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Food // Dining Out

When I asked Dennis Kelly why he decided to locate his new restaurant, Protégé, in Palo Alto, he said that he thought the area was ready for what he had to offer.

Kelly, the wine master at the French Laundry for nearly a dozen years before leaving to open this new restaurant, started his career in Palo Alto, and he thought two of the biggest names to come to the city in the early 1990s, Stars and Spago, were ahead of their time. Chef Jeremiah Tower opened Stars on Lytton Avenue in 1995, and two years later it became an outpost of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, which lasted about a dozen years.

It was a telling commentary that Kelly had to go back more than a decade to find a comparable restaurant to his Protégé. Of course, the city has Evvia and Baumé, the two-Michelin starred restaurants across California Avenue from Protégé, but the pickings are still meager for such a densely populated, affluent area. (See Jonathan Kauffman’s story on Baumé here)

It’s a question I’ve been asking for decades: Why don’t folks on the Peninsula support cutting-edge concepts? The region may not have the tourist appeal of San Francisco, but with Stanford University and all the tech headquarters nearby there is a continual influx of visitors that should augment the locals — a formula that contributes to the success of many quality San Francisco restaurants.

If Protégé doesn’t thrive then I figure there’s no hope, for it has excellent food, a well-tailored interior and good service.

Kelly says he has 50 investors, and 43 are local — which should go a long way to keeping the diners coming. For many who invested, it wasn’t just for monetary return but for the opportunity to have a nearby restaurant they could be proud of.

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Kelly has further stacked the deck for success. His partner in this venture is Anthony Secviar, who also worked at the French Laundry for six years before moving to San Diego in 2012 to work at Addison in the Grand Del Mar Hotel.

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Even preparations found on dozens of menus elsewhere are different here, including the Brick Chicken ($27), which is actually a Cornish hen cooked under a brick. It has a parchment-thin skin that cracks like a potato chip and is presented on a bed of saffron rice with sweet peppers.

I was wondering why the word “pithivier” was in quotation marks after the words short rib ($30), thinking it would be some obscure reference. Instead the dish looked like the classic French pastry with a golden brown swirled top. Inside were generous chunks of meat with a richness akin to foie gras. The domed pastry is plated with a bordelaise sauce, spears of asparagus and quartered Tokyo turnips.

The vegetarian offering is as elegantly presented. The small whole roasted cauliflower ($26) centers a plate with a ring of whipped chimichurri made with ramp tops, farro verde and preserved lemon. It’s a dish, like most others, where all the ingredients sing in perfect harmony.

After two nearly flawless dinners in the lounge, my expectations for the tasting menu were stratospheric. But the experience brought me down to a more normal 35,000 feet.

The four-course menu ($95), with choices between two selections in each category, started whimsically enough. A tiny pastry roll filled with boldly flavored ratatouille was presented in a triangle of paper. That was quickly followed by more finger food in the first official course: a caviar tin filled with a crab salad with green apple and dill, topped with dollops of caviar. It’s served with waffle-cut malted potato chips.

Brick chicken at Protégé in Palo Alto.
Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

According to our waiter, the first-course selection, foie gras confit, was “right out of the French Laundry playbook.” The creamy log of liver was decorated and flavored with precise tiny dices of fennel, sticks of poached rhubarb and dollops of white honey that looked like whipped cream. It was served next to a small slice of vanilla brioche, which wasn’t nearly enough to finish off the foie gras.

Other courses each had a winner and an also-ran: the soft poached hen egg with braised bacon and black truffle fondue covered in a pastry cage was an only-at-Protégé moment. However, the caramelized sablefish on rice could have come from a dozen kitchens.

The glazed duck breast main course was likewise undistinguished, but the charcoal-grilled short rib — actually three rosy medallions — had more personality, accented with horseradish, grilled cabbage and a finger-size mille feuille that consisted of about 60 layers of paper-thin potatoes with garlic, thyme and butter.

Desserts are created by pastry chef Eddie Lopez, who also shares the French Laundry linage. On the tasting menu, the choices are either two cheeses picked from the dessert cart, or a dulce de leche mousse ball glazed in dark chocolate and honey ice cream with toasted hazelnuts.

In the lounge, Lopez fills the circular dessert cart with apple pie, cookies and several other sweets, creating a presentation that appeals to all ages. Their customer base ranges in age from the 20s to the 70s — and beyond, if my visits are any indication. Generally the older crowd comes in early, then by 9 p.m. the restaurant is turned over to the young tech crowd.

Flats Straps Dana Crossing Ballerina Elastic Burgundy Classic Anna 20 Women's with Eddie Lopez’s canelés top the dessert cart, with another confection below, at Protégé.
Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

With everything going for it — upscale but casual ambiance, excellent food, caring service and a well-crafted wine and cocktail program —Protégé should continue to be a runaway success.

And if it should go the way of the long-gone Stars and Spago, I figure there’s no hope for a culinary renaissance in Palo Alto.

Michael Bauer is The San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic and editor at large. Email: mbauer@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @michaelbauer1 Instagram: @michaelbauer1

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