Plumed Horse – Worthy Overhaul and No Bargains

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(This review appeared in South Bay Accent in May, 2008.)

The reborn Plumed Horse in downtown Saratoga defines how the concept of “luxury” has changed in the past half century. First opened in the early ‘50s in a location once reputed to be a stable for cart horses, this venerable spot coasted along for years as a pricey purveyor of Continental cuisine. Back in the day, this used to be what fancy food looked like: a limited repertoire of rich, “European” recipes like pepper steak, lobster bisque, Beef Wellington and other preparations that often involved furious tableside preparation by tuxedoed waiters straight out of an old New Yorker cartoon. During the era of cheap gas and small tv sets, the Plumed Horse was non plus ultra.

It was a measure of how well the restaurant executed this concept – and its surprisingly large bar clientele — that it lasted and lasted well after Continental food’s trajectory had fallen. But time seems to catch up with everything eventually, so enter a quartet of new owners with big ambitions and deep pockets in early 2007. Careful application of multiple millions have catapulted the old spot squarely into the new millennium. And then some.

Yesterday’s dark, stuffy dining room is now pure understated elegance, with microsuede chairs, exotic woods, vaulted ceiling, fiber-optic chandeliers and a vertigo-inducing, three-story glass wine cellar. But the smartest investment was in chef Peter Armellino, who is living up to his star-studded resume from notable establishments like San Francisco’s Aqua, Jardiniere and Campton Place. His menu has the usual luxury ingredients – caviar, foie gras, truffles and the like – but in his creative hands, the dishes often surprise and delight. Like an inspired surf and quack starter pairing perfectly seared scallops topping creamy pumpkin subtly flavored with smoked paprika along with smoked duck and dots of violet mustard.

Similar in theme is sautéed abalone set off with thin, super-rich slices of heirloom pork belly. Armellino shows his skill range, from his packed-with-flavor raw fish offerings – say, tuna with chilies and crispy shallots accented by a perfumed bergamot glaze – to deeply flavorful broths like duck bouillon poured around foie gras, chestnut ravioli, sautéed parsnips and a truffle-poached egg. Salads are tasty, can be a tad oversalted, cost upwards of $12 and feature fruit and protein, such as persimmon salad on arugula with warm goat cheese fondue.

Entrees show the same creative hand and high-ticket prices. A lovely pan-roasted squab delivers succulent, full-flavor meat nicely accented by tart-sweet huckleberry jus. Richly meaty, perfectly cooked tuna is intelligently paired with a sweet, exotic carrot-shiso vinaigrette, earthy matsutaki mushrooms and pickled eggplant. Meanwhile, Scottish salmon gets a sweet-tart tamarind sauce, sweet and sour onions and nutty, tasty carmelized cauliflower.

Heirloom pork breeds are making a worthy comeback, so try Armellino’s roast trio of pork – shoulder, chop and leg – to get a transporting mouthful of wonderfully tasty meat. Or just go directly to the 21-day dry-aged New York steak, whose quality speaks for itself. Armellino wisely keeps things simple with just a little yuzu butter and serves tempura shallots and broccolini on the side.

Desserts are also unexpected, delicious and not cheap. Valrhona Chocolate Divina is delightfully non-ubiquitous, consisting of an intense bittersweet chocolate log, salted caramel cannoli and just-right orange foam. Other choices show off chocolate or fruit in tasty ways.

The new owners aren’t finished tinkering in order to cement the reborn Plumed Horse as a serious destination restaurant. They’ll be upgrading the award-winning wine cellar so it has more to offer than the Bordeaux, trophy cabernets and other old-school libations that fit well in yesteryears. They’ll be adding heralded new varietals and deepening the overall selections.

Some of the old luxury touches remain, like the plentiful staff and tendency toward tableside flourishes. But the opulently refurbished bar (separate menu served there) , champagne cart, caviar service, chef’s table and other high-end additions make it clear what the new ownership has in mind for the Plumed Horse. Hopefully, those patrons that were underdressed in jeans and t-shirts (for the record, this is just WRONG) will realize the prevailing theme here, too.

One element that harkens back to the old days is the fact that dining at the new Plumed Horse is an expensive undertaking. Several bite-sized and delicious chef’s gifts during the meal help blunt the shock when the bill arrives, but the reality is that this ambitious restaurant is now one of the most costly in the South Bay. After all, luxury is expensive.

The Plumed Horse, 14555 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, (408) 867-4711, http://www.plumedhorse.com

HOURS: Dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. nightly. Reservations recommended.

PRICES: Starters, $9-25; entrees, $32-39; desserts, $9. Five-course tasting menus, $90; $80 for vegetarian.

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