All aboard the pastry train

Voyageur du Temps Cafe offers epicurean escapes from vintage train station

On a given weekday morning in the heart of the Silicon Valley, traffic surges along major arteries and lines back up at Starbucks drive-throughs. Just a few miles away, there's a place that seems immune to the hustle and bustle: a spot where there's plenty of time to linger over breakfast.

Welcome to Voyageur du Temps, "Time Traveler," in French: a cafe devoted to la bonne vie, sans rush hour.

As much as it promises a journey, Voyageur offers an arrival. Housed in the 1913 craftsman-style Los Altos train station -- a setting ripe with both metaphorical and aesthetic charm -- Voyageur provides respite in the form of beautiful and bountiful French breads and pastries, specialty coffees and teas and a menu of more elaborate breakfasts, as well as a simple and elegant lunch and dinner menu.

Owner Rie Rubin grew up in Osaka, Japan. She's a full-steam-ahead type, with a background in tech at Amazon and Google and a passion for marketing, as well as for high-quality pastries and cafe cuisine.

A frequent international traveler, Rubin found that despite its wealth of immigrants from around the world, the Silicon Valley was missing the kind of cafes she loved in Europe and Asia: casual, family-friendly establishments that served superior baked goods, coffees and bistro food, prepared unhurriedly. After stepping away from her career to start a family, she found she needed a larger project; thus, Voyageur was born.

"Here on the West Coast, people tend to think a cafe is a dumbed-down restaurant, but it's not," she explained over coffee at Voyageur last week. "It should be sophisticated food in a slightly more casual atmosphere. I want immigrants to come here and say, 'Oh, yes, this tastes like the bread from home.'"

In naming her cafe, Rubin wanted to indicate a return to older, slower methods of food production and nod to the resurrection of a building that once served as a hub for the community.

Formerly a Los Altos Hills dweller and now a resident of Portola Valley, Rubin sees Los Altos as a family-oriented town, and Voyageur as a place for community gatherings.

A weekend visit confirms that Rubin's vision is being realized. Customers of all ages wait at the counter to place their orders, and the 3,000-square-foot space accommodates a small fleet of high-tech strollers. Younger visitors flock to the Western Pacific caboose out front, which houses an elaborate model train that winds its way around a whimsical diorama of the Bay Area, complete with the TransAmerica Pyramid and Coit Tower. For balmier days, there are benches made from wood salvaged from the depot's long-gone platform, as well as tables on the terrace beneath the trees: the perfect spot to sit and watch 21st-century Los Altos roll by.

Inside as out, this is a model renovation. Re-purposed redwood panels from Moffett Field's Hangar One line the walls and ceiling; aluminum chairs and sleek, modern tables complete the classic bistro look. There are artful touches: terrariums of succulents, an Eiffel Tower cutout gracing one wall.

No matter your age, it's fun to watch the pastry chefs, visible from the indoor dining area thanks to a floor-to-ceiling glass wall. In their long white aprons, they glide around the immaculate industrial kitchen, dusting loaves, rolling out sheets of velvety white dough and sliding jewel-like glazed fruit tarts onto the pastry racks. Head chef Nobu Hoyo is a former professional Japanese soccer player who left the sport to pursue a second career in the culinary arts. As part of the interview process, Rubin challenged him to bake her the perfect bread and croissant.

"His artisan bread was perfect, but his croissant was 85 percent, so I sent him off for further training," she explained.

Rubin is rightly proud of Voyageur's croissants, among them a pain au chocolat featuring Valrhona 70 percent chocolate, another flecked with matcha green tea and the piece de resistance: the croissant d'Échiré ($5), made with butter from the French village of Échiré: quite literally la crème de la crème. Its slightly sweet and translucent golden flakes give way to a seriously soft, elastic interior. I licked my fingers unabashedly and dabbed every last crumb from my plate.

On another visit, I lingered at the glass pastry case near the register, enjoying the samples (tangy sun-dried tomato and olive rustic bread, hearty cranberry chocolate walnut artisan loaf) and the sights before settling on the Voyageur Breakfast ($9): two soft-poached organic eggs, a small cup of seasonal fruits and four giant slices of shokupan.

What is shokupan, you ask? A breakfast favorite in Japan, shokupan is the most pillowy and satisfying white bread you're likely to find. By some miracle of pastry engineering, it's ridiculously light, yet moist and springy. In Voyageur's breakfast, it comes toasted to a golden brown, with a pat of unsalted butter and a dollop of strawberry jam. (The shokupan is sliced so thick, I ran out of spreads a bit soon and gazed around hopefully. Nobody noticed.)

A word about the service at Voyageur: The staff are uniformly young, eager, and at peak hours, palpably stressed. Given that the cafe officially opened in May of last year, they've had time to smooth out the bumps, but there's a lingering tone of panicky perfectionism. At one lunch visit, my kale and persimmon salad ($12) was a delightful blend of raw and crispy kale, its slight bitterness balanced by the sweetness of the fruit and the salty tang of Buddha's hand citrus vinaigrette. The salad came with a generous portion of crumbled gorgonzola, but without the advertised blue cheese beignets; my server was more distraught than I was. On another occasion, a customer requesting gluten-free options (yes, at a bakery) was met with a deer-in-the-headlights stare.

Yet it's hard to hold much against the friendly servers who swing past in their subtly railroad-inspired uniforms to bestow you with such delights as the pear Danish ($4, slightly chilled, the fruit resting atop a delicate tower of light, buttery sheets) and a cup of Cafe Voyageur: a round, sweet Italian roast from Seattle's Cafe Vita, topped with fresh whipped cream and orange zest. Next stop: heaven. If coffee's not your thing, it should be. In the meantime, order Voyageur's hot cocoa ($3.75), which comes with a homemade marshmallow so big it fills the cup.

All teas on the menu are looseleaf blends from Brooklyn's Bellocq tea atelier. A friend loved the Pic du Midi: green tea with a touch of mint and ginger. I was partial to the Little Dickens: rooibos, cacao nibs, cinnamon and rose petals.

Late sleepers be forewarned; certain breakfast items are only available until 11 a.m.

On a chilly winter afternoon, I ordered the cauliflower gratin soup with truffle oil. It came topped with shaved black truffles and sprinkled with chives: a bowl of decadence so creamy it was hard -- but not impossible -- to finish.

Starting Feb. 2, Voyageur is expanding its hours and menu, with classic French dishes like scallops and steak frites on their way. Already on the menu: duck confit, cassoulet and veal bourguignon. Rubin said the menu will shift subtly with the seasons; currently, soups and quiches change daily.

No matter what you order at Voyageur, it's likely to be made with care -- the slower, more old-fashioned way. Baking soda, for example, isn't even in the kitchen; though it's faster and easier, the pastry chefs at Voyageur prefer yeast.

"We often talk about healthy food, but we neglect it in baking," Rubin said. "It should be as simple as eggs, flour, yeast, butter and salt."

When pastries are prepared this way and baked fresh, never frozen, Rubin says the difference is more than flavor -- it's also better for you.

"If we go back to an older method of food production, it can still be very good for you," she said. "I wanted to take a moment in the tech-centric Silicon Valley and have people's hands bring you this high-quality product. I hope the result shows."

Voyageur du Temps

288 1st St., Los Altos




Closed Monday

Tuesday-Sunday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Starting Feb. 2:

Monday-Sunday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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