High-end dining typically has a French accent. Peruse the stars bestowed by the Michelin folks and it’s clear that the majority of top chefs cook with the rigor and refinement found in French cuisine, even if their menus don’t have “French” written anywhere. The mouth-watering reality of a lovely piece of protein enhanced by a luscious sauce — the essence of this cuisine — has appeal whether in a formal, white-tablecloth dining room or a casual neighborhood bistro. It’s easy to understand why eaters enjoy such cooking — “French food is very, very delicious,” explains chef Scott Cooper of Le Papillon in San Jose.
Indeed. So what’s the current state of French dining in the South Bay, given the fact that a surging local economy is producing a slew of new eateries of all kinds across the region? Our best guides are some of the talented chefs who serve French or French-inspired food to happy South Bay diners and closely track dining trends as a part of doing business. Below, they explain how foodies and everyday eaters are currently responding to this venerable cuisine and what we might see in the future when it comes to French dining options.
One dose of cold water for all these savvy chefs is the belief a few years back — that is, when residents and local companies had less money to throw around — that French food in the Bay Area might have become (zut alors!) passé given the dearth of new restaurant openings compared to other kinds of cuisine. While Italian eateries, Asian cafes, sushi joints, pizzerias and other such dining options seemed to be their own growth industry, one just didn’t see lots of new French spots appearing.
Thankfully, things have changed in the last few years, spearheaded by a mini-renaissance of French bistros in some major cities like Los Angeles and New York that boast well-heeled diners seeking the newest thing — even if it’s an old thing. Our neighbor San Francisco has been leading the charge, with renowned chefs opening casual boîtes such as Monsieur Benjamin, Urchin Bistrot, Les Clos and Sous Beurre to great acclaim.
As Cooper explains it, “French food is becoming more popular. It seemed like 10 years ago, every restaurant that opened was Italian inspired.” Only the most diehard pasta lover wouldn’t admit that the South Bay saw an overabundance of such eateries open — and many close — in recent years so now diners are rediscovering French cooking, he believes.
“Classic techniques are classic techniques and while the pendulum may swing away from them for a little while, that’s how (good) food has been made for a long time,” according to Cooper, who has been turning out wonderful-to-look-at-and-eat cuisine for 22 years at his respected fine-dining establishment.
Newer French bistros in the South Bay include Zola and Pastis in Palo Alto and chefs insist they won’t be the last to appear on the scene. Notes Cooper: “I think you will see more start opening as the economy continues to improve.”
Another positive trend when it comes to French dining is how new audiences are learning about the gustatory delights of such food. Gallic cuisine “is somewhat new to younger diners,” Cooper says. “The millennials — the 20- and 30-somethings — haven’t had a lot of classic French food around. They’re discovering that now. I’ve been noticing for awhile that our clientele is younger and younger; from the Yelp generation.”
While having young guests Instagramming and blogging about their plates during dinner can be annoying for restaurateurs, it’s become de rigueur in our media-centric age and having new audiences appreciate French cooking is what keeps doors open. At fine-dining mainstay Chez TJ in Mountain View, chef Jarad Gallagher not only is seeing foodie patrons photograph their entree but, “I’d say that 60 percent of the diners here, at Manresa, Plumed Horse and similar restaurants are Asian,” he reports.
“You come into my dining room, it’s 60 percent. I don’t know if French food would exist now if it weren’t for the growing Asian appreciation for fine food. If you’re outside Silicon Valley, you don’t understand the amount of diversity. It’s like the United Nations here.”
While Gallagher acknowledges that the recent upsurge in bistros and brasseries — everyday French restaurants, that is — is great for French dining in general, his heart lies in creating the kind of painstaking, exciting, contemporary cuisine that wows sophisticates, critics and Michelin inspectors. For chefs like him, “The great part about being in fine dining is that we are the ones that set the trends. That’s why I work in fine dining”, he explains.
He thrives on the challenge implicit in a sphere of dining where expenses for food and labor are high and chefs compete for patrons, awards and even ingredient sources. “I was on a waiting list for two years to get the squab that I use,” Gallagher reveals.
While “the concept in the majority of American restaurants is maximization and table turns,” according to Gallagher, in his world, it’s all about creating pyrotechnics in the mouth through quality and creativity. “I have to stay relevant. (Diners) need to see new things and new techniques that they can’t do at home. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
In his mind, sublime food is just one element that defines a high-end French restaurant. “When you’re paying exorbitant prices for fine dining, you’re not just paying for the food,” says Gallagher. “It’s the Christofle silver, the crystal glassware, the service, the sommelier, the manager, the way the food is presented — before you even taste the cuisine.”
A few miles north in Palo Alto, young French-American chef Guillaime Bienaimé, who earlier helmed fine-dining establishment Marché, is focusing on a different sphere of French eating. “Culturally, it’s been ingrained in us that French food is expensive. Caviar and foie gras. That’s the stereotype that I want to fight,” he explains. After all, French people themselves don’t consume seven-course tasting menus every night and sit at the table for three hours.
But that doesn’t mean the kitchen at Zola, his year-old bistro, isn’t focused on quality. He carefully sources his ingredients and turns out California-influenced cuisine that riffs on French classics in a fresh way. But doing this in a casual bistro with approachable prices took some effort, he admits.
“The problem with French food is that it relies on protein,” explains Bienaimé. “There’s no pizza, there’s no pasta. Italians can put an $18 pasta on the menu and it’s got a great margin; it’s cheap for the customer. Everybody’s happy. In French food, you really can’t do that because we don’t have those options. Everything’s a piece of filet and a sauce.”
His solution was in staying away from the super-costly ingredients that drive up menu prices. Zola serves flounder, not lobster, and hanger steak, not filet mignon. After all, people savor French cuisine because of the great-tasting results, not the specific ingredients. Any foodie will tell you that French cooking techniques are what underlie superb cooking and that’s what chefs learn in culinary school.
“Every fine-dining chef is a French chef,” Bienaimé says. “There may be different influences but it’s all French food. Even clam chowder is a velouté. Mac and cheese is béchamel. And so on.”
The great news for South Bay eaters is the growing supply — and diversity — of French restaurants these days. There are haute cuisine haunts like Chez TJ, Le Papillon, Baumé in Palo Alto and other fine-dining destinations that deliver an appropriate venue for special occasions and slipping on the Jimmy Choos. Meanwhile, our region has long happily supported a handful of classic eateries that have been serving the same French comfort food for years. And there are the newer spots like Zola that bridge the gap, with freshness and creativity applied to familiar dishes.
“In the general culture, French food will keep moving forward,” asserts Bienaimé. Yes, indeed. So here’s a list of dining options to help you rediscover this exciting, satisfying, sometimes decadent cuisine in the South Bay in all its glory.
BauméOne of just two South Bay restaurants that have earned a pair of Michelin stars, Baumé is the laboratory of talented, French-born chef Bruno Chemel, who initially played around with molecular gastronomy but now just uses its space-age equipment to produce amazing dishes without the tell. Chemel has drastically shrunk both the number of tables and the number of courses in his little jewel-box of a restaurant in South Palo Alto while his complex, remarkably light, always exciting food just gets better and better. 201 California Ave., Palo Alto; (650) 328-8899; http://www.baumerestaurant.com
Le Buzz: In an era of ear-splitting decibels, this French oasis is quiet and trés elegant.
Plat du Jour: The costly, eight-course dinner tasting menu features signature dishes like airy French turbot and the 62-degree egg with sabayon.
Chez TJServing fine French cuisine in a cute Victorian house since 1982, Chez TJ proudly holds a longtime Michelin star and under current chef Jarad Gallagher, offers well-crafted, contemporary food made from elegant ingredients like foie gras, caviar and Wagyu beef. The dishes are gorgeous and inventive while attempting to wow with luxury. Patrons reflect the location in bustling Silicon Valley, with lots of business diners during the week and special-occasion parties kicking back on weekends. 938 Villa St,, Mountain View; (650) 964-7466; http://www.cheztj.com
Le Buzz: Attentive, high-end service is a key focus here and guests typically keep their table for the whole evening.
