By Chris Wang
There’s a new kid on the block — on California Avenue, to be specific — one that may have you literally waiting on the block. But is it worth the wait?
When a restaurant is announced two years in advance — especially when that restaurant is spearheaded by two French Laundry alums — it would seem to follow that the opening would come with lots of fanfare. This expectation made Protégé’s quiet soft-opening this past month all the more surprising. Still, it seems as if word is out — reservations in the 7-table dining room are almost impossible to come by, and tables in the walk-in only lounge will make you wait outside (unless you show up at 5 o’clock on the dot).
The name “protégé” means “one who is mentored or trained or whose career is furthered by a person of experience, prominence or influence.” Here, the name has a double meaning, both in reference to Chef Anthony Secviar’s extensive experience at The French Laundry, one of the most famous restaurants in the world, as well as the goal of the restaurant — to mentor younger chefs and to give them a place to learn and further their careers. A noble goal, certainly. The restaurant itself keeps elements of fine dining, keeping true to the background of the chef, but aims to make it more approachable, with a smaller 2 to 4 course prix-fixe menu in the small dining room and an à la carte menu in the walk-in lounge.
The lounge menu is more ambitious than most, but at its core, still a lounge menu. To begin, the brown butter rolls are perfectly buttery, paired with — you guessed it — more butter. A play on fish and chips features an acidic ceviche topped with a chamomile flower, served over a chip that reminded me of the Asian shrimp crackers I ate growing up. The dish is a well-balanced tartare, ceviche or crudo (whatever you want to call it), though the resemblance with the original dish of fish and chips is a little tenuous. These “little tastes” are certainly a friendly start to the meal, but with plenty of less ambitious restaurants offering complimentary amuse-bouche and bread courses, being charged for these small bites almost feels unfair.
The appetizer section of the lounge menu features dishes such as pillow-like ricotta dumplings and a foie gras “terrine.” The latter, a signature dish at Secviar’s training grounds, The French Laundry, is served with celery, quince and hazelnut, as well as a brioche slice. Although the flavors are a traditional combination, the foie gras has a strong gamey flavor, and the celery is a tad overpowering. Spreading the ingredients on the brioche melds out the flavors somewhat. The dish is certainly an acquired taste.
Main courses continue the trend of classic dishes done with a modern spin, such as a roasted brick chicken. The short rib pithivier has delicate, buttery and crunchy pastry with a satisfying short rib filling, though the dish as a whole eats a little dry, and dollops of ranch dressing with white asparagus seem a little out of place. The main courses are certainly filling, though not to the point of turning down the dessert cart, filled with canelés, pies and cookies. Alas, the cart is just for show. Once a dessert is chosen, it is prepared and plated in the kitchen. The chocolate tart, which is optionally served à la mode, is intense, rich and delicious, although perhaps not the most innovative dessert you can find.
The main confusion of the restaurant is the divide between the lounge and the tiny dining room. The lounge offers a low key and pleasant, but almost pedestrian experience — hardly the goal of such an ambitious restaurant. The dining room — well, I wouldn’t know, with the almost impossible reservation.
One thing I did notice: almost all of the people dining in the lounge openly commiserated over their inability to get a reservation in the main dining room — where they truly wanted to be dining. From a glance at the menu, I could see that the dining room features more ambitious creations like pekin duck with a savory pancake and black truffle, and green garlic custard with Dungeness crab.
The purpose of the separate lounge and dining room is to make Protégé more approachable. But is it truly approachable when the lounge is almost exclusively filled with people unable to get a reservation in the dining room? Do these people want to line up outside for approachable dining, or are they looking for the whole experience?
Protégé has the ability to become Palo Alto’s best restaurant. But first, it must cease to be two restaurants, and become a singular restaurant.
250 California Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94306
Protégé does not have a phone number.
Reservations: None for the lounge, required (but almost impossible to get) for the dining room
Price: $$$ (expensive), expect to spend $50-85 per person, excluding drinks, tax, and tip
Atmosphere: Crowded, modern in the lounge, quiet, private in the dining room
Contact Chris Wang at chrwang ‘at’ stanford.edu.