Flavor Notes by Robert Rich: Food, Wine, Restaurants & Recipes



Restaurant Reviews :

Chez TJ

Update, December 2006: In the time since my review came out in print, Kirk Bruderer moved on and two new chefs have led the kitchen at Chez TJ. Joshua Skenes first came in to replace Bruderer around 2003, and within a year got hired away by Michael Mina. After a few months' gap, led by excellent sous chef Kynan Campisi, Christopher Kostow took the helm.

Joshua Skenes introduced delicate Pacific Rim influences, combining fresh local produce and artisan ingredients in innovative yet logical fusions. One menu included such treats as steamed egg with uni, chives, lime foam and caviar; watermelon & heirloom tomato, basil and galangal infused vinegar; diver scallop with yellow corn sauce and lemon verbena; lobster with carrot sauce, raw peas and ginger; squab with orange marmalade and asparagus; and lamb tenderloin with fresh peas and cardomom. Skenes' dishes often highlighted exceptional ingredients beautifully presented with minimum manipulation, and reflected a light balance between tart, fresh, savory and earthy flavors. The reference point for this style would appear to be David Kinch's light complex artistry at Manresa in Los Gatos.

Chris Kostow has since introduced an artful hybrid between this light pacific fusion, new world innovations and the earthier slow cooked reductions of classic French cuisine. His tasting menus aim towards subtle fllavors and varied textures, with surprising ingredients like octopus or traditional indulgences like seared fois gras.

I savored a top notch tasting menu from Kostow in Autumn of 2006. It began with hamachi and melon, then notched into a deeper groove with lobster carpaccio, raw lobster meat hammered flat into a tender sheet accompanied by caviar and blinis. Next arrived a ramekin of delicate broth with fresh beans and cuttlefish, a sprinkling of cumin adding to its light earthiness. Then came fois gras, one tidbit seared and the other from a torchon, with pralines and concord grapes. One of my favorite morsels arrived next, a layering of truffles and sweetbreads atop a dollop of sherry foam.

After a pause of apple sorbet, fresh and appetizing, came thinly sliced whitefish and octopus. If I could point to any mis-step in the meal, the octopus felt a bit chewey (as it often can be). I suspect that Kostow likes this textural counterpoint, since in a previous meal he served a baby whole octopus (smaller than a ping-pong ball) in reduction sauce, which reminded me fondly of Spanish tapas.

As the tasting menu moved to an earthier dimension, the climax came in the form of a cube of slow cooked beef tenderloin (sous vide), still succulently rare in the center, with tiny potatoes and oxtail reduction. This tasted as delectible as any beef I have had with or without the grill marks, the perfect cross between raw and cooked.

The meal wound down with a light salad of baby greens and meyer lemon, a soft cheese with pear puree, and a dessert "ravioli" with a demitasse of banana and brown butter soup.

If I could summarize Kostow's cooking, I would say that almost all of his dishes taste grounded in the ingredients and the culture of real cooking. His menus don't strike me as avante garde or experimental, in that all of his dishes make sense to the palate in the context of culinary tradition. Yet, he manages to surprise both the eye and taste buds with intuitive combinations that also feel unique and progressive. He's walking the line between art food and tradition. I respect this balance immensely, as it resembles a tightrope walk at a high elevation. Kudos.

(December '06)


Chez TJ

by Robert Rich, November 2002, for MV Voice and PA Weekly

One of the South Bay's finest restaurants celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. When Chez TJ opened its doors in November of 1982, it stood alone as Mountain View's first high-end restaurant. Founders Tom McCombie and George Aviet took a huge risk when they leased the 100 year old craftsman home on Villa St., hoping to create a restaurant whose reputation would attract food lovers to Mountain View.

Mountain View has since become a haven for good dining, with Chez TJ its shining star. As culinary fads come and go, Chez TJ has demonstrated the timelessness of truly excellent cuisine.

Some History

Thomas J. McCombie (the "TJ" of Chez TJ) studied French cooking with Julia Child and Simone Beck, and apprenticed in Dijon, France. He met George Aviet in the late '70s while chef de cuisine at Pear Williams in Menlo Park. Aviet had recently relocated to this country from Iran via France, an Armenian refugee escaping persecution at the hands of the Iranian revolution. Aviet started at Pear Williams as a bussboy, worked his way up to waiter, then assisted McCombie in the kitchen.