Plat du Jour: Diners can luxuriate in a 12-to-14-course tasting menu or seven-course “seasonal menu” featuring ingredients grown less than 100 miles from the restaurant.
Le PapillonThis enduringly popular restaurant, which opened in the late ’70s, might have longtime fans but it has never rested on its laurels, continually updating the decor, cuisine and service to stay pleasingly contemporary. Chef Scott Cooper is a wizard at blending new American cuisine with traditional French cooking, presenting his plates like little works of art. Examples include a very modern rendition of Burgundian snails, sturgeon Wellington with wild mushrooms, and up-to-the-minute souffles. 410 Saratoga Ave., San Jose; (408) 296-3730; http://www.lepapillon.com
Le Buzz: Elegant and quiet but not stuffy, the restaurant has nailed the art of pampering guests.
Plat du Jour: Besides a lengthy à la carte menu featuring sublime seasonal ingredients like live Pacific spot prawns, there’s a seven-course tasting menu.
La ForêtDecades of satisfied diners — many still visiting — have made this stalwart of classic French food (with a little Continental thrown in) enduring beloved. “Timeless” is a much-used description but it’s hard to beat the location, tucked into a wooded corner of New Almaden over a creek where deer might wander by during the drive up or back. Picture windows take advantage of the lovely setting and guests can pretend they’re at a French country estate circa 1955. Service is warmly attentive and this restaurant surely has a monopoly on special-occasion dining in South San Jose. 21747 Bertram Rd., San Jose; (408) 997-3458; http://www.laforetrestaurant.com
Le Buzz: Romantic in spades, La Forêt is also calm and relaxing. Savvy fans know getting a table isn’t usually difficult during the week.
Plat du Jour: Both the à la carte and tasting menus are proudly old school, with rich, lavishly applied sauces and signature dishes running to items like Grand Marnier souffle.
MORE CASUAL DINING
Left BankPeople watching at a bustling brasserie is a check-off item for anyone visiting Paris. San Francisco white-tablecloth chef Roland Passot decided to duplicate this concept at his currently three Left Banks, which might be a mini-chain but does a decent job of capturing the Parisian magic without busting le wallet. Between the two South Bay locations, Santana Row is larger and better looking than the Menlo Park version but the menu is much the same at both. Guests say that the slow service adds to the French authenticity. 377 Santana Row #1100, San Jose; (408) 984-3500; and 635 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park; (650) 473-6543; http://www.leftbank.com
Le Buzz: The energetic, noisy environment is like a real Parisian brasserie while the outdoor tables also add to the gestalt.
Plat du Jour: The classic menu runs to oysters, escargot, French onion soup, roast chicken and the like but both location also feature French regional dishes, wines and cheeses.
La Mère MichelleThis family-owned and run restaurant has been around for decades, where the French-Canadian matriarch, Michelle, is also the greeter and majordomo. Her son is the chef and the menu has mainly stayed in the classic French realm — oldies like escargots with butter, garlic and Pernod — except for the addition of some American favorites like Maine lobster and several steaks. Reminders of this restaurant’s Frenchness show up in the old-school sauces. Generations of loyal families and other diners have helped La Mère Michelle endure in a difficult business. 14467 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; (408) 867-5272; http://www.lameremichelle.com
Le Buzz: The old-world decor seems close to original but the environment is charming and quiet.
Plat du Jour: The classic French menu is surprisingly large, augmented with occasional surprises like saltimbocca and a nicely done schnitzel.
La Maison du CafeAround a couple of decades, this small hideaway might have a nonsensical name for French speakers (the owner/chef is from Michoacan ) but longtime customers like the classic cooking and unhurried atmosphere. Located in the corner of a strip mall, this eatery is one of the less pricey French spots around and features candles, flowers and a touch of romance without the ear-splitting noise so often found at other Los Gatos restaurants. Those who like old-school French cooking with butter and cream will go away happy. 14103 Winchester Blvd. #C, Los Gatos; (408) 378-2233; http://www.lamaisonlosgatos.com
Le Buzz: The decor is simple and homey, with thoughtful service and a mellow atmosphere that makes some fans feel like they’re dining in a private residence.
