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Edible Postcards

L'Arbre de la Vie
Christopher Gardner

Hot Fusion: L'Arbre de la Vie's Jeff Kuo and Joy Pan infuse California cuisine with Asian accents and bistro traditions.

Restaurateurs import their favorite meals at bistro prices

By Andrew X. Pham

SOME PEOPLE TRY to re-create at home the dishes they've enjoyed in restaurants while vacationing abroad. Jeff Kuo and Joy Pan went one leap further: They took a plunge into the restaurant business, replicating creative food at bistro prices--a difficult and courageous act by any measure.

Originally from Taiwan, the couple realized their dream in a modest Mountain View strip mall, creating an attractive dining cove that reflects a taste for the contemporary elegance of dark cherry-wood paneling, fine upholstery and a diverse collection of period paintings, all muted like a law office. Every spotless detail from the votive candle holders to the smoky-green water glasses to the stylish stereo tells of the care they invested.

The establishment's gems are obscured by a host of contradictions. First, the restaurant claims to serve California cuisine, which it doesn't--at least not in the tradition of Chez Panisse. Second, its friendly but inexperienced service staff simply does no justice to the food and the refined atmosphere.

Last, the short wine list, while smartly composed with an eye for value, is weak because it relies almost entirely on California vintages. Yet outweighing those complaints are unique creations not available anywhere else in the South Bay.

The menu's heavily favored Asian accents--evident in such dishes as spring rolls with sesame seed sauce, teriyaki bluenose, Szechwan cod and miso-sake sea bass--are balanced by cioppino, salmon hollandaise, chicken with tomato basil and pasta dishes.

We started our meals with smoked salmon ($6.50) layered between crunchy shingles of wonton pastry. A startling combination--berry sauce fringed with sinus-shocking wasabi--ringed the ensemble to produce pleasing, novel flavors. Next came a delicious oyster canapé ($7.95), which was a cheese-capped cushion of diced oyster, shiitake mushroom and basil tossed in a faintly sweet-and-salty black bean sauce, all loaded on a too-crunchy piece of toast.

Surprisingly hearty, our soups, a French onion and a Russian oxtail ($2.50 each with entree), hit the spot with finesse. Presented in an ornate terrine topped with the thinnest veil of baked Gruyere cheese, the onion soup seemed well balanced. Bits of French bread thickened the broth, adding body. Equally good, the oxtail soup was a heartwarming bowl chockful of parsley- and bay-leaf-infused vegetables.

All fusion chefs stumble at one time or another. Here, it was in the case of spicy lobster tails ($20.50). As presented, the hot chile sauce--distinctly of Chinese origin--overwhelmed the asparagus and the pineapple potato salad, which in our view was strictly ornamentation. The spicy sauce needed to be banked by some serious starch, perhaps lotus-infused rice. The pair of lobster tails (four ounces each) were panned to perfection, as tender and luscious as lobster should be.

One of the restaurant's heavy favorites, grilled sea bass ($17.75), came in the company of rice pilaf. Despite an annoying profusion of bones, our generous filet captivated us with sensuous petals of white, flaky meat. A light coat of miso, a drizzling of sake and some time on the grill conspired to produce an unusually rich flavor reminiscent of pistachios.

Dessert definitely constituted the weak end of the menu. The crème caramel ($3) was decent, but nothing extraordinary. However, we were able to coast through the finale with smooth cups of Santos coffee ($2.75).

What Joy Pan and Jeff Kuo have done is to bring home their culinary postcards and share them with the South Bay--a bold and delicious statement worth sampling.

L'Arbre de la Vie

Cuisine: California fusion cuisine
Ambiance: formal setting, casual attitude
Prices: starters $4.75­$7.95, entrees $11.50­$20.50
Hours: Lunch Tue.­Sat. 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner Tue.­Thu. 5­9pm, Fri.­Sun. 5­9:30pm; closed Mon.
Address: 1760 Miramonte Ave., Mountain View
Phone: 415/968-2298
Extra: three-course meals with coffee or tea for $13.50, 5­7pm except Fri.­Sat.

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From the Sept. 4-10, 1997 issue of Metro.

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