Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Chef's Tasting Menu @ Chez TJ

[ Dining date: June 9, 2012.  I somehow didn't post this until now! ]
A few months ago, we attended one of Alexander's Steakhouse's special foie gras dinners.  At that event, each course was cooked by a different Michelin starred chef.  It was a chance to try out the cuisine by a bunch of very talented chefs, all at once!  One of the chefs whose dishes we had the pleasure of enjoying that night was Chef Joey Elenterio, from Chez TJ, in Mountain View.  His dish was one of the most creative that night, and I've been wanting to visit Chez TJ ever since, but since it is located down in Mountain View, it isn't somewhere we'd naturally wind up.  The chef has been very active in support of appealing the foie gras ban, and has been tweeting some images of some great sounding foie dishes, so we decided to take the trek before time runs out for foie, hoping it would be worth it.  Spoiler: it most definitely was!

Chez TJ is located right off the main drag in Mountain View, but you'd never know it was a restaurant unless you knew what to look for, as it occupies the first floor of a house, rather than regular commercial real estate.  The dining area is broken up into several small rooms, each with only a handful of tables.  This creates an amazing, intimate atmosphere of being in an even smaller restaurant than it is, and of feeling like you are a guest in someone's house.  Very relaxing, comfortable yet elegant, beautifully appointed.  The bathroom was equally gorgeous, with a burning candle, and a lovely orchid.  We were seated alongside a window, in a beautiful room with a fireplace, overlooking the backyard garden.

Oh, the garden.  They grow all of their own microgreens year round, and plenty of vegetables throughout the summer.  We actually saw a cook out there picking some herbs in the middle of the meal.  It doesn't get fresher than that!  Absolutely amazing.  This gives you an indication of the level of quality they strive for.

Service was wonderful.  Not 100% synchronized, but we were all served at once.  Servers were informative, and knew the details of every single dish, down to the edible flower blossoms that topped many of the dishes.  This is particularly impressive given how the menu is always changing!

We had two options for the menu: the Menu Gastronomique - five courses for $85 that included a few options for most courses, or a Chef's Tasting Menu for $130 ($205 with wine pairings), that was described as about 12 courses, but the rest of the information was mysterious.  We were told that it would use many of the same ingredients as the other menu, but be smaller courses and more creative.  I had a bit of a hard time deciding, because the regular menu sounded sooo good!  I wanted all of the options for each of the first three courses!  But, we'd already travelled so far, and the chef knew I had a thing for foie and uni, so I knew if we did the tasting menu, it would include the things I love.  And of course, we had to try the wine pairings too!

The food looked downright amazing.  The serving dishes were varied and cute, and every dish had impressive garnishes.  Each dish seemed deliberately crafted, with every element well thought out, yet not forced nor strained, as can sometimes be the case with overly artistic plating.  Every element was there for a reason, and paired with the other aspects of the dish perfectly, with complimentary and contrasting flavors, textures, and colors.

The ingredients were clearly high quality, and were prepared with flawless execution on the cooking, highlighting incredible flavors, and showcasing creativity in every dish.  Each dish was totally different and unexpected, yet there were common themes running throughout tying the entire meal together, such as smoke, tempura, and the use of pickling.  Of the 14 dishes we had, I'd gladly eat any of them again, and the top 5 were truly homeruns.  I've never had so many absolutely successful dishes in a given meal before!

The drink pairings were equality creative and diverse, including a rose, even a beer, and ending with a muscat.

This was one of the top meals I've had all year, and I will certainly be returning as soon as I can.  Chef Elenterio and his team are amazingly talented, creative, and I absolutely can't wait to see what else they can do!  
The only details we knew about the menu ...
Bailly-Lapierre: Cremand de Bourgogue, Pino-Gamay, Burgundy, France.
Our meal started with a lovely sparkling rose, which we were told would pair with the first three amuse bouches.  The first course served had three distinct elements on the plate, each standard amuse-size, so we thought it was what they were referring to as the first three, but it actually was just one of the three!  One diner mistakenly drank all of his rose with this one dish.  I'm glad I was pacing myself, so I had some left to enjoy with the next two courses!  It had a sweetness that I loved, just enough to please my sweettooth, but still light and refreshing.  A great start to the evening, and it paired beautifully with the first and third of the amuses.
Celebration of Fish Roe: Sturgeon / Flying / Trout / Mullet.
After the rose arrived, so did a little mother-of-pearl spoon.  Emil's face lit up, knowing that some caviar, or at least roe, was on its way!  The first dish was indeed a trio of roe, each presented in an adorable little vessel, and each topped with a different tiny flower blossom.