Plat du Jour: The menu features French classics with some pasta choices and none of the luxury ingredients that can drive up prices. The duck in fruit sauce is particularly popular.
ZolaIn a town that’s chock-a-block with eateries, year-old Zola has managed to attract an eagerly appreciative crowd that swoons over owner/chef Guillaume Bienaimé’s fresh, creative bistro menu that’s still grounded in the classics. Noisy and friendly, just like a real Parisian bistro, this small restaurant manages to deliver moderate prices via Bienaimé’s avoidance of pricey foodstuffs — you’ll find flounder, not lobster, and hanger steak, not filet mignon. But no corners are cut in the execution, which displays modern approaches to lip-smacking French cuisine. 565 Bryant St., Palo Alto; (650) 521-0651; www.zolapaloalto.com
Le Buzz: Zola’s popularity can make unscheduled drop-ins problematic but insiders know that the two little outdoor tables in front are for those without reservations.
Plat du Jour: Everything is delicious here but particularly killer are the gnocchi, vegetable sides, seafood entrees and reinvented chocolate mousse.
Bon VivantThose hankering for French bistro food who can’t get into Zola need only walk up half a block to this spot, which has been around for a few years now and often has tables available. The huge glass windows in front bathe the attractive dining room in light and there are several sidewalk tables as well. A few costlier ingredients like foie gras are used here and the prices move upwards a tad from what’s down the street. The menu is larger than that at Zola, as is the interior space, while the cuisine reflects the classics starring seasonal ingredients. 535 Bryant St., Palo Alto; (650) 485-3228; http://www.bonvivantdining.com
Le Buzz: Pretty, quiet and romantic, this is a pleasant spot to people watch and savor French bistro food.
Plat du Jour: The surprisingly extensive menu has highlights like “foie gras peach melba,” braised rabbit and a seriously tasty mushroom tart.
PastisThere’s a bistro cluster in South Palo Alto similar to what’s on Bryant Street downtown and this newest entrant is a hit. Owned by a pair of Frenchmen, Pastis (named for the fiery beverage consumed in Southern France) is tiny, cute, with a Parisian vibe and seems to have been colonized by the French speakers in town, including the servers. In its tight table spacing, noise and bustle, it’s authentic. Given that there’s another French bistro next door that also has sidewalk tables and a classic menu, this is the street to get a healthy helping of Frenchness. 447 California Ave., Palo Alto; (650) 324-1355; http://www.pastispaloalto.com
Le Buzz: This bistro’s popularity and petite-ness make reservations a wise move. Like its neighbor, Pastis draws an enormous crowd for lunch and brunch, too.
Plat du Jour: French classics fill the menu, including four iterations of mussels. Particularly popular is frisée salad with poached egg and lardons — crispy pieces of pork.
Cafe BriocheAround since the ’90s, this neighborhood gem helped bring French bistro food to Palo Alto’s second downtown and has even withstood recent direct competition next door from Pastis. Cafe Brioche is cuter, with buttery faux walls and the obligatory huge French posters, with colorful Provençal fabrics covering tables. Prices aren’t too different between the two spots while Cafe Brioche occasionally adds a soupçon of California to the classic menu, such as hazelnut-crusted salmon with merlot-blackberry coulis. 445 California Ave., Palo Alto; (650) 326-8640; www. cafebrioche-paloalto.com
Le Buzz: This charming French bistro seems to always be open, from breakfast to dinner, with swarms of patrons keen on Sunday brunch, whose menu is enormous.
Plat du Jour: The menu is classically French — cassoulet, boeuf Bourguignon, steak frites, bouillabaisse, coq au vin and the like. For a rich mouthful, try the fritters filled with artichoke hearts, shallots, herbs and goat cheese.