Where star chefs shine
The dining experience glimmers at Chez TJ
Celestial stars are born in nebulae. Cooking stars are spawned at Chez TJ in Mountain View.
The restaurant's recent chef alumni include Christopher Kostow, who just earned three Michelin stars at Meadowood in Napa Valley; Joshua Skenes, with two stars at Saison in San Francisco; and Bruno Chemel, with two stars at Baume in Palo Alto.
Joey Elenterio, TJ's current mastermind in the kitchen, has not only earned his first Michelin star, but was also named one of the five Rising Stars for 2012 by the San Francisco Chronicle.
The man with the eye for all this talent is owner George Aviet, who, along with his late partner Thomas J. McCombie (the TJ), founded the restaurant 30 years ago in a house built in 1894 just off Castro Street in downtown Mountain View. The prix-fixe menu concept has remained the same over the years: a set price for multiple tasting courses. While prices have escalated over the decades, so has the complexity of the cuisine.
On a recent visit, I found the Menu Gastronomique priced at $85 for a four-course dinner with two options for each course, and the $120 Chef's Tasting Menu, eight courses with no options. (The kitchen, however, is very accommodating.)
The Menu Gastronomique is $140 paired with four wines, with the tasting menu priced at $195 when paired with wines.
We chose the Menu Gastronomique, which came with two additional amuse-bouches, a palate cleanser halfway through, and a post-dessert dessert — as if we needed a few hundred extra calories. Wines could be paired or chosen from the excellent wine list.
Spring and summer are notable at Chez TJ because much of the produce, and all the herbs, come from the restaurant's own adjacent garden.
There was no disappointment with any dish. Even the amuse-bouches were artistically wrought, complex and suggestive of what intrigues and rewards were yet to come.
Course one was a puree of spring onion and garlic, stinging nettle, mango, radish and tamarind. A hot, slightly foamy, pea-green puree was poured over chunks of fruit and pods tableside releasing an earthy aroma that was rain-forest fresh. I read somewhere that 90 percent of taste is smell. If so, I could have devoured this soup with my nose.
The other course-one dish was Hawaiian kampachi. The fish, which had been marinated in lemon and rose, was accompanied by at least nine other ingredients on the plate as if all the components were awaiting assembly. There was avocado puree, salsify, rose and a teaspoon of menthol. The plate resembled a spring bouquet with edible flowers sprinkled for good measure. So beautiful I wanted to photograph it — actually, I did.
The second course was a perfect rectangle of Hawaiian butter fish with mache and frisee, half a soft-boiled egg, Bosc pear and bacon, with drops of vanilla and sumac sauces. Poetry and art came to mind, but I gobbled the dish sans any artistic consideration.
The other second course offering was a gently crusted chunk of wild Alaskan halibut that was partially enveloped in foam with hints of corn and fava bean. Kelp-looking microgreens protruded from the foam, and toasted pistachios were crumbled over the plate. The combination was frothy and dreamy, like something fresh just reeled in. I appreciated the fish knife and sauce spoon that were set for the course.
Then, a wondrous little palate cleanser of creamy mango sorbet, just enough to reinvigorate the taste buds.
Next up was fork-tender Sonoma squab, a breast and confit of leg sauced with a squiggle of date ketchup mustard, whole dates, and a carrot-and-Brussels sprouts vegetable composition. It was a complex tapestry of flavors and aromas, with kisses of both saltiness and sweetness to the bird.
The other option was South Texas wild boar, three cuts: osso bucco, belly and sausage. Two sauces accompanied, a reduction from the braising and an asparagus puree. There were muscat grapes, kumquats, asparagus tips, freshly shucked English peas, pea tendrils, and tiny pools of pureed peas also on the plate. It was a mosaic of flavors both on the plate and on the tongue.
There was no letdown with pastry chef Denise Iida's desserts. The chocolate bread pudding had been reimagined with slices of sauteed banana, kinako (soybean flour), ancho chili, and sesame seeds suspended in a transparent brittle. It was dessert to linger over, savor and remember.
The butterscotch pot de creme was so good, I nearly became teary-eyed. It was a lush creamy pudding with roasted pineapple slices, mandarin and navel orange segments, cocoa nib brioche croutons, and roasted-pineapple sherbet. A spectacular dessert well worth getting fat over.
Chez TJ is an elegant dining experience. Being awarded a Michelin star extends beyond kitchen capability. The anonymous inspectors rate service, ambiance, wine list, upkeep, cleanliness: the attention to detail that separates the special from the good, the memorable from the predictable.
Joey Elenterio's star is in ascent. He has coupled technique and imagination with an intuition for aromas, textures and sublime tastes. His plates are artistic, tantalizing and eloquent. This is no accident — it came from long hours, hard work and diligence. Don't miss out.
938 Villa St., Mountain View
Dinner: Tue.-Thu. 5:30-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: wine and beer
Outdoor dining: no
Private parties: yes
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent