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[whitespace] Tarragon
Photograph by George Sakkestad

New Leaf: In the capable hands of chef Tim Benham, Tarragon blooms with flavor and finesse.

Tarragon Territory

Despite the name of this Murphy Avenue favorite, the latest chef doesn't use the irksome herb at all

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

THE FIRST QUESTION I asked about Tarragon was an obvious one. Is tarragon--that famous fine herbe--used in the dishes we saw listed on the menu? Simplistic thinking, perhaps, but if the restaurant is named after it, it stands to reason that tarragon would be first on the spice rack. Or so I thought.

When asked, our waitress smiled and said that the current chef, Tim Benham, uses no tarragon at all. That's funny. The first chef used it all the time. In fact, we were told he used it in everything he made, including ice cream. The second chef didn't use it as much, at least not in everything. But this Benham is different. Very different. He refuses to use it in anything, name of the restaurant or not.

It's one of the most misused herbs in cooking, he explained to us on his break from the pans. Having experimented with it myself, I know that tarragon can make a dish or break it all to pieces.

What I liked about Benham was the look in his eye. It bored into me with an intensity that conveyed in simple terms that he knew his business. His stand on tarragon serves his culinary vision and is not some egocentric preoccupation to be contrary. Most artists have goofy suspicions about things, hunches that make no sense, yet somewhere along the line they produce art that knocks your socks off. Benham's cooking did just that.

He's a true chef who understands fire and how to use it. He seems to approach his stove with an intuitive understanding. He cooks simply and knows the essential properties of foods and seasonings.

I saw him in action in his kitchen--an open domain, free and easy--with wood flames at his back and pans pouring aroma in all directions. From where he stands he looks out onto the restaurant, glowing amber and clothed in the garb of a contemporary dinner house--modern and traditional, rustic and elegant all at once. Linen-draped tables sit under terracotta ceilings, some against a bank of faux brick walls that temper the stark, modern effects.

Looking back at our dinner, a mosaic comes to mind wherein each dish--from appetizer to dessert--was a tile in the development of the total picture. To view one independent of the others takes away from the whole effect of the meal. First tile to appear on the linen was a generous portion of buttermilk-crusted calamari ($7) with a glistening caper aioli. Though a little greasy, the jacket was crispy and sizzling, the squid succulent, not a bit resistant to the bite. On its heels came a tropical update on the traditional melon and prosciutto, only this go-around conceived with duck crowned with pieces of ripe mango. Virgin olive oil spread across the tissue-thin strips like a translucent jade scarf.

Simple and delicious were our salads of butter leaf lettuce dressed with Dijon-Champagne vinaigrette with Maytag blue cheese ($8), and Faurot Ranch organic greens ($6) served with a pungent dressing infused with toasted garlic, black and crispy throughout.

Instead of throwing fish senselessly over mashed potatoes, Benham seared our ahi ($20) to perfection and fashioned the pieces into a pyramid over caramelized, onion mashed potatoes and Olson's cherries. Differentiation was achieved; no flavors were obscured. "This is the way ahi is meant to be cooked," my guest said, pointing out the ruby color and commenting on the proper texture and flavor.

The grilled pork chop ($17) formed another perfect tile, grilled to order, simple and thick, partnered with buttery, mashed sweet potatoes and apricot chile sauce--tangy and sweet as if straight from the tree. I enjoyed the shades of orange against the pale white of the pork.

The roasted chicken ($16) on a bed of roasted potatoes beckoned use of fingers over fork and knife. The bird ran with juice and fumed with the essence of wood smoke and garlic.

Flatiron steak ($17) balanced our table with something red. This tri-tip-style beef came in slices with a red wine sauce, potato galette and crunchy baby vegetables, thoughtfully mixed and matched for full visual appeal.

Like doctors in surgery we took up spoons for our desserts, especially for the trio of crème brûlée--chocolate, coffee and berry--presented with sugary crusts in individual ceramic cups. These were so good, all we could do was close our eyes, ponder and transcend.

Tarragon runs deep with talent. Our server handled our party with professional dispatch. She was knowledgeable about wines and helped guide us to a good Keenan Merlot '97.

In addition to Tarragon serving no dishes with tarragon and employing an inspired chef, it's located on South Murphy Avenue in Sunnyvale. After dinner I always like to take a walk along this brief, historic enclave and see what's going on. The street is a little gold mine of neighborhood activity--full of restaurants and bars and miscellaneous storefronts, some so charming they wink and smile and carry on.

Address: 140 South Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale
Phone: 408.737.8003
Hours: 11am-10pm daily
Price Range: $16-$23
Cuisine: New American

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From the July 5-11, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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