In the square bowl was American Sturgeon roe, topped with foie powder, and a chive blossom.  Foie within the first few moments of our meal?  Win!  The roe was slightly fishy and salty, the chive blossom amazingly flavorful.  I'm still struck by the intensity of flavor in these things, even though I've had so many lately.  I didn't really taste the foie, but I appreciated knowing it was there.  Favorite of the trio for three of us (we actually all had the same preferences), but least favorite for one other.

In the round bowl was the trout roe, sitting atop a honeydew gelee, and topped with a tiny Thai basil flower (since I have a slight melon allergy, my version actually had a tiny orange segment instead).  The roe had a great pop, and everyone liked the pairing with the honeydew gelee.  The Thai basil was ridiculously fresh and crisp, slightly bitter.  This was one diner's favorite of the trio, and the second pick for the rest of us.

Finally, in the little spoon, was the tobiko (flying fish) roe, topped with apple froth, shaved bottarga, and a cilantro blossom.  Tobiko is the standard roe you find on sushi rolls, and is why I actually thought I didn't like roe for a long time.  I dislike the tiny little ones, they always seem gritty to me, get stuck in my teeth, aren't very flavorful, and just offer nothing to me.  I felt the same way about these, and it was actually really nice to have that experience again while enjoying other styles of roe, as it cemented in my head that I do like roe, just not this kind!  Anyway, this was the most creative of the trio, the apple froth adding some flavor and different consistency.  Least favorite for three of us, second pick for the other.

I really enjoyed being presented with the trio, as it was a fun way to compare the differences in the styles of roe.  Emil's favorite of the amuses, second favorite of one other, and least favorite for two of us.  My 9th pick overall, but Emil's 3rd.
Walker Creek Oyster: Kuhlrabi / Wasabi / Apricot.
Next up was our second amuse, a tempura oyster, served back in its shell, atop not one, but two tiny plates!

The oyster was hot, clearly served within moments of being in the frier.  The oyster itself didn't have much flavor, but the tempura was pretty much perfect: crisp, fresh tasting, not too oily.  It came topped with some fresh wasabi which added a nice kick, tiny cubes of tart pickled kohlrabi, and absolutely amazingly delicious cubes of pickled apricot.  There were some great flavor and texture combinations in here, and the execution on the dish was perfect.  Second favorite of the amuses for two of us, but least favorite for two others (one of whom didn't eat it all as one bite, missing the flavor pairings, and the other being Emil, who just adores roe).  8th pick overall of the night for both Emil and I.
Maine Lobster Bisque: Rhubarb / Maple / Sage / Purslane.
The final amuse was a small tea cup full of lobster bisque.  The lobster bisque was one of the options on the regular menu that we'd all be eyeing, so we were delighted to recieve this.

Inside the bisque were cubes of pickled rhubarb.  They were crispy, tart, and totally unexpected.  I liked having them in there for the crunch, but I'm not sure the tartness really worked.  Maybe it is just the historic rhubarb-hater in me saying this though.

There were also generous chunks of lobster meat, tender and flavorful, adding additional lobsterness to the dish, rather than just the creamy bisque base.  There were also tiny sage brown butter marshmallows that melted into the soup, and a sweet whipped maple syrup drizzled into it.

