New York has the greatest dining scene in the world but I have to concede that there are certain foods California does better. My list of must-haves for my brother’s “hood” includes Vietnamese pho (at Pho Queen Noodle House), non-sushi Japanese (Gombei for beef teriyaki and deep fried shrimp; everything from Gochi), Mexican (burritos from La Costeña, a little kitchen behind a hole-in-the-wall grocery in Mountain View), Korean food (“hangover soup” from Seoul Geum Tang in Santa Clara), and of course burgers from In-N-Out.
This time, as soon as I landed here I asked Kevin if we could have pho- a large bowl of hot noodle soup is what I wanted more than anything after a long flight across the country. My all time favorite pho is from Pho 95 in Denver and while Pho Queen Noodle House isn’t quite as good, it’s infinitely better than what I can find in New York. I think I can easily be convinced to have pho everyday. In fact, I’m craving a bowl right now… I will need to make a return visit since it’ll be a long while before I get to have it again.
My second day we had lunch at Gombei and for dinner we chose to go to Baumé, a modern French restaurant that received two Michelin stars a few weeks ago. Just like in New York, I love that here we can go from one extreme to the other and that you have so many dining options. On any given day you can easily have a great bowl of noodle soup or a simple lunch of rice and teriyaki, and then for dinner have a twelve course molecular gastronomy/modern French dining experience. I did have a small problem with our plans though… in that I had nothing appropriate to wear to Baumé since I only packed for casual and outdoor clothes for this trip. I thought of not going to Baumé at all, but decided to set aside my embarrassment and put “food first.” I know, how brave of me… *wink*
To my relief, the restaurant was cozy and rather casual- perfectly Californian. Unlike those handful of restaurants on the opposite coast with two Michelin stars (Corton, Gilt, Gordon Ramsay, Kajitsu, Marea, etc), it was casual enough to have a sofa by the front which was identical to the one I used to have in my apartment in New York. I thought the hostess was gracious and fit the vibe of the restaurant, but the dinner service was a bit stiff. What did stand out though, was the food. Chef Bruno Chemel, who was most recently the Executive Chef at Chez TJ (contemporary French in Mountain View), impressed us throughout the evening. I didn’t love every dish, but his flavors were very clear and beautifully balanced. I liked the progression of the courses, thought they were paced well, and overall we had a wonderful evening.
We started with a small fig and pistachio focaccia, followed by a frozen dollop of yuzu to get us prepped for what was to be a memorable dinner. A pretty plate of miniature root vegetables and goat cheese pearls appeared next, which reminded Kevin and I of Manresa where a few years ago Chef David Kinch gave us what looked like a small garden that included edible “dirt.” Chef Chemel’s “dirt” provided a nice texture contrast to the root vegetables but I didn’t care for the dish too much. The bread service was not amazing and again, the French Echire butter they served had us thinking back to Manresa where we learned that their butter was house made, using the milk from a cow named Betty who lived a short distance away (chuckle, chuckle).
The next course was aptly named “caviar farfait” and it was gorgeous as well as delicious. I’m sure we could have asked about each of the components of the dish but we just ate and enjoyed what was presented in front of us. I did take a few minutes to admire the vessel it came in, the colors of each of the layers, and thought it was almost too pretty to eat.
Next up was what was called a “62 degree egg” with French green lentils and vermouth sabayon. I love eggs and I think it’s very difficult to make good eggs. This well seasoned, prepared, and presented dish made me very happy. But again, if I have to put it against the memorable/unbelievable/famous/work-of-art egg creation at Manresa, Chef Kinch gets my vote. Next came an “autumn salad,” which I didn’t find too special but on the table at this time was a clear tea pot with a small candle underneath that helped infuse mushrooms into the dark consume that was to be our next course. The resulting brown liquid, gray mushroom puree, and pale slices of maitake mushrooms didn’t look very pretty, but it tasted like all the world’s mushrooms were condensed into that little bowl. It was very intense. We continued with gently cooked turbo with pumpkin scales, in a broth that had beautifully balanced Thai flavors with hints of kaffir limes, lemongrass, and coconut. The firmness of the turbo surprised me (not in a good way) but the flavors were all there and I thought the presentation of this dish was by far the most beautiful of the evening.
Next came tender and delicate Maine lobster (delectable), a palate cleanser of green apple in three forms (sorbet, raw cubes, and powder) before moving on to the meat courses. I really liked the suckling pig but Kevin thought it should be richer; we both agreed that the venison dish with chestnut cream was absolutely wonderful. The cheese course had us nibbling on Vallee D’Aspe, a raw goat’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees and Le Coulommiers, a cow’s milk cheese from Seine-et-Marne. For dessert there was an incredible rocky road ice cream, which we assumed the chef prepared using liquid nitrogen, that had a crispy crunch, a shock of chewy coldness, and soft morsels of marshmallows in each bite. I was disappointed by the small madeleines with passion fruit and guava, but the macadamia mochi was wonderful to pop in the mouth as we finished our meal.
We couldn’t help comparing our experience at Baumé with our five-hour-marathon gourmand tasting at Manresa. While the meal at Manresa remains as one of the best dining experiences of my life, Kevin and I agree that Baumé measured up nicely and our meal was great. Chef Chemel is undoubtedly talented, and deserves all the recognition and success coming his way.
Baumé: 201 S. California Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94306 Tel: 650.328.8899
Manresa: 320 Village Ln., Los Gatos, CA 95030 Tel: 408.354.4330
Pho Queen Noodle House: 1133 Tasman Dr., Sunnyvale, CA 94089
Gombei: multiple locations but our favorite is in Menlo Park. 1438 El Camino Real., Menlo Park, CA 94025
La Costeña: 2078 Old Middlefield Way., Mountain View, CA
GocHi: 19980 E Homestead Rd., Cupertino, CA 95014