Dining at Baumé is a tasty, unusual adventure with just enough kitchen pyrotechnics to elevate it well above other restaurants.
This serene, modern French restaurant in Palo Alto beckons to jaded foodies
(This review was published in South Bay Accent in April 2011.)
Although we’re blessed to live in one of the world’s great food regions, it’s also easy to get jaded here. The menus from the Bay Area’s many high-end restaurants seem to blur together after awhile, with one exquisite dish made from fresh, local ingredients seeming much like the next one — albeit all of them delicious. And then there’s Baumé.
Rather than the usual menu, this small, elegant, one-year-old restaurant in South Palo Alto gives diners a list of ingredients that are transmogrified into eight- or 12-course meals that are not only scrumptious but playful and surprising. This ingredient list, which changes with the seasons and the kitchen’s whimsy, might include the usual luxury items like foie gras and caviar but could also feature less hoity-toity elements such as Fairytale pumpkin, coconibs and green apple.
Baumé was named after an 18th century French chemist and although chef Bruno Chemel calls his food “French cuisine moderne,” what he offers is the only super-sized dose of molecular gastronomy in the region. His kitchen sends out flavor pearls and spheres, cleverly deconstructs dishes using modern equipment and serves foams made with liquid nitrogen. In its first months, Baume poured on the kitchen chemistry a bit beyond suburban diners’ comfort zone, such as frozen licorice foam that turns to smoke in the mouth. But now the pyrotechnics are well under control — just enough to make dining at the restaurant a tasty adventure. Owner-chef Bruno Chemel keeps his kitchen well stocked with liquid nitrogen
According to Chemel, he and his cooking team “are having fun in the kitchen” and that’s his goal for his guests as well. When paired with Baumé’s popularity, this is certainly more enjoyable for him than his last gig. He exited with acrimony as executive chef at Chez TJ’s because the restaurant lost one of its two Michelin stars after Chemel replaced wunderkind Christopher Kostow. Now in his own place, Chemel is making his food, his way.
And masterful it is. Although the menu is always changing, Chemel’s inventiveness and spot-on technique envelop each exciting morsel. Say, in a porcelain spoon holding a bite of carrot, miso and yuzu in an amuse bouche that marries sweet, tart and umami. Throughout the well-paced meal comes a bread service that evolves with the cuisine. It might begin with bitty individual bamboo steamers containing a perfect leek and truffle-filled steam bun, later shape-shifting into house-made walnut bread served with “chocolives,” which look like chocolate bonbons but are actually deeply savory schmeers derived from Kalamata olives.
Riffing on the longtime popularity of beets and goat cheese, Chemel serves colorful baby beets with aged balsamic and intriguing spices crowned with goat cheese spheres that pop in the mouth, releasing rich dairy goodness. Most meals include some form of his can’t-remove-it-from-the-menu 62-degree egg, which is cooked low and slow until the yolk becomes a silky molten orb that effectively sauces accompaniments like slices of earthy sunchokes with a crispy, ambrosial potato-trumpet mushroom croquette.
Foie gras here is typically served with something sweet reflecting the season. A winter iteration paired the incredibly rich seared liver with quince and ylang-ylang spheres whose jasmine-like flavor had been goosed faintly with cinnamon. It was novel and utterly delicious, particularly with the savory crunch of the pumpkin seeds on top.
Among Chemel’s latest pet ingredients is Gigha halibut, sustainably raised in Scotland. Recently, this snowy, super-moist fish was lightly stuffed and enhanced by an ethereal citrus foam. Another favorite foodstuff is grass-fed beef, cooked sous vide to rosy perfection and often perched over a little river of truffle jus. Winter accompaniments might be a bite-sized savory pastry or sweet caramelized cipollini onion. And, of course, another avant-garde bread service.
After an interesting cheese course accompanied by playful honey spheres on watercress came an even more uncommon creation: a pre-dessert amuse that topped a Lilliputian carrot with diced walnuts and raisins with a drop of yuzu foam — the total effect was like carrot cake from Mars.
When Chemel exited Chez TJ’s after his tiff with the owner, he took several staff members with him. One of them is talented pastry chef Ryan Shelton, whose unconventional, wily creations keep pace with the earlier courses. One winter creation was moist pumpkin cake topped with cranberry gelée and ginger-apple sorbet. During the peak produce months, his fruit assemblages are beyond brilliant. Say, a deconstructed version of peach melba featuring a glass of vanilla cream in which fruit pearls wait to pop in the mouth. Like his boss, Shelton delights in the unconventional but never stumbles into Willy Wonka territory.
Although Baume’s prices — topping out at $248 for a 12-course dinner with wine pairings — put it into the special-occasion category, even the most blasé diners get their money’s worth here. After the amuse bouche, numerous courses, the intermezzo, bread service, mignardise and final sweet gift, guests are repeatedly delighted and surprised but assuredly not stuffed.
Service is considerably less playful than the food, but perhaps that’s appropriate. Chemel might want his guests to lighten up and have fun but a meal here has the same atmosphere as any of the storied, destination French dining spots lauded by foodies, with quiet attention paid to the wizardry on the plate.
Although Chemel hasn’t succeeded in his desire to replace serious French dining with giggles and fun, he still gets the last laugh in another area. After the Michelin folks came to town again most recently, his new restaurant earned an impressive star — just like Chez TJ’s did.
UPDATE: After revisiting Baumé in September of 2011, it was immediately clear that Chemel hadn’t been on autopilot since my visit eight months earlier — despite the fact that his restaurant was a quick success. The food was even better, more subtle, showing the deep technique and confidence of a chef in his prime. The three-round bread service had been dropped (not such a bad plan, although the house-made breads served were excellent) and every course was a stop-conversation masterpiece. Looks like Chemel’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed: Michelin just gave him a second star, among just six awarded in the region.
Baumé, 201 S. California Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 328-8899, www.baumerestaurant.com
HOURS: Lunch, Friday only, 11:30-1; dinner, Wednesday-Sunday; first seating, 5:30-6:30; second seating, 8-9. Reservations strongly recommended.
PRICES: Lunch, $58 and $98. Dinner, $118 (8 courses) and $168 (12 courses). Wine pairings also available.