The bisque was far more frothy than I expected, which you can somewhat tell from the bubbles on the surface, and really quite fun to eat.  I loved mixing in the sweet components to create an amazingly balanced bite, full of rich lobster flavor and sweet at the same time.  Of the amuses, this was Emil's second pick behind the roe, but the favorite for the rest of us.  One diner stressed to me however that he loved all three, and had a very, very hard time picking when I demanded it.  My third favorite dish of the night overall, Emil's fourth.
Two types of baguette, Strauss butter & oil.
After the amuses, it was time for the bread service.  They were certainly not stingy with the bread, we were presented with two of these baskets, and two big things of butter, for only four people!  There were two types of bread, both served piping hot.  The baguette had a great crust on it, the other one had a nice chew.  The most notable element of the bread service however was the butter!  It was crazy soft, with good flavor, and had a tiny pit carved in it that was filled with a really flavorful oil!  Butter and oil, no need to pick one or the other!  I appreciated the warm, fresh bread, and the duo of fats to spread on, but it wasn't particularly notable, and we had many, many more courses to come!  (I think that if any of us had any idea how much more food was headed our way, we would have skipped this, but one diner really did love the oil-butter).  Least favorite of the dishes for me, 9th for Emil.
Delta Queen Asparagus Panna Cotta: Sea Urchin / Cherry / Mousseron.
We were next each presented with a canning jar.  While the earlier serving pieces were notable in their cuteness, this was taking interesting plating to a new level.  Even more interesting was the instruction to have the camera ready as we opened it, and to breath in.  What on earth did this vessel contain?
Action shot, as the lid was removed.
We opened the jars, and smoke poured out.  When the smoke cleared, the first thing I saw was a lovely chunk of uni, sitting atop what looked like jam.  Strange, but it was a canning jar after all, so jam did seem fitting.  Then the server described the dish.  Asparagus panna cotta, topped with maraschino cherry jalapeño gelee.  Oh man.  This was my dream dish!  I've had a huge thing for savory custards these days, like the asparagus panna cotta with lemon crème fraîche from the Village Pub at the Taste of the Nation event, or the even better English pea and green garlic panna cotta topped with crème fraîche, crispy pancetta, spring peas from Radius at a cooking demo, or the uni and crab crème brûlée at Quince.  And I adore uni of course.  Together in one dish?  It sounded awesome.

And it was.  I eagerly dug in.  The panna cotta was creamy, a great consistency, with good asparagus flavor.  Pretty much everything I wanted it to be.  The gelee layer on top was a good compliment, a little sweet from the cherry, with a slight kick from the jalapeño.  The flavor worked well with the asparagus.  Also included in the jar was a piece of tempura asparagus, and like the oyster, it was another perfect tempura execution, with flavorful asparagus inside.  It was nice to have something crisp alongside the creamy custard. There were also some pickled mushrooms, tasty little bits of tartness.

The uni was the star, creamy, delicious, and a generous portion (although I would have gladly had even more!).  It was interesting to have the texture pairing of creamy uni and creamy panna cotta, not exactly what I'd expect as there wasn't much contrast, but it worked.

This dish showed all of the main themes of this meal, with pickled, smoked, and tempura components.  It had a great playful presentation.  Everything was perfectly executed.  I absolutely loved the smokiness to the dish.  Second pick of the night for both Emil and I.
Paired with 2011 Stephen Elhen: Riesling Kabinett, Erdener Treppchen, Mosel, Germany.
It was served with an enjoyable sweet reisling, and I found the smoky and sweet pairing to be really interesting.
Six Minute Hen Egg: White Asparagus / Blackberry / Ginger.
Next came a cold dish.  A soft boiled hen egg, topped with grated speck and rice cracker balls, perched atop a frisee and shaved white asparagus salad, with preserved blackberry on the side.

The egg was perfectly cooked, soft.  We were really surprised when we cut into it.  It seemed to be filled with cream?  When we inquired what it was, we were told that was the ginger hollandaise!  Inside the egg!  Amazing creativity.

The frisee and asparagus salad kept things light, the rice balls added a great crunch, and the speck an awesome saltiness.  Why use salt when you can use speck instead?

This was a really interesting dish, and I enjoyed the creativity and different textures, but overall I didn't love it.  My 7th pick of the night, Emil's 10th.

Paired with another nice sweet white wine, 2011 Domaine du Salvard: Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay, Cheverny, France, 85% sauvignon blank, 15% chardonnay.
Terrine of Sonomoa Foie Gras: Milk / Peach / Mussel.
And now … for some foie gras!  This was our first foie of the evening, a cold terrine, topped with a tempura shallot ring, served with lavender poppyseed bread, grilled peaches, a lavender mussel, and lavender peach vinaigrette.

I absolutely loved the tempura shallot ring.  Basically the best onion ring I've ever had.  Great flavor, perfect batter, crispy, executed flawlessly.

The terrine was also really great.  Super creamy.  So, so creamy.  My tasting notes from the evening: "Creamy.  ZOMG.   So creamy.  Seriously, so creamy.  Love this!  ZOMG".  Definitely one of the best cold foie preparations we've had in ages.

