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February 20, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, February 20, 2004

A bistro with elan A bistro with elan (February 20, 2004)

California Avenue eatery still thriving after nearly a decade

by Dale F. Bentson

Sometimes just walking into a restaurant I know that the evening is going to be exceptional.

I cannot pinpoint nor quantify the feeling, but my senses resonate with anticipation. I perceive that the food, service and ambience will all work in synchronized harmony.

That is the feeling I get each time I venture into Bistro Elan.

Chef Ambjorn Lindskog and his wife Andrea Hyde, owners of the restaurant for nine years, should be proud of their achievement, as the cuisine is marvelous. Unlike bistro food -- which is quickly prepared simple fare, such as steaks, quiches, grilled seafood and desserts -- the food at Bistro Elan is reminiscent of some of the finest European hotel dining rooms: Elegant, innovative and artistically presented.

Lindskog, a former nuclear engineer from Sweden, learned to cook by apprenticing in a variety of kitchens, from France to New Mexico to California. He worked for nearly a year in the kitchen of Marc Meneau's L'Esperance, a three-star Guide Michelin restaurant in Burgundy. The apprentice learned well.

Everything at Bistro Elan is house-made, from bread to desserts, including sorbets and ice cream. The finest ingredients are utilized, from Niman Ranch -- a producer of highest-quality meats -- to Green Leaf, a San Francisco wholesaler specializing in small farm produce distribution. That attention to detail has yielded delicious results.

Painted a soft mustard yellow, the restaurant is divided into two rooms, which helps minimize noise. Black and white photographs of France adorn the walls, while linen-covered tables and small candles complete the soothing, intimate decor. The service was prompt and helpful, the staff knowledgeable.

An amuse-bouche is a tidbit designed to whet the appetite while perusing the menu. During our visit, this treat consisted of Spanish green olives, tiny parmesan crackers and wafer-thin slices of chorizo (spicy Mexican pork sausage), which were brought to the table even before the bread basket appeared. The menu is not lengthy at Bistro Elan, but every dish was so enticing it was difficult to make a choice.

One evening we chose the fresh Maine crab cocktail ($10.75). Served in an oversized cocktail glass, the succulent shards of crab mingled blissfully with avocado, cucumber, apple, yogurt and onion -- a sparkling way to begin dinner.

American sturgeon caviar crowned gently smoked salmon and crispy potato pancakes ($13.25). Drizzled with a tart and tangy creme fraiche, the dish was rich with subtle flavors that unfolded in the mouth, evoking memories of fine Parisian dining.

Sauteed Sonoma foie gras ($16.75) with toasted brioche, blood orange slices and arugula were bathed in a delicate browned hazelnut oil. The duck liver was so delicate, it was almost texturally indistinguishable from the soft brioche that lay beneath. This foie gras rivals the best I have had anywhere. One should enjoy this fabulous dish while one can. State Sen. John Burton is sponsoring a controversial bill to outlaw foie gras in California, on the grounds that force-feeding the ducks causes undue stress and pain.

Pan-seared Maine scallops ($23) rested amid a shredded melange of crisp sauteed cabbage, slightly piquant chorizo and tart apple. The scallops were fresh and plump, but so was the sauteed halibut ($22) that came with artichoke mashed potatoes and braised chard under a blanket of beurre blanc sauce. I could not decide which dish I liked better.

Duck confit ($20) was served with eryngii mushroom (a large thick, fleshy mushroom that grows on the buried roots of hardwood trees), thyme and parmesan risotto. Thinly sliced duck breast was draped over creamy rice that had been imbued with the mushrooms and thyme. The fowl was juicy without being fatty.

Delicately flavored pink meat with a slight edge of fat highlighted the seared lamb chop from Niman Ranch ($25). The perfectly cooked lamb was complemented by a chopped and sauteed combination of Brussels sprouts and mint sauce. A bowl of lacy crisp waffle chips was served with the dish.

The desserts at Bistro Elan (all $7.75) are as distinguished as the other courses. Chocolate Financier, an elegant almond sponge finger cake, made with Swiss Gianduja chocolate, was capped by an intensely flavored roasted banana ice cream.

Served in an oversized cocktail glass, Meyer lemon gelee was an unusual assembly of jelled lemon under a thick layer of buttermilk panna cotta. This dessert was somewhat akin to a parfait with zesty, creamy flavors.

Despite the tempting sweets, I opted for the cheese plate ($9.75) one evening and was not disappointed. Tomme de Savorie was a Pyrenees Mountains semi-soft goat cheese with hearty field flavors. Crumbly Australian roaring '40s blue, whose color and texture reminded me of Stilton, was but a milder distant cousin. Queso de Cabra was a hard Spanish goat cheese with a nutty aroma and pungent flavors. The plate was garnished with a stack of warm pear and walnut bread -- magnificent with a glass of Vosne Romanee from Mongeard-Mugneret, 2001 ($15.75).

The menu is ever-changing at Bistro Elan, so one might not encounter the same dishes twice. The lunch carte du jour changes even faster than the dinner menu, according to Hyde. At a recent lunch, we enjoyed a giant bowl of meaty steamed mussels ($14.75) that were served in a flavorful broth of curry, Dijon mustard and green peppercorns. A mound of crisp French fries accompanied.

Pan-seared Niman Ranch skirt steak ($15.50), doused in bearnaise sauce, was also served with fries. The steak was tender and juicy. I have not found a better cut of meat in any bistro in France.

Coffee service was a rare treat. An infusion, or plunger-style coffeepot (cafetiere), was brought to the table, and grounds and hot water were brewed in the pot for a few moments. The plunger, covered with a fine wire mesh, was then submerged, trapping the grounds on the bottom of the carafe. The result was excellent coffee. Infusion coffee was quite the rage in the 1980s, and I am glad to see its revival.

The wine list was weighted toward French and California Burgundy type wines: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There were other choices as well, including Cabernets, Merlots, Rhones, Rieslings, Roses and even several Zinfandels for those so inexplicably inclined. The Gevrey-Chambertin from Dujac Fils & Pere, 2000 is a find at $62. Maranges, Clos de Loveres, 2001 from Vicent Girardin is excellent at $35.

Business was quite brisk for both lunch and dinner. I recommend making reservations to be on the safe side. With outstanding food, handsome decor, a relaxed ambience and excellent service, Bistro Elan is a gem.

Bistro Elan, 448 California Ave. in Palo Alto; (650) 327-0284

Hours: Lunch Tuesday -- Friday 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m.; Dinner Tuesday -- Saturday 5:30 - 10:30 p.m.
BISTRO ELAN Reservations: yes Credit cards: yes Parking: city lots Alcohol: beer and wine only High chairs: no Outdoor dining: patio, seasonal. Party and banquet facilities: no Take out: no Catering: no Noise level: loud Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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