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[whitespace] Chez TJ
Christopher Gardner

Haute House: Continental cuisine rules behind the homey facade of Mountain View's Chez TJ.

A dinner at Mountain View's charming Chez TJ reminds us that culinary style comes at a certain price

By Christina Waters

FINE CONTINENTAL DINING in an elegantly cozy setting--that's what Peninsula movers and shakers have come to expect from Chez TJ. And that's still what they find when they enter the tasteful Victorian tucked into the heart of Silicon Valley. Floral arrangements are impeccable. Hand-blown art glass glows on each table, though the mismatched artwork provides many a visual non sequitur. Three fixed menus of varying degrees of complexity--ranging from the high-priced $87 menu, which includes three wines, to a modest four courses for $50--change monthly here and give regulars a taste of what's seasonal and appealing to the chef.

On one recent evening I selected the menu gastronomique, complete with wines. Barely had we sampled the excellent breads along with an overly chilled glass of 1995 Fallenleaf Sauvignon Blanc when, too soon, our starters arrived. A rather unripe tomato stuffed with goat cheese, napped with a Mornay sauce and dusted with chive blossoms went nicely with the first wine of the evening. My companion's leek and white bean soup was impeccable, served in a white-on-white embossed bowl, with a few golden ribbons of toasted leek as garnish. Confident and comforting, it also tasted delicious.

Our impatient if smiling waiter quickly brought my layered Napoleon of scallops and artichoke hearts with a generous pour of elegant Louis Latour 1996 Chardonnay. The vertical mini-tower of moist sea scallops and mushy artichokes was more successful than last week's appetizer of frigid foie gras terrine served on a plate decorated with animals, as if for a children's nursery. Jack's leek tartlette was overwhelmed by a huge dollop of chevre crème fraîche topping that definitely required the refreshingly tart green apple sorbet intermezzo.

A pretty plate of lightly smoked salmon was marred by slices of four different heirloom tomatoes, only one of which was ripe. My second course of Creole prawns proved moist, in a spicy dice of peppers, but oddly encased in an unappetizing gray-colored crepe.

An entree of Black Angus beef--frosted with a voluptuous slice of foie gras--came rather more well-done than requested, but very attractive in a rich, noticeably salty Madeira truffle sauce. With it were perfect spears of fresh asparagus and a glass of L'Epayrie 1995 Merlot that was a bit too flaccid to partner such aggressive saucing. Jack's gorgeous grilled halibut filet perched on a garden of flash-fried spinach, with baby vegetables encircling in a citrusy beurre blanc. The chef here is well versed in the art of classic French sauces and misses no opportunity to apply his technique.

Another evening the entrees made up for some appetizer disappointments--one wishes the prix fixe concept here allowed for more freedom of choice. We enjoyed a plummy Stonestreet Pinot Noir ($45) with delicious lamb chops--served on those jarringly Disneyesque dishes. Rare and delicious, the lamb arrived with pureed spinach, beautiful haricots verts and wedges of tiny yellow squash. Jack's duck breast was devoid of flavor, sided with extremely salty banana fingerling potatoes.

Fine salads of arugula with balsamic vinaigrette and crushed pralines led--with the hovering encouragement of our server--to desserts. From a modest tray of cheeses, I chose a Pecorino, a Pont L'Eveque and an absolutely on-target ripe Tellagio, which were sliced at table and arranged on my plate of fresh fruit. Jack liked his trio of housemade sorbets and ice creams, especially a velvety fresh strawberry sorbet that was celestial in its creaminess. We both found a petit pre-dessert puzzling. It tasted like cold, liquid crème Anglaise, yet was presented in tiny custard cups topped with a caramel sauce looking and acting for all the world like an uncooked crème brûlée. Our waiter appeared similarly puzzled about this dessert and shed little light on exactly what was attempted.

On another occasion, dessert of mocha torte underwhelmed with an airy sponge filled with cold custard. Despite lots of chocolate sauce pizzazz on the plate, the dish was lackluster. The decaf coffee was as wimpy as the cheese was bold. And we came away wishing that our waiter had cared more for the timing of the meal (he'd vanished when it came time to pay) and that the little details--overcooked beef and artichoke, and cloyingly sauced appetizers, for example--had been fine-tuned, especially at $200 per couple. Inconsistent presentation--bizarre table appointments amid the elegant china, some dishes artistically arranged and others in which visual appeal had been utterly neglected--confused us on each dining occasion.

Chez TJ is highly regarded; hence one is reluctant to be picky. But for that kind of money, we should have been allowed to feel unrushed and come away having some clear flavor memories. Nothing stood out, nothing really sang. It was simply well-made--though not always well-conceived--expensive food.

Chez TJ
Address: 938 Villa St., Mountain View
Phone: 650/964-7466
Chef: Andrew Trice
Cuisine: Continental
Prix fixe menu: $50-$87
Hours: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday

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From the August 6-13, 1998 issue of Metro.

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