The lavender components to the dish were incredibly flavorful and intense.  I loved the lavender, which can often be overbearing and too soap-like.  Here, it was just balanced.  The poppyseed bread had such great flavor, as did the mussel, although I didn't care for the mussel (general dislike of mussels).

The peach had perfect grill marks on it, was sweet, but was served cold.  It paired nicely with the terrine, but I'd have preferred it to be warm.

A bite of the poppyseed cake, topped with foie terrine, topped with a bit of peach was really quite awesome.  Great flavor combinations.  But, there wasn't enough of the cake nor peach to go around.  My forth pick of the night, Emil's fifth.

It was paired with a wine, 2010 Catherine et Pierre Breton: Chenin Blanc, Sec, La Dilettante, Vouvray, France, that I somehow took no notes on, as I was totally completely distracted by how creamy and great this dish was.
Action shot of me seeing the next dish approaching.
I was already pretty thrilled with this meal.  The lobster bisque, the asparagus panna cotta with uni, and the creamy foie terrine were all such standouts.  We were all also pretty full at this point, as there had been a lot of food already, and we were only halfway through the menu!  I could have left happy and satisfied at this point, but Chez TJ just continued to up the ante and deliver the next absolutely amazing dish.
Copper River King Salmon: Apple / Foie Gras / Onion / Pork / Nori.
OMG.  Yes, local salmon.  And seared foie gras.  And bacon.  All on one plate.  Just seeing this and hearing the description made me the happiest girl on the planet.

Salmon season has been amazing so far this year.  And this was local, fresh salmon at its finest, with a pretty simple preparation, just allowing the fish to shine.  And shine it did.  The fish was tender, with incredible flavor, cooked perfectly just barely medium rare.  Served skin on, which was very soft.  Flawless.

The seared foie was also amazing.  Again, perfect execution!  Look at the sear on it - perfection.  The foie itself was a super creamy, high quality product.

As if this dish wasn't already fantastic, on the side were two slices of really great bacon.  Crispy.  Salty.  Maple flavored.  Really great stuff.  The sweetness and saltiness paired perfectly with the foie.  And it paired well with the salmon.  This is a dish that didn't need the bacon, but it enhanced all of the greatness that was already there.

Also on the plate was a champagne vinegar braised pearl onion, with a great tart flavor.  And some incredibly creamy roasted garlic, that was flavorful and delicious, but didn't really go with anything.  And a red wine poached apple that paired nicely with the bacon.  And a ridiculously tasty roasted nori aigre-doux, that I soaked up every last drop of.  And like most dishes, it was garnished with microgreens from the garden.

This dish was amazing.  Absolutely, mind blowingly, amazing.  Fantastic products, flawless execution, great pairings.  I kinda can't get over how incredible it was.  One of the best dishes I've ever had.  Top dish of the night for both Emil and I.
Kiuchi Brewery: Hitachino NEst, Red Rice Ale, Ibaraki, Japan.
The salmon and foie dish was creatively paired with a beer. I'm not much of a beer drinker, and I was too in love with the dish to pay much attention to the beer.  I didn't dislike it though.
Mint Tropical Fresca: pineapple mango papaya sorbet, mint gelee. 
To prepare us for the main dish (yes, there was still a "main" dish, and a slew of desserts headed our way), we were served a little palette cleanser.  A very sweet fruit sorbet with tiny cubes of a mint gelee.  I liked the contrast of the sorbet and the gelee, but this wasn't particularly noteworthy.  12th pick of the night for me, 13th for Emil.
Duo of Masami Ranch Pork: Pea / Carrot / Spring Blossoms.
Ok, at this point, I was stuffed.  We all were.  And none of us love pork (in fact, I've never liked pork loin, and only very recently discovered how delicious pork belly could be), so I kinda assumed we might leave this one unfinished.  No one did.

The pork was presented two ways: belly and a loin.  The pork belly was amazing, braised in white soy and pineapple, with a great sear on it, and was incredibly tender.  The smoke theme played in here as well, as it had a fantastic smokiness to it.  The loin was likewise very tender, perfectly salted, and cooked flawlessly.  What was going on here, I like pork?  Who knew!  

There were also two types of carrots; some shaved curls and some whole, along with a carrot "butter".

Peas appeared in several forms as well, as fresh pea shoots, amazingly flavorful and crisp whole sugar snap peas, a pea puree, and yet another perfect tempura of crispy english peas.

