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Cafe Culture

Cafe Brioche
Christopher Gardner

White-Plate Specials: The exceptional French cuisine of Cafe Brioche is showcased on oversized platters that are whisked fresh and hot to the tables as soon as they are created.

The sensuous accents of Provence inflect the food and the feel of Cafe Brioche

By Christina Waters

IN A PERFECT WORLD there would be a Cafe Brioche on every street corner. It would provide a menu of disarming recipes influenced by the south of France translated through fresh, local ingredients. It would be intimate enough to make every patron feel at home, and be pretty in an uncluttered way. There would be ample French and California wines by the glass, and wait staff who spoke English with saucy French accents. And there would be a resident chef so sensitive to the needs of patrons, and the integrity of his cuisine, that dishes would arrive at the table the very instant he had completed them. In this cafe, desserts would croon earthy tunes and salads would sing Mediterranean melodies.

Lacking a world replete with such welcoming cafes, we can at least smile and be glad for the presence of one such place: Cafe Brioche, a stand-out in the evolving culinary gold coast that is Palo Alto's California Avenue.

It almost isn't fair for this neighborhood to boast such an abundance of terrific cafes, we agreed, taking our seats at a front window table that cozied up to Cafe Brioche's trademark murals. Here the words huile d'olives shimmer olive green against a lemon yellow wall. Canvas umbrellas playfully shade the central tables from the restaurant's soft lighting, while from behind a service counter in back--just under the row of blackboards listing nightly specials and desserts--the chef keeps a constant eye on the rhythm of the the evening meal.

The background is perfumed with the sounds of the French language spoken by the staff whose authentic mission has Provençal tendencies. Toasting with red wine--mine a light, uncomplicated Verdillac Bordeaux ($5), my companion's a big, spicy zinfandel 1994 from Morgan ($6.25)--we began what was to be a memorable dinner, from the first bite of baguette to the final sip of espresso.

Salads are given prominence here, we observed, when our starting courses arrived. My profusion of tender greens and radicchio was punctuated--not overwhelmed--with the gentle bite of fresh, tangy goat cheese and dotted with chewy sun-dried tomato bits and toasted pine nuts ($5.95). Our other opening dish was a knock-out composition of contrasting textures and flavors, involving a nest of arugula draped with long ribbons of ripe mango and slices of nutty hearts of palm ($9.95). Around the colorful salad, grilled sea scallops sat like succulent fruits--no wonder the French call shellfish fruits du mer. I preferred the lemony vinaigrette on this inventive dish to the more austere dressing of my greens. But both opening courses were beautiful, sparkling fresh and presented with great style. We lingered long, savoring our salads and envying California Avenue neighbors.

For one main dish, we'd selected an evening special of veal scallops and chanterelles ($17.95), which arrived sided with pristine, perfectly cooked basmati rice and slender green beans simply dressed with olive oil and a touch of garlic. It was served on a thick, over-sized white plate, as was our other entree, an opulent presentation of fresh sea bass perched on a foundation of mashed potatoes and topped with a vivacious gathering of ripe tomatoes, capers, tiny slivers of kalamata olives and garlic chives ($15.95). It was Mediterranean magic, every element balancing into a decadent whole, absolutely nothing dominating. The fish was perfectly sautéed, doing that age-old fish and potatoes magic with every bite. My companion and I struggled for decorum, but let slip a few sighs as we shared this dish.

The veal, cooked with a light hand, was equally good. The chanterelles preserved their subtle flavor and quivering moisture, even under a light but rich sauce of cream and pan juices. Everything sang. And the rice enjoyed being smothered with sauce every other bite. What a confident kitchen, we thought, sending our compliments and wondering how we were going to manage dessert. (Never underestimate the power of the take-out container.)

But manage we did. Who could resist the very idea of pear and cranberry clafouti? Not us, especially when the result was a shamelessly indulgent, old-fashioned pastry filled with barely sweetened custard and laced with ripe fruit. An elegant order of flourless, orange-infused chocolate torte arrived frosted thickly with ganache in a pool of crème Anglaise entwined with raspberry puree ($5 each). I remember few meals that started and ended with this much success. Vive la Cafe Brioche.

Cafe Brioche

Address: 445 California Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 415/326-8640
Hours: lunch Mon.­Fri. 11:30am­3pm; dinner Tue.­Thu. 5:30­9:30pm and Fri.­Sat 5:30­10pm. Closed Sun.­Mon. evenings.
Price: moderate
Ambiance: bistro warmth, bistro charm
Entrees: $14­$19

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From the March 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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