The restaurant doesn't have a conspicuous street presence. The outside signage is one word, Protégé. Inside the door, though, there is a subtle elegance and anticipation of an exceptional experience.
A small reception station is positioned between two separate areas of the restaurant. To the right is the dining room with its prix fixe menu. To the left is the lounge with a full bar and tables for a la carte dining. There is also a private dining room that can seat 10.
On either side, the diner can't go wrong. It's the same kitchen, the same attention to detail with friendly attentive service and Michelin-star quality food no matter where one sits. Yet the vibe is quite different between dining room and lounge.
Protégé, which opened on California Avenue in Palo Alto in March, is the brainchild of chef Anthony Secviar and master sommelier Dennis Kelly, who met while working at Thomas Keller's esteemed The French Laundry in Yountville. The amiable Secviar grew up near San Diego.
"My mother was an experimental cook and I grew up watching the Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child," he said. She encouraged him to go to culinary school, and he later graduated from the California Culinary Academy.
Secviar started his career in San Diego then spent a couple of years in San Sebastian, Spain, including a stint at the acclaimed El Bulli. Next came six years at The French Laundry followed by nearly five years as chef de cuisine at the highly regarded Addison Grand Del Mar in La Jolla.
Wine & Spirits Magazine named Kelly one of the best young sommeliers in America in 2010, and he honed his mastery as head sommelier at The French Laundry for seven years.
The dining room is an intimate space that seats 20 with sheer draperies covering floor-to-ceiling windows, a panorama photo of light shining through a forest on one wall, complimented by a faux bois motif carpet, comfortably padded banquette and chairs that contour to the body. Tables were spaced so that conversation was easy.
Before delving into the food, I want to mention the superior wine list. Superior, however, came with prices that took my breath away. High enough that even the expense account foursome at an adjacent table groused. Many of the wines were long cellared, which explains part of the steep tariff. For example, the topnotch Bordeaux selection vintages ran from 1945 to 2005, with prices from $75 to $10,000.
Nevertheless, I was hard-pressed to find something reasonably affordable I wanted to drink with a grand dinner. I settled for a Sicilian red, a nice enough wine, priced at $125. That wine can be bought off the shelf for under $25.
The prix fixe menu ($110) included four courses, three of which had two choices. The chef alerted the taste buds with a refreshing amuse-bouche of white peach gazpacho. That was quickly followed by a sleeve of warm-from-the-oven sourdough bread with a pot of butter topped with sea salt and bay leaf powder.
One first course choice was lightly cured Kona kampachi. The sashimi-grade kampachi was plated with thin slices of radish, shredded cucumber, dots of avocado and white soy. The kampachi was a melt-in-the-mouth delicacy.
The other option was foie gras confit, a deconstructed plate consisting of a log of foie gras, fennel, white honey, strawberries and vanilla brioche. I inhaled it.
The next course was Alaskan king crab, a colorful plate with sweet corn, celtuce (stem lettuce) lovage and an aged sherry mousseline. The other option was a soft-poached hen egg with porcini, Parmesan fondue and, for an extra $40, grated black truffle. Then came the Snake River Farms beef ribeye, from a premium ranch in Idaho that raises Wagyu cattle. It was one of finest pieces of beef I've eaten. The beef was followed by a plum sorbetto and ginger granita palate cleanser -- the perfect touch.
For the finale, Pastry Chef Eddie Lopez, another French Laundry alum, created memorable desserts. There was a selection of either perfectly ripe cheeses or dulce de leche, a round of creamy dark chocolate and hazelnut with toasted honey. Soft, fresh candies accompanied the check. Dinner for two with tip and tax was $498.03.
The lounge has a casual feel but the 40-seat room is more a restaurant than a watering hole offering bar bites to support the libations. The room is airier and less subdued than the dining room, and is anchored by a large backlit bar. Adjacent is the spotless semi-open kitchen.
My meal in the lounge started with plump ricotta dumplings ($18) surrounded with curls of summer squash, tiny mushrooms and sprinkles of Parmesan cheese. It looked like an artist's palette and tasted heavenly.
The succulent Spanish octopus ($19) was plated with panisse (a fried chickpea flour cake), artichokes, olive and romesco sauce, served on a black plate that highlighted the beauty of the ingredients. Delicate Pacific sablefish ($35) was surrounded with cranberry beans, sweet corn, shelled mussels and bacon in a spicy shellfish broth.
The Akaushi beef short rib ($38) was delightful. When I tasted the short rib, I thought of wagyu. The meat was well-marbled with a rich, buttery flavor.
Lopez also flexes his pastry muscles on the four-tiered dessert cart. One tier was filled with delicious canelés ($5), small molded pastries with a caramelized crust and custard interior, and another held fat, creamy chocolate chip cookies ($5). The cart also offered a rich chocolate pecan tart ($12) with vanilla ice cream and on a fourth tier, a delectable peach galette ($12), also served with vanilla ice cream. Yes, I tried them all. Dinner for two in the lounge with tip and tax was $278.52 (including a $60 bar tab, no wine).
Protégé has been a long time coming, a fashionable top-notch restaurant which will hopefully lead the area into a collective finer dining aesthetic. Protégé will soon earn its Michelin stars. For my money, it already has them.
250 California Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.
Reservations: Online through reserve.com
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: full bar
Happy hour: no
Outdoor dining: Lounge
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent