Restaurant Review: A different kind of neighborhood restaurant

Publication Date: Friday Aug 20, 1999

Restaurant Review: A different kind of neighborhood restaurant

For hardly more money than many local restaurants, Chez TJ offers unparalleled elegance in Mountain View

by Jim Harrington and Laura Reiley

You go to your favorite neighborhood restaurant. Say you order an entree ($22--it's their steak, you've always loved their steak). Before that, you share an appetizer ($7). Then you feel like a little salad ($6) before dessert ($5.50). Before you know it, you've spent more than $40, just on food.

So, Chez TJ has a bum rap. From a distance, the prices at Mountain View's fine-dining emporium--the only restaurant we know of in town to capture the attention of "Gourmet" magazine--may seem high. The prix-fixe menu offers three choices: four-course menu petit at $42, five-course menu moderne at $50, and the seven-course menu gastronomique at $65. But there is much to factor into the equation and, when one does so, a meal at Chez TJ actually turns out to be quite reasonable.

First, it is a mistake to think of eating at Chez TJ as simply having dinner. It should be thought of as an entire evening's entertainment. We walked into the quaint Villa Street restaurant around 6:30 p.m. one Wednesday and wouldn't emerge until after 10 p.m. That means that you don't--can't really--pair Chez TJ with tickets to the theater or even a movie. A meal at Chez TJ is all you need to make a special occasion. (So, if you want to feel really fiscally responsible, factor into the bill what you would have spent on TheatreWorks tickets down the road at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.)

Second, when one goes to most highfalutin bastions of gastronomy and several prix-fixe menus are offered at different prices, it usually means the meals reflect different levels of complexity. Maybe the different price levels convey a different opulence of ingredients--foie gras for the workhorse menu, hummingbird tongues or thymus gland of woodland caribou for the pull-out-the-stops menu. At Chez TJ, it really just means "lots of food," "a huge amount of food" and "so much food it's scary." Many of the same dishes appear on all three menus, there is just more offered as the price steepens.

It's certainly not sheer quantity that draws one to Chez TJ, which is located in a 100-year-old Victorian house off the main drag in town. The interior is pretty, with big vases of flowers and a flickering gas fireplace. One longtime complaint has slowly been rectified: Art aficionados have always shuddered at Chez TJ's hodgepodge of canvases. They'll be happy to know the restaurant recently retired the cupid-in-conch shell mural and the cloudy sunset painting. Modern oil paintings are hung on fauxed walls and art-glass table lamps throw soft light over white napery. Each table hosts a perfect flower.

Service is sweet--not professional exactly, but personable and obviously familiar with the drill and chef Andrew Trice's menus. Trice has a clear affinity for classic French sauces and techniques, lightened in the summer with an abundance of local produce.

We began (both of us opted for the menu moderne) with a sweet corn custard unmolded onto a smooth red pepper puree dotted with crisp nuggets of fresh corn, and a bowl of smooth, creamy watercress soup swirled with a little creme fraiche and a sprinkling of chives. Both were brilliantly- flavored, light introductions to the meal to follow. From there, we each enjoyed a sensibly-sized fillet of seared local halibut resting in a white port-sparked beurre blanc and topped by a delicious, briny caperberry.

A crispy roasted squab, quartered, was offset nicely by a puree of peaches and a dark mound of caramelized onions. The plate also contained perfect roasted beets and baby turnips as well as a tangle of crispy fried julienned potatoes--a great marriage of flavors, colors and textures. Our other entree was not as dramatic, but also quite nice: a roulade of chicken hid a filling of savory ratatouille, all resting on a subtle zucchini cream lent flavor by a chiffonade of basil.

As a special treat, our waiter brought over a pretty glass of Normandy cider in which a pale green ball of green apple sorbet bobbed. Refreshing and unusual, it girded our loins for the rest of the culinary journey. We were given the option of a cheese course or salad--we chose one of each. The tiny salad of mixed greens and cherry and pear tomatoes on a chilled plate was a lovely palate cleanser with its light vinaigrette. But we had trouble concentrating when we saw the cheese platter--about a dozen French and Italian cheeses, some gooey, some hard, paired with a handful of fruits. Our waiter chopped off little hunks for us, commenting on his favorite ones. Almost none were familiar, pedestrian cheeses, almost all were noteworthy and delicious.

We got another little surprise before dessert--tiny ramekins of creme anglaise cradling cherries and (somewhat incongruously) sesame brittle. Pastry chef Brian Victor seems as comfortable as Trice with classic techniques. Our chocolate silk fuilletine brought a chocolate ganache-covered disk of cake with a caramel layer and chocolate sauce with more creme anglaise, sugared fruit and great fans of molded chocolate. Another dessert, a summer cherry cheesecake, seemed less coherent, with a meringue top crosshatched with what looked like a branding iron. Sugared cherries and more sesame brittle competed with a more elegant white chocolate filigree as garnish.

And so, after four hours we rolled out of Chez TJ, thanking our lucky stars that we hadn't planned any other evening entertainment. We are disenchanted with our favorite neighborhood places now, but at least they require less stamina than a glorious evening at Chez TJ.

Chez TJ, 938 Villa St., Mountain View, (650) 964-7466

Hours: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; first seating at 5:30-6:30 p.m., second seating at 8-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Atmosphere: Shabby-chic Victorian with faux-painted walls, fine paintings, fresh flowers.

Highlights: Classic French sauces appear on carefully crafted plates that also showcase gorgeous summer produce.

About the owner: Chez TJ catapulted to stardom in 1987 when "Gourmet" magazine reviewed the Mountain View restaurant. In 1994, founding chef Thomas McCombie died suddenly, leaving partner George Aviet to continue the tradition of French-style California cuisine served with black-tie formality. Much remains the same. Even prices haven't changed in years. Four-course dinners still start at $42, rise to $50 for five courses, and run on up to $65 for the extravagant, seven-course blow-out. reservations: yes credit cards: yes parking: street wine and beer only: yes (CHECK) takeout: no banquet: yes wheelchair access: no (CHECK) highchairs: no (CK) outdoor seating: yes (CK) 

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