McCombie convinced Aviet to leave Pear Williams and open their own restaurant. They funded Chez TJ by the sale of McCombie's home, and lived with their families in spare rooms behind the restaurant. It took five years to get out of debt, working and living in close proximity. In 1989 they purchased the building.

Sadly, McCombie died of a heart attack in 1994. In his wake thrives a tradition of exceptionally fine cooking, with a lineage of talented chefs that have helped to maintain consistent high quality. These include Peggy Aoke, who still occasionally gives cooking classes in the area. Andrew Trice III took the helm during the second half of the nineties, bringing his complex balanced sauces and a passion for culinary history.

When Trice moved to Vivaca in 1999, Kirk Bruderer took over and still presides in the kitchen, with a sensitivity to fresh flavors and artful uncluttered presentations. Having worked with David Kinch at Sent Sovie and Thomas Keller at French Laundry, Bruderer's impressive resumé shines through every dish he creates, with his uniquely Californian interpretation of classic French techniques.

A Warm Hearth

Chefs of this caliber often hop from restaurant to restaurant every few years, but Georg Aviet's warmth and generosity has bred immense loyalty at Chez TJ. Some of the staff have worked there for 10-15 years, longer than most restaurants stay in business. Aviet has loaned and given money to employees for emergencies, and he has paid for trips to France for his chefs, to help them hone their skills. Chef Andrew Trice even got married at the restaurant, and waiters volunteered their time to help out at the wedding.

This warmth and loyalty filters down through every detail at Chez TJ: the food, the staff, the customers, even the house itself. A wood fireplace burns nightly in one of the dining rooms of the old residence (now fed by gas), echoing this warm spirit. Andrew Trice told me an anecdote of a day the restaurant was closed, when he drove past to see a plume of woodsmoke rising from the chimney. He stopped and went in to find Aviet sitting alone next to the stoked fireplace, reflecting on the death of his friend and partner McCombie. Aviet told Trice, "I don't do enough for my friends."

Many nights, Aviet opens the door to greet customers by name, often circulating among tables, chatting with acquaintances and assuring that everyone feels perfectly welcome and well attended.

Some people fear that a formal restaurant like Chez TJ will be stuffy and intimidating. Far from it, the service at Chez TJ feels gracious and exceptionally friendly. At times, the waiters seem almost clairevoyant, sensing when tables need attention or when they wish to linger without interruption.

Daily Prix Fixe

Since its inception, Chez TJ has offered only prix fixe menus. This means that one flat price will buy an ornate multi-course meal, with choices offered among each course. Prices range from $45 for four light courses (menu petite), $55 for five light courses (menu moderne), or $65 for the upscale five course menu gastronomique. For an additional $24 you can pair three selected wines with the meal.

For many years these prices hovered out of my reach; but astonishingly, Chez TJ hasn't raised their prices in 8 years. Compared to restaurants in its class, like Spago or Charley Trotter's, Chez TJ begins to look like a bargain. The fixed-price menu provides a complete and monumental dining experience, and it allows a chef to guide the diners down a sensual path of compatible flavors.

A well-conceived menu can reflect a poetic sensibility to the pairing of flavors, much like musical harmony, poetic rhythm, or architectural balance. As flavors shift from course to course, each dish can set the stage for the next in a logical progression. For example, the tartness of a spiced apple might cleanse the palate after a creamy mousse, then transform into a lingering perfume when followed by a savory reduction sauce. A prix fixe menu acts like a script to guide diners through these sensory rhythms.

A Seasonal Feast

We visited Chez TJ twice this month, immensely impressed each time. The menu on our first visit reflected Autumn with sweet, deep and spicy tones of seasonal fruits like quince, figs and pumpkin, and delicate hints of winter seasonings like cinnamon and allspice.

As we sat down we received complimentary glasses of kir royale, a blend of champaign and cherry liquour. Soon after ordering, an amuse bouche arrived unexpectedly at the table, a little teaser of an appetizer designed to tickle the tastebuds, a common practice in France. A dollop of sweet-salty cauliflower mouse filled a porcelain soup spoon, topped with thin shreds of sweet pepper.

Among the first course choices, the foie gras custard came saturated with flavors of white truffle oil, almost garlicky in its intensity. Thick slices of toasted brioche (a sweet egg bread) accompanied the foie gras, with two quenelles of caramilized quince fruit touched with a smokey hint of habanero pepper and cinnamon. Paired perfectly with a glass of 1996 Sauternes, the sweet and spicy perfumes of fruit and white truffle lingered in my memory throughout the evening.

