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Still Stellar

Chez Renee
Robert Scheer

Dessert Storm: Chez Renee owners Jack and Renee Chyle show off their toasted hazelnut semifreddo.

The elegant bistro that Jack and Renee Chyle built continues to set standards for charm, coziness and graceful flavors

By Christina Waters

WHENEVER PEOPLE ASK ME where to go for the best food in the area, Chez Renee is always among my top choices. So it was with very close scrutiny that I re-approached this charming little shrine to chef Jack Chyle's flawless instincts. Just how would the legendary duck, the superb house smoked salmon, the indecently memorable desserts fare? Well, to be honest, almost anything would have tasted wonderful with one of my favorite wines in the world, Ridge Vineyard's Pagani Ranch Zinfandel 1994 ($36). The depth, the wild mountainy abundance of spice and pepper, make this one a paradigmatic zin and a special joy with game dishes.

We began with appetizers of the house smoked salmon ($8.95) and an order of penne al Matriciana ($7.50), one of the delightful aftereffects of the Chyles' frequent trips to Italy. The salmon, gorgeous in every way, was organized on the pretty china-ware into a soft oceanic cushion, anchored by slices of lemon and a garnish of fragrant, dill-laced crème fraîche. Sumptuous food, it was more than matched by the penne, a blaze of red (fresh tomatoes), white (al dente pasta) and green (chopped parsley). I cannot remember a finer plate of pasta--except perhaps Mr. B's home-cooked alio y olio. Flecks of intensely flavored minced pancetta dotted the dish, just the sort of countryside luxury that justifies the current Mediterranean craze.

The amazing Pagani Ranch zinfandel was opening up to reveal some of its varietal ingredients--the brightness of petite sirah, the depth of mourvedre clearly detectable under the mantle of 75 percent zinfandel. This wine might easily have graced the Last Supper.

Next came salad--a pretty mix of infant greens tossed with fruity, soft olive oil and just a hint of vinegar--and the evening's soup of sweet potato purée laced with green peppers. The soup was outstanding, flecked with a trace of cream, cloves and something like fresh apple juice.

The entrées continued the theme of culinary dazzle. Sided with a relish of cranberries, golden raisins and mustard seed, my roast duck ($22.95) lived up to all its previous incarnations at this lovely restaurant. Rare breast meat fanned out across a light reduction of fresh cranberries, red wine and duck stock, nestled by the roasted leg whose crisp skin yielded to a rich interior. Rosemary's rack of lamb ($23.95) was classic. Tiny rare chops, at once delicate yet substantial in flavor, showcased their light marinade of pomegranate juice, wine and garlic.

Each entrée was supported by a side dish of three vegetables--transparent scalloped potatoes (so good I could cry), puréed sweet potatoes (the perfect foil for the rich meats) and steamed florets of broccoli. No element was too small to be carefully and flawlessly presented--every single flavor sang. And this is an astonishing quantity of culinary expertise--dinner includes soup or salad, plus three vegetables and the main dish.

Unable not to gild the lily at Chez Renee, we ordered desserts ($6 each) of toasted hazelnut semifreddo and the decadent chocolate walnut tart with two scoops of housemade French custard vanilla ice cream. These are desserts the way God--and probably the French--intended them. The frozen hazelnut mousse sliced into gossamer icy glory, smothered with sauces of chocolate and crème Anglaise. The bittersweet chocolate tart acted like the world's most desirable brownie. Pliant, thick, moist and loaded with fresh walnuts, it was presented on a tiny throne of micro-sliced oranges. The housemade vanilla bean ice cream cannot be described except in terms like "childhood revisited" and "mmmm."

Is Chez Renee still among the very top dining experiences available in California? What do you think?

Chez Renee Restaurant
Address: 9051 Soquel Drive, Aptos
Phone: 688-5566
Hours: Dinner Tue.-Sat., 5:30pm-closing, lunch Wed.-Fri., 11:30am-2pm
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Chef: Jack Chyle
Ambiance: *** 1/2 Attractive, cozy, welcoming, this room makes you feel great.
Service: *** 1/2 Reliably attentive, informed and sensitive
Cuisine: **** Jack Chyle can cook circles around almost anyone alive--from finest ingredients to inspired seasonings, the cuisine is consistently superb.
Overall: Chez Renee is a treasure, for 15 years a classy port in any storm, and surprisingly affordable to boot.

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the Dec. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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