(To be published by South Bay Accent magazine.)
Damning a serious restaurant as “too expensive” is as common as breadsticks at Olive Garden — whose prices seem to be what such self-appointed critics somehow expect for cutting-edge cuisine. However, savvier diners understand that meals at such exalted food temples with their precious ingredients and squads of culinary school grads aren’t about full tummies but rather delivering a unique experience, which doesn’t come cheap. The South Bay has recently acquired one of these rarified dining spots, modeled on Napa Valley’s three-star French Laundry, no less.
Protégé in South Palo Alto opened last March and does an excellent job dialing down the $325-per-person French Laundry experience to a more approachable level. Present are the efficient, attentive but never-intrusive service, understated, modern environment, wow-factor wine list, internet-only reservations (plan well ahead) and impeccable food. Unlike the Laundry, however, Protégé has a full bar and lounge serving a meticulously crafted à la carte menu. On the dining room side, four courses go for $120, having climbed along with the stock market from the original $85.
Why emulate the Laundry? Besides its widely acknowledged excellence, this world-renowned restaurant was the earlier employer of Protégé’s two owners (funded by 50 investors), chef Anthony Secviar and Dennis Kelly, one of just 273 people worldwide achieving the Master Sommelier title. The pair seems to have succeeded, with the most common adjective of Protégé guests being “amazing,” even if many of them have defaulted to the 40-seat lounge after failing to secure a spot in the 20-seat dining room. People are usually lined up before opening to snag one of the 10 no-reservations seats at the bar. And the French tire folks have definitely noticed this new spot, giving it its first Michelin star after less than a year in business.
Those who won’t plan ahead will miss out when it comes to Protégé, which requires going online and hoping a reservation might be available, which likely won’t be the case for prime weekend times, particularly in the dining room. The restaurant advises that their online reservations can be made “up to 30 days in advance” but very-early or very-late diners will have an easier time getting seats in either part of the restaurant. Trying to reserve beyond the next month isn’t possible through the online software. However, like the Laundry, cancelling less than 48 hours in advance will cost $50-plus per person via the credit card required.
To say that contending with the reservation hassles is worth it to dine here is an understatement. For example, the lounge is quite a restaurant in its own right. The menu starts with “snacks,” which are a couple of bites each of remarkable creations like a playful “fish and chips” that’s luscious Hawaiian kampachi crudo with citrus and chile on a crisp cracker. Lush, gold-dusted hush puppies are filled with cheese and sometimes ham with creamy dressing on the side. A few guests have whined about the lack of complementary bread but the fluffy, buttery, house-made (as is everything) Parker House rolls with ribbons of extruded Strauss butter are well worth paying $5 for.
Appetizers portions are a little more sizeable but still petite in quantity, like pillowy, addictive riccota dumplings with seasonally rotated accompaniments, or remarkable, succulent octopus with picholine olives, creamy romesco sauce and other touches. The largest of a few entree choices is gorgeous “brick chicken,” which is actually a de-boned game hen cooked under a hot brick that produces juicy meat and crackling skin. As in all fine restaurants, the choices here change frequently and one unfortunate update is to the short ribs, which are now a few hunks of super-tender but fatty meat, which isn’t as compelling as the earlier rendition, in which perfect pastry encased the meat, Bordelaise sauce, sweet turnips and white asparagus.
A few expertly prepared desserts can be ordered from a towering cart, including vanilla custard-filled caneles that put the best of Paris to shame, various pies, seriously thick and soft cookies and a chocolate tart with all the bittersweet richness one could dream of. Servers suggest topping these treats with house-made ice cream, which goes for $8 per scoop.
Those fortunate souls who reserved a month or so in advance will swoon over their impeccable meal in the comfy, intimate dining room. In addition to the four ever-changing courses, a couple of small extra bites are whisked to the table and diners have a few choices on the prix fixe menu, which can spiral upward in price if one chooses, for example, white truffle lasagna ($65 supplement) or Wagyu ribeye ($75 supplement).
Specific dishes rotate with the seasons but expect to find luxury ingredients and meticulous preparations on anything offered, like a recent starter course pairing Dungeness crab and matsutake mushrooms or crusted John Dory filet topped with caviar. Naturally, that previously mentioned white truffle lasagna features porcini marmalade as well as fresh truffle shavings and is extraordinary. The desserts in the dining room come from the same source as those in the lounge — pastry chef Eddie Lopez is also a Laundry alumnus — but are more complex and even more delicious.
One of the extra courses served in the dining room is this divine cannoli filled with house-smoked salmon and preserved lemon, which faintly echoes one of the French Laundry’s most famous bites, salmon cornets.
Secviar and Kelly have imported some other Laundry approaches, such as the upcharges/supplements and lack of freebies — there’s even a charge for still water. However, for every patron grumbling over not getting a free birthday dessert (the staff offers a warm verbal congratulations instead), many more talk about Protégé’s Michelin worthiness, which did, indeed, happen.
In keeping with the top-drawer environment, the wine list is excellent and these bottles carry posh pricing. An aromatic Greek white that goes for $20 retail here costs $60. Good luck trying to find a bottle of an enticing red wine for less than three figures. Alas, the corkage charge is $75 but let’s put all this into perspective; the Laundry charges $150 for corkage and wine by the glass pricing up there in Yountville is as high as $105. Around $50 seems average there while $28 is the equivalent at Protégé.
Protégé’s look is modern, open and quietly elegant. Unlike the unfortunate norm, sound-absorbing materials make conversation enjoyable rather than the usual screaming match. This underscores the attention to detail seen in every part of this operation, which was a long time coming. Located near the eastern end of California Avenue, the restaurant took two years to realize after various permit issues and is situated in new construction in the spot that once held a trouble-prone underage nightclub. Given the Laundry pedigree of the owners, Protégé was one of the most-anticipated new restaurants in the region.
Some regional food critics have pointed to Protégé’s arrival in the area as a testament to the increasingly sophisticated tastes of South Bay residents who understand, indeed, that first-class food, wine and service will always cost much more than the check at a chain pizzeria and are happy to pony up the dollars involved. Food may be food but a dining experience can be priceless.
Seats in the small, intimate dining room are now the hardest-to-get reservation in the area.
Protégé, 250 California Ave., Palo Alto; (650) 494-4181. http://www.protegepaloalto.com
HOURS: 5-9:30, Tuesday-Thursday; 5-10, Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday. Reservations only available online in advance.
PRICES: Fixed-price dinner: $120. Lounge à la carte: Snacks, $4-25; appetizers, $15-19; entrees, $27-44.