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Eden With Elan

[whitespace] Bistro Elan
Christopher Gardner

Garden of Eatin': Bistro Elan's patio paradise makes a perfect backdrop for the delicious creations of chef Andjorn Lindskog.

From the tailored interior to the enclosed garden seating, Bistro Elan continues to enhance Palo Alto's California Avenue restaurant row

By Christina Waters

STILL SPORTING MILES OF style and sparkle--in other words, living up to the élan of its name--Bistro Elan was a cool oasis for an alfresco dinner last month. At the end of a blistering day, the vine-covered walls of the brick patio soothed the eye as much as a glass of hugely fruity Rhône wine soothed my parched palate. Past the lively exhibition kitchen, past the tailored banquettes punctuated with white linens, we took seats all the way in the back of the small, sheltered garden. Breads from Menlo Park's stellar Acme Bakery--another place that lives up to its name--kept us company along with the chef's appetizer offering of intense Provençal olives. Huge banks of potted white roses and herbal containers of rosemary and thyme surrounded us with high summer. My companion Lisa ordered a luxurious Dehlinger Chardonnay, Russian River 1996 ($8.25 and worth every penny), while I stuck true to my red wine tendencies and went for a generous pour of Gigondas Moulin de la