The Autumn fruit compote showed great balance between tart and sweet flavors: fuyu persimmons, apples and candied ginger molded inside translucent gelatin, topped with a deep balsamic reduction, pomegranate seeds and creamed blue cheese.

A fish course followed these appetizers, a choice of salmon or sturgeon. A two inch cube of succulent sturgeon, quickly grilled with dark stripes of woody char, sat atop a thick sweet slice of caramilized fennel root and pumpkin spaetzel noodles, flavored with pie-spices and salt, browned in a broiler for a firmer mouth feel. The sturgeon paired well to the second wine tasting, a light and dry Louis Latour chardonnay whose toasted oak tones accentuated the grill flavors.

The salmon sounded like it would be the sweeter of the two fish courses, with a buttery sweet potato confit, braised red cabbage and chestnut sauce. Surprisingly, these flavors tasted light and fresh together, and the chestnut added a delicate perfume.

The third course was the largest, though still manageable. The slow-braised lamb shank flaked off the bone, the result of over three hours of cooking. Sweet with musty caramel flavors, tingling with a sprinkle of crushed French sea salt, the meat sat on a cake of grits, chives and a bit of marscapone cheese, with a viscous heavily reduced sauce of lamb stock and pomegranate juice. Intense earthy aromas wafted above the plate. A 1999 Armand Roux Verdillac Bordeaux tasted light, tannic and cleansing next to this rustic intensity.

The chicken roulade delivered a lighter combination of flavors, moist breast with hints of sage and fontana cheese, smokey tones from a bacon wrap, and a soft mustard grain sauce. Halves of baby red potato and delectably sweet Brussels sprouts trimmed the plate, joining a creamy celery root puree.

By now quite saturated with sensation, we dawdled through the remaining courses. A light salad with organic baby greens provided some relief, topped simply with an exquisite Banyul vinegar. A well selected cheese plate added hedonistic bursts of flavor to the remaining sips of wine.

The deserts deserve an article all to themselves. Thankfully petite, delicate sculptures of light confection and fruit punctuated the meal. Pastry chef Pauline Lam has a master's touch, and she understands how to make a dessert look tantalizing - even after three hours of marathon nibbling.

A tiny whole poached pear with hints of cinnamon, possibly rum and allspice, sat on a cylinder of house-made apple ice cream, vanilla scented with slivers of almonds. The black forest looked like tiny abstract art, semi-sweet chocolate pudding layered with soaked brioche, topped with cherry ice cream in a pool of Kirsch flavored créme Anglais.

Celebration Menu

We had the good fortune to attend Chez TJ's special 20th anniversary dinner, where they offered an astonishing 9 course tasting menu ($110) for a sold-out house. The culmination of two weeks of kitchen preparation, each bite of this four-hour meal sung with balance and precision.

Among the highlights included an egg custard with black truffle sauce, a tiny explosion of creamy earthy flavors. The crispy roast quail leg with sweetbreads and truffles lingered with deep musky flavors.

A fresh baked scallop appeared in its own shell (painstakingly cleaned) in a buttery sauce of preserved lemon rind and crispy fried capers, deepened with a few drops of 100 year old balsamic. An optional tenth course of cold foie gras ($20) arrived on a brioche donut, stuffed with fresh fig puree.

Among the most memorable flavors of the night, chopped Maine lobster and porcini mushrooms filled a crépe pocket, on a pool of intense dark Bordelaise sauce, a red wine reduction with a hint of fragrance from the toasted lobster shell. The meat from the lobster claw, removed whole and fried in tempura batter, formed a flag atop the crépe.

Meals like Chez TJ's anniversary dinner don't occur every day. George Aviet hopes to offer similar events again in the future, perhaps after he and the staff recover from this one.

In the meantime, Chez TJ continues to create some of the most beautiful meals in the South Bay. Kirk Bruderer's plates combine inventiveness with restraint. No ingredient seems superfluous or merely decorative. Although an occasional flavor (such as salt) might poke out from the blend, his sauces show deep complexity and classical balance.

Mountain View is lucky to have a destination restaurant that delivers such consistent excellence as Chez TJ. Happy birthday!


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