Garnished with chive blossoms, which continue to shock me with their intensity of flavor.  I can't get over how much flavor these tiny little bites can hold.

Like the previous dish, the sauces on this were incredible, and I soaked them all up.

This was the best pork dish I've ever had, and has changed my mind on pork completely.  Thank you chef, you have expanded my horizons!  My fifth pick of the night, Emil's sixth.

Paired with a really light, nice red wine, a 2010 Sileni: Pinot Noir, Hawke's Bay, New Zealand.
We were so ridiculously happy at this point!
Tête de Moine, Saicort, Moutier,  Jura: Apricot / Wild Flower Honey / Sorrel
Next came the cheese course.  The cheese was a un-aged cheese, very creamy, reminding me of a mascarpone.  Served with some bitter, fresh greens, dressed with a tart lemon vinegar, and paired with compressed apricot.  Good flavors, pairings, and textural contrasts here, but fairly forgettable for me overall (as most cheese courses are, plus I was still in stunned shock from the previous few dishes).  11th pick for me, 7th for Emil.

Paired with another wine I somehow took no notes on, a 2008 Moon Duck: Mourvedre Blend, One Time Spaceman, Paso Robles, California.
Meyer Lemon Curd: Sage / Strawberry / Guava.
Desserts are usually the highlight of the meal for me, and something I always eagerly look forward to.  I grew up in a family that consumed a ton of sweets, and I have rarely ever had a meal feel "complete" without a dessert.  But honestly, I was so full, and so satisfied, that I didn't need dessert at this point.  But of course, we had a few desserts headed our way ...

The first dessert was a meyer lemon curd, with strawberries, guava sorbet, and graham crumble.  I don't really like lemon flavor, and just found the curd to be too sweet.  Likewise, the guava sorbet was kinda just too sweet.  The strawberries were roasted with basil and were a little mushy.  The gingery graham cracker crumble was my favorite component to the dish.

Overall, I just didn't really care for this, but it isn't a dish I'd ever normally order.  A good combination of textures, strong flavors, but I just didn't like it.  13th pick for me, 11th for Emil.
Tahitian Vanilla Bean and Chicory Parfait: Raspberry / Almond / Lovage / Strawberry.
The second dessert was much better.

The main component was a moist vanilla cake topped with chicory ice cream.  I loved the flavor of the ice cream, and thought the cake and ice cream pairing was classic and perfect.

On top of it was a scoop of strawberry lemon sorbet, that, like all of the other sorbets we had in this meal, I found to be too sweet.  I didn't care for it, nor really see why it was included, as the cake and ice cream stood up fine on their own.

Continuing the smoky theme, there were a couple of smoked almonds.  And some very tasty fresh raspberries.  I'm pretty sure nothing was done to them, but they were strikingly good, clearly fresh and local.  A small smear of creamy white chocolate ganache completed the dish.

My 6th pick of the night, but since he doesn't like desserts, Emil's 12th.

The desserts were paired with a delicious dessert wine, a 2006 Domaine du Durban: Muscat, Beames-de-Venise, France.
Mignardises: Almond / Black Cherry / Basil.
And finally, the migs.

The first was a moist almond cake, topped with chambord raspberry puree, and chocolate ganache.  The chocolate and raspberry flavors were a great combination, this was my favorite of the migs.

Next up came a black cherry gelee.  It just tasted sweet, and I couldn't really tell it was cherry.

Finally, there was a basil salted caramel.  It had a good basil flavor, although I'm not really sure I want basil with my caramel.  It had a rather strange mouthfeel.  Interesting due to the basil, but not a caramel I liked.

The mignardises were my 10th favorite of the courses, but predictably, as they were just sweets, Emil's very last pick.
Signed, personalized menus.
At the end of the evening, we were presented with our custom menu, appropriately signed by the chef, "Vive la Foie!"  (and the drink pairing menu signed by sommelier too).
Parting gift: peach foie gras mousse!
The chef knows that I have a bit of a thing for foie, so he brought me out the most amazing parting gift ever: peach foie gras mousse!  I'm not sure what he used it for that evening, as we didn't see it in any of our dishes, but I had a lot of fun with it the next day, spreading it on just about everything I encountered.  It was delicious just by the spoonful as well.  The most amazing pairing I came up with was spreading it on top of toasted almond brioche toast, my parting gift from dinner at Baker & Banker the next night.  So good.  Thank you chef!
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