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Basqueing in Comfort

Nouveau Trattoria
Christopher Gardner

Club Nouveau: Tireless chef/owner Annie Nunan and chef Gabriel Madrid entice Basque aficionados with an array of country-style specialties that perfectly match the mid-winter climate.

A welcoming, homey hearth, Nouveau Trattoria offers charms for the trend-weary

By Christina Waters

SURROUNDED BY an expanding web of designer eateries, each pushing the gastronomic envelope to crash-and-burn heights, Nouveau Trattoria casts a spell that neither money nor fashion can buy.

To enter the velvety space of the front lounge, with its burnished bar and a baby grand poised for moody jazz, is to experience the most welcome form of déjà vu. That sense of familiarity continues as you move through a nest of dining rooms lined with dark wood and gleaming with whiate linens and lace curtains. This Old World ambiance not only kindles sensations of homecoming but also gives a sense that we've been away too long. And that illusion--gracefully echoed in a menu of continental recipes--is the handiwork of Annie Nunan, Nouveau Trattoria's tireless chef/owner, whose Basque roots were the reason we'd come to visit last week.

Nunan--a striking woman whose sense of hospitality propels her out of the kitchen to greet guests all evening long--likes to explain that when she began four years ago she faced reality and catered to consumer tastes for Italian and French foods. But every Wednesday and Thursday nights, Nunan indulges her instincts by offering Basque family-style dinners in addition to a well-rounded repertoire of roast pork, poached salmon and flat-out sexy pastas.

From the looks of the house last week, there are many Basque lovers and descendants who share her inclinations. We couldn't resist indulging in what amounted to a generous, but never heavy, array of country-style specialties (five courses, $15.50) that perfectly matched the midwinter climate.

My companion and I found much to like in a bottle of Col-di-Sasso 1995 Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Banfi ($21.50), a Bordeaux-style red big enough to straddle the Pyrenees themselves. While we chose our entrees--I selected pot roast, she chose sweetbreads after toying with the idea of leg of lamb--her 16-year-old son opted for an appetizer of minestrone ($3.50) followed by tortellini with peas, cream and Parmesan ($14.75).

From the very first sip of the earthy, freshly made potato and carrot soup we knew we were in for an evening of simple, true, uncomplicated flavors. Flavors, as my companion noted, that didn't require intellectual deconstructing to enjoy. Sneaking a few sips of the minestrone, I openly sighed at the perfection of its broth, slightly thickened by pureed beans, and the abundance of vegetables that gave it depth. Soups this carefully made boded well for the rest of the evening.

Our pasta course proved to be a delicious portion of fusilli tossed with stewed tomatoes, peppery sausage slices, and tiny, toothsome pink beans. We loved every bite and could have eaten twice as much if it weren't for the courses to come.

The Teenager (who amply proved every cliché about bottomless-pit capabilities) was delighted with his enormous platter of tortellini. The curves of pasta, tossed with a nutmeg-inflected, very light, very rich cream, made an alabaster still life on the white plate, punctuated only by bits of pea green. The Adults joined the wine with their entrees: mine a luxuriously tender pot roast smothered with mushrooms, wine and parsley; hers a mound of sweetbreads delicately sauced with garlic-infused pan juices and splashed with cream.

Throughout, our dishes showcased the staples of country cookery: onions, tomatoes, garlic, beans. And the pot roast stood up to memories of my mom's own terrific version. With our meats came textbook scalloped potatoes and crisp green beans, all delicious. There was, inevitably, more to come. Green salads of curly leaf lettuces arrived slathered perhaps too generously with vinaigrette. A simple plate of Asiago cheese joined by ripe, sweet-tart flame grapes arrived next--the flavors making passionate advances on each other. Successful advances, I might add.

With our dinners came spumoni ice cream, or whatever sort of ice cream with chocolate sauce one might prefer. Of course, we might have ordered crème brûlée or tiramisu. But the Basque family style had conquered us--it was a sweet surrender.


Nouveau Trattoria Restaurant

Address: 521 Bryant St., Palo Alto
Phone: 415/327-0132
Cuisine: Italian, French; Basque on Wed.­Thu.
Ambiance: Old-fashioned, inviting
Chefs: Annie Mocho Nunan; Gabriel Madrid
Entrees: $14.50­$24.50; Basque dinners $15.50
Extras: Jazz on weekends; full bar; private parties.


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From the February 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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