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[whitespace] Phillip Kaufman
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Step Into My Parlor: Phillip Kaufman reigns as executive chef at Restaurant Soleil at the Westin Palo Alto.

Celestial Cuisine

Head and shoulders above most hotel dining rooms, Soleil shines thanks to the skills of chef Phillip Kaufman

By Christina Waters

A MOUTHWATERING MENU and one of the prettiest dining rooms in Palo Alto called us last week to the new Soleil, upstairs in the Westin Palo Alto where chef Phillip Kaufman is busy cooking up to his reputation. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Kaufman worked with Bradley Ogden and at both Square One and Gramercy Grill before being tapped for Peninsula stardom a few months ago. Working with local ingredients and a gift for provocative saucing, Kaufman has crafted a small and inviting dinner menu to match a fine wine list of top California and continental vintages.

Ablaze with burnt orange and Naples yellow upholstery, wall treatment and tasteful rugs, Soleil is absolutely smashing to look at--and be seen in. Sunburst chandeliers sparkle from the ceiling and a smartly dressed staff bustles about seeing to one's every wish. With more training, the staff will be better prepared to negotiate wine lists and menu selections with poise that matches Kaufman's enticing menu.

Though it's hard to bypass Hudson Valley foie gras, we decided to begin with fried rock shrimp and Meyer lemon aioli ($9.95) plus a salad of organic baby greens in blood-orange vinaigrette ($8.95). In a room this classy it's hard to quibble about prices. Though prices at first glance appeared stiff for wines by the glass ($6-$12) the lavishly generous pours in exceptional stemware made each sip a luxurious bargain. Toasting her upcoming move to Malibu, Iris looked smug behind a mile-high flute of Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut ($11). Bubbling like Vesuvius, the dry champagne was almost as nice as my glass of Peachy Canyon Zinfandel 1997 ($11). The view was looking positively Tuscan from our corner table, especially as we dipped into a linen basket of two breads, and fell for a stellar sourdough.

Our dinner at Soleil unfolded beautifully, starting with a chef's amuse of smoky eggplant broth topped with a drop of cumin oil, served in tiny demitasse cups. Rich and mysterious. Next came bites of light, crispy shrimp piled high in a glamorous martini goblet and drizzled with citrus aioli. Kaufman has given luster to this ubiquitous saloon snack by keeping focus on the sweet shellfish, rather than on its deep-fried coating. This was the best example we'd ever tasted of what has become a menu standard in California. The ephemeral crunch of the moist shellfish contrasted beautifully with tender greens and edible flowers drenched in an orange vinaigrette. Tiny sections of grapefruit, lemon and orange peeked out from between sprigs of frisee and mache--and it all went well with the thick country-style sourdough and unsalted French butter.

Both entrees were superb and served with flair on oversized plates with brightly colored borders. A platter of spit-roasted squab was, however, unbelievable ($17.95). The succulent young bird sat on a bed of midnight-black rice flecked with favas and cherry tomatoes. The rice itself--the star of the meal--defies description but offered tantalizing suggestions of violets, Pernod, butter and Asian seasonings. Playfully described on the menu only as "black forbidden rice," it was absolutely perfect with the delicate fowl.

Iris' New York steak ($28.95) arrived just a little more done than desired, but again the accompanying details added freshness and vitality to the fine beef. A sweet and vinegary endive and radicchio confit provided feistiness, while the plush, rosemary-flecked fingerling potatoes were just plain transcendent.

And the desserts were just as impressive. A trio of scented crème brûlées--each identified by a fresh petal or leaf of geranium, rose and lavender--came in two-inch ramekins, joined by tiny shortbread cookies and a spoonful of fresh cantaloupe sorbet (identified as mango by our server). Kudos to pastry chef Karen Gottheimer, who won me with a small pyramid of coconut-encrusted chèvre cheesecake. The dreamy creation sat on a slice of roasted pineapple ringed by caramelized pineapple reduction, dotted with a micro-dice of fresh pineapple ($8.95 each).

From where I sat last week, your first visit to the wonderful Soleil is already overdue.

Restaurant Soleil
Address: 675 El Camino Real, Palo Alto (at the Westin Palo Alto)
Phone: 650.321.4422
Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Entrees: $15.95-$28.95
Chef: Phillip Kaufman; sous chef Anthony Calamari
Cuisine: New American

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From the July 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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