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[whitespace] La Mère Michelle
Photograph by Troy Bayless

Doily Noted: At La Mère's dessert table, dreams come covered in creamy frosting.

Queen Mother

Saratoga's family-run La Mère Michelle keeps a tradition alive

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

AFTER THREE decades, La Mère Michelle is no longer just a great restaurant--it's a tradition. How many other local restaurants actually live up, décorwise, to their requirement for a jacket and tie? How many serve four-star champagne at comfortable tables? And how many local French/European restaurants can claim to be a gourmet family affair?

At her namesake, Michelle Masek still stands station, enforcing strict quality standards with the help of her husband, Joseph. This cuisine team lives and breathes the restaurant experience; after 30 years, their palates are as finely tuned as twin Ferraris.

At the stove is their son, Marc, a studied chef who has gleaned favorable reports so far. Weaned on the restaurant business, like his parents, he knows the intricate ins and outs, from fork placement on the linen to the tincture of sherry that earns the silky reduction in his sea scallops over mashed potatoes a well-deserved reputation as his specialty.

I was happy to revisit La Mère Michelle recently--in fact, since receiving the assignment, I'd been dreaming about the restaurant's menu. Although some have complained that the entrees vary little from year to year, I've come to appreciate the classic Old World standards.

The main dining room still sports a décor of meticulous design bathed in soft blue and a stunning chandelier of Austrian cut crystal. On the warm evening of our visit, however, we opted to sit on the terrace. This sumptuous space triggered memories of provincial France. A feeling of quaint village life wafted in along with the summer breeze, easing our tensions, prepping our senses for that long dinner I'd dreamed about.

Champagne flowed, Marc's sea scallops vanished and a trio of delectable pâtés with classic Cumberland sauce, plus escargots bourguignon ($10.50), followed. I always enjoy these escargots. In my opinion, they're the best in town. In keeping with tradition, the tender snails were served, still bubbling from the oven, in their natural shells filled to the edges with shallot and butter.

In keeping with my appreciation of the Old World, I like my food simple--and Michelle's Wiener schnitzel ($23) is as uncomplicated and as delicious as this dish should be. The white veal had been pounded thin like an elephant ear and served crispy in a golden breading. A few drops of fresh lemon pulled it all together.

The veal scaloppine ($23) was everything I remembered from the days when La Mère Michelle flourished in its first location, across the street. The veal consorted with mushrooms under a glossy brown sauce doused with Marsala. Though my favorite, Beef Andreff ($29), is no longer listed on the menu, I was told that the chef would make it on request. I couldn't resist. As always, we were served a heroic portion of tenderloin covered with mushrooms and brown sauce. Our poached fillet of salmon ($20) stood about 2 1/2 inches high, crowned by a rich, evenly textured Hollandaise, flowing in trickles down the sides.

And then arrived the part of the evening most vivid in my predining dreams: La Mère Michelle's illustrious dessert table. Situated at the center of the main dining room, the crown jewel of this table remains the cheesecake ($6). This coveted family recipe is Michelle Masek's personal specialty, and a visit wouldn't be complete without a taste of it. Memories of this restaurant always include cheesecake for dessert and strong coffee filtered at the table in little urns. My first taste awakened me once again to the charms of the good life that can be had even in times of economic hardship.

On the way out that night, I looked back and saw La Mère Michelle sparkling like a jewel-studded queen on restaurant row along Big Basin Way. From its doors and windows still pour promises of elegance and fine dining in an authentic European atmosphere.

La Mère Michelle
Address: 14467 Big Basin Way, Saratoga
Phone: 408.867.5272
Hours: Lunch Tue-Sun 11:30am-2pm; dinner Tue-Sat 6-9:30pm, Sun 5:30-9:30pm
Cuisine: French-European
Price Range: $15-$30

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From the August 22-28, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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