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Star of the valley

Baumé: a Michelin-starred indulgence, but well worth the visit

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What'll it be, dear, fine caviar at Baumé restaurant or the 50-yard line at Levi's Stadium? These days in Silicon Valley, the Tesla crowd could do both, and then cruise up to The French Laundry for lunch the next day. Maybe they do.

Dinner at the Peninsula's only Michelin two-star restaurant runs about the same for two people as really good seats at a 49ers game: $1,000.

Before getting into what's worth what, let's get the pronunciation right. Since Baumé opened on Palo Alto's California Avenue in January 2010, I have been smarty-pants mispronouncing its name as "Bough-MAY." It is "Bow-MAY," for Antoine Baumé, a French pharmacist who in the late 18th century invented a scale to measure the density of liquids. Chef-owner Bruno Chemel respects this guy so much, he named his son Antoine.

Chemel honed his skills at star-studded restaurants in France, New York, Tokyo and San Francisco before heading the kitchen at Mountain View's Michelin-starred Chez TJ. When Baumé opened, Chemel was more into molecular gastronomy than he is now. The Baumé gets less use.

There have been other changes. The eight-course dinner (or 10, if you count two delightful amuse-bouches) is $268 per person. The wine pairing is -- gulp -- $210. Note that the tip is included in the price, à la française.

The food has become less molecular and more fun, showcasing but not showing off Chemel's love of artful Japanese presentation. (He studied macrobiotic cooking in Japan.)

The two-room restaurant at the corner of California Avenue and Park Boulevard has cut back from 28 seats to 18, with a maximum of four people per table (less chance of drunken IPO celebrations, perhaps). And, Baumé is open only four nights a week, with the last seating at 7:30 p.m. Lunch is served Friday and Saturday. All this adds up to a family life for Bruno and Christine Chemel.

When you make a reservation, Christine will ask if you have any allergies or aversions, and if a special occasion brings you to Baumé. When you arrive and peruse the menu -- a list of 30 or so ingredients -- the server will again ask if there's anything you would rather not eat.

Then the fun begins, starting with ice-free water served at the perfect temperature. Each course gets completely new silverware, as functional as it is fun to look at. Ingredients are not just tiny pretty faces doing their own thing. They play with each other in surprising combinations of tastes, textures and temperatures. After two or three bites, you get it and are satisfied.

The opening amuse-bouche lived up to its name, with a disc of cold lemon puree between two dime-size leaves of Thai basil, like a doll's house ice cream sandwich. We were instructed to start with that and end with a frozen lollipop involving cocoa nibs, radish and celery.

Courses built in sensible succession, starting with an ambrosial bit of Brittany blue lobster in carrot mousse, set off with uni, shards of shredded ginger and halves of fava bean.

Each wine, mainly from small French producers, got a little introduction. Next up, Bordeaux Sauternes with the caviar course. Seriously? The ultimate sweet wine with the ultimate salty food? But yes, it worked. Great balls of golden Osetra caviar rested on lemon sunchoke puree, with a brown rice tuile providing crunch.

A warm, custard-soft Jidori egg yolk sabayon came in a dish resembling an oversized eggcup. (Jidori chickens are the Kobe beef of poultry.) The egg whites became smoked meringues, sprinkled on top. Digging further, the diner came across bits of polenta and kale.

The vegetable course featured Hollister green asparagus, crispy shreds of yellow beets and shiso fennel paper (very thin, like nori) that adhered to the asparagus.

Mild French turbot from the island of Noirmoutier was the canvas for pickled zucchini cubes and cardamom-licorice fumet (concentrated stock) -- and a 2011 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru.

All this led up to the meat course: a caramelized California squab breast cut into five succulent pieces accompanied by dried cherries, halves of English peas, juniper jam, a wild onion and a 2000 Chateau Montrose Grand Cru merlot.

Get a load of this cheese course: warm whipped goat cheese with parsley-root mousse, pink peppercorns and grapes (cut in half, of course). No rickety cheese carts at Baumé.

After all this, desserts were so-so: a mélange of green tea sponge cake, chocolate mousse and strawberries. But the final amuse-bouche reprised the opening theme of red lollipops and tiny sandwiches, this time featuring mint leaf and lemon cake.

Chemel is also a candy-maker. His parting gift was a Japanese-type beribboned box with three flavors of caramel candies and a couple of tubes (!) of hazelnut chocolate ganache.

The night we were there, one of the titans of Silicon Valley held court in the smaller room. In our room were three couples and a solitary diner. One couple was celebrating a birthday. We were celebrating our anniversary. The solitary diner worked her laptop, cellphone and earbuds while appearing to enjoy her 10 courses and a $35 apéritif. A maestro of multi-tasking, she didn't bother anyone, unlike Couple No. 3, whose female half not only answered her cellphone but then proceeded to talk as if in a cave by herself, loudly.

Nevertheless, we left happy. It was a special occasion, a major indulgence and a chance to appreciate exquisite craftsmanship.

I totally understand that some people would rather be at a football game.


201 S. California Ave., Palo Alto


Hours: Dinner: Wednesday-Saturday, 5:30-7:30 p.m. (last seating 7:30 p.m.); Lunch: Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. (last seating 12:30 p.m.).

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