So I was thrilled when Bon Vivant Cafe opened in downtown Palo Alto last summer. The space is restaurant nouveau: part art gallery, part bistro, part fine-dining establishment. As of this writing, the walls are adorned with the colorful, geometric works of Russian painter Andrey Anisimov for viewing and for purchase.
The high-quality fare is a mosaic of colors, flavors and textures as well. The food has swagger. Prices are high, though. Salads run $11 to $13; appetizers are $15 to $19 except for an $8 soup du jour; and the four or five entrees are $20 to $29. On the other hand, desserts are a sensational $6 to $10, and the wine list is well composed and comfortably priced.
Unfortunately, the waitstaff hasn't been properly trained. During my visits, servers were fairly clueless about ingredients and had to make multiple runs to the kitchen for answers. Plates were snatched up before all the diners were finished: a fundamental blunder in any fine-dining establishment.
The waitstaff couldn't sell the food and the menu offered little in the way of narrative. The charcuterie plate, for example, gave no description at all other than $18: not much incentive for the diner. Ditto the wine list. I was told the servers hadn't tasted most of the wines.
Where's the attention to detail that justifies the prices? What is polished in the kitchen is dulled by the rest of the dining experience. It's too bad, because beautiful plates are being conceived and executed with impeccable timing.
The menu is ever-evolving. On consecutive nights, the kitchen might vary the ingredients of the same dish. For instance, the foie gras appetizer was served with fried brioche, peaches, frisee and black truffle one night. Another night it was with sauteed apples, frisee, truffle oil and trimmed toast points. Prices can vary evening to evening as well. Not a problem; it was all memorably delicious.
Lavender celeriac soup with leek straws ($8) was creamy, sweet, fragrant and delicate. The lavender was no more than a hint, a quick kiss that lingered without memory. The celeriac, also known as celery root, was lush with a slight woody taste.
The first-course scallops ($18) had been sauteed with lardons and were served atop snappy frisee and sauced with an acidic citrus glaze, giving great balance to the plate.
The charcuterie plate ($18) consisted of Russian czar salami (smoked beef and pork), a French cured smoked duck sausage, smoked duck breast, a dry pork salami, toast points, cornichons and coarse-grain mustard. It was an artful presentation of tasty meats. Had I not been reviewing, though, the lack of menu description would not have piqued my interest.
Entrees were all delicious. The filet of striped sea bass ($24) sat atop a pool of celeriac puree while flecks of anchovies, bits of olives, whole capers, chunks of potato and strips of sauteed pimiento complemented.
The duck breast portion ($26) was generous and accompanied with confit of carrot, creamy polenta, fried Brussels-sprouts petals, pomegranate seeds and thin strips of sauteed plum. We ordered the duck on consecutive visits and had a slightly different but totally satisfying version each time.
The vegetarian special ($20) was a mouthwatering combination of creamy polenta, fried leeks, sauteed mushrooms and Brussels sprouts tossed with a few leaves of frisee. It was a rewarding, nourishing dish.
Desserts were special. The pumpkin pot de creme ($8) with whipped cream, candied pumpkin seeds and gingersnap cookies was mousse-like and simply glorious: something I wanted to bathe in.
The crepes Suzettes ($10) were thin, sweet and buttery, with fresh grated orange, Grand Marnier and candied orange peel. This longtime French-restaurant standby has been refined and updated to dazzling heights.
The delicious chocolate duo ($8) was a tulip bowl-shaped chocolate truffle torte filled with a rich ganache swirl and a cup of Guittard dark hot chocolate.
The most spectacular dessert was the boite de baies (box of berries, $10). It was literally a box made of pure chocolate filled with blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, in a vanilla custard, over a layer of sponge cake, with white chocolate straws, all held together with a red ribbon. That was the wow dish.
My heart beats faster when I think of French cooking. At Bon Vivant Cafe, the diner is rewarded with first-class cuisine but the waitstaff needs educating and a more intelligible menu would help.
Does the food justify the prices? Depends on how much you love French cooking.
Bon Vivant Cafe
535 Bryant St.
Lunch: Tue.-Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: Tue.-Thu. and Sun. 5-9:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Outdoor dining: no
Private parties: yes
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: very good