Protege Opens in Palo Alto with Michelin-Star Aspirations

Finally, a fine dining, foodie restaurant opens in Palo Alto. There is no shortage of restaurants in this town flush with Silicon Valley millionaires (and billionaires), but finding an avenue that satisfies a truly discerning palate is a tough call. Protege is located at 250 S. California Ave. They soft-launched last week aspiring to fit that bill, and it mostly delivers. Founded by ex-French Laundry culinary and vinous experts Anthony Secviar (chef) and Dennis Kelly (master sommelier, a very elite designation of wine expertise), the food is high-end, yet manages to avoid a stuffy/snobby feel of a formal Michelin-star establishment. The room is divided into a "no-reservations-accepted / first-come-first-serve" a la carte section, which based on the review from a trusted source is fantastic, and the more formal "prix-fixe" reservations-only (reservations are taken exactly one week in advance) where you get to choose a 3 or 4 course (mix-and-match, i.e. you can get all 3 desserts if you like) menu, with a couple of amuse-bouches and the most delicious freshly baked bread thrown in between, a work of an inspired and extremely talented baker and pastry chef Eddie Lopez, also ex-French Laundry.

The four of us were able to secure one of the only three tables available in the formal dining room at any one time during this initial launch period, and we spent nearly four hours savoring the food, the wine, the atmosphere, and the company, staying well past the official close time, thanks to the most forthcoming staff. We all ordered the four-course menu, which baselined at $85 per person, plus some supplemental charges for things like foie gras, etc. Cheese plate and wines were all extra. The courses were beautiful and very promising, but not all successful, and the chef is still rapidly experimenting and refining the dishes, we were told. I loved everything except the meat courses. Speaking of which, the duck dish, called Peking Duck, had very little to resemble the classical Chinese dish. The skin was thick, with unrendered fat underneath, the flesh was steak-like rare and slightly chewy, rather than cooked-through and melt-in-your-mouth as in traditional Peking duck. It was basically a seared duck breast, from what I could tell, with a poorly chosen name for the dish. But aside from those small nits, the duck meat was tasty, and the sauce on it was spectacular, the whole dish pairing like a dream with the 2005 Michel Gros 1er Cru Vosne-Romanee Clos des Reas red Burgundy I brought ($50 corkage was worth it, but let me touch on that a bit later.) The renowned 1er Cru performed really well, bright and full of vitality, while at the same time showing fully secondary flavors, a complex medley of tree bark, brown sugar, hint of leather, licorice, and a glossy assortment of black cherries and blue fruits, accompanied by bright acidity - in other words a prime example of what I look for in red Burgundy. 2005's have taken a long time to develop, but this wine seems to have entered its drinkability window and should continue to drink great for probably another 10 years easy. Based on this specimen, I would suggest Burg geeks should start looking at their 2005's.

Wagyu beef

The wagyu filet dish was underwhelming. The beef did not taste special, IMO not even as good as a non-wagyu steak at a typical steakhouse, and I would have preferred just one piece (not two) and more other interesting things on the plate. Those dishes aside, the foie-gras appetizer that preceded these was sublime, paired with a 2001 Sauternes from Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey, all the seafood dishes (crab, hamachi tartar, and sablefish) were delightful, the cheese cart while limited in selections provided for a delectable, high-quality cheese plate, and the desserts were superb, especially the incredible strawberry shortcake meringue, an artistic and gastronomic masterpiece. I will also note that the interior of the place is stylish, tasteful and inviting, the master som expertly understated, and the service very friendly.

With regards to wine, I think we picked the right strategy, which was to rely on the master som's recommendation for the Champagne by-the-glass (starter and the pairing with the caviar amuse-bouche), Sauternes by-the-glass (pairing with foie gras), and the white half-bottle (a suitable but not noteworthy white burgundy from the master Paul Pillot, for a price one can swallow - $75 for half-bottle), while relying on our own high-end red Burgundy being a perfect (IMHO) choice for the later courses.

Now let me touch on the $50 corkage, the wine list, and the service. Overall, I feel the wine list is very well put together, many of my favorite producers, without being ultra-high-end (although you can spot a 2005 DRC RSV for $3500 there, which is actually one of the relatively better deals on the list, in terms of the markup over retail market pricing). The relatively high representation of half-bottles was a welcome touch. The glassware from the Ridel Vinum series was fabulous - tall glasses with thin stems, very elegant, different shapes specifically matched to each of the four types of wine we had. The only nit/suggestion I would make is that it would be way cooler, IMHO, if there were some easter eggs or special deals on the wine list that would appeal to the wine crowd. At Zola, for example, the corkage is discounted to $10 for wines that are 10 years or older. Or if Protege offered a few wines every week that were marked up perhaps 30-50% over retail rather than the customary 300%.

I was told that a chef's table will be set up in the wine cellar in April where guests will be lavished with even more attention and special items. All in all, a very promising start and a sure thumbs up, with the benefit of the doubt given to the inspiring restaurant. We hope to be back on a regular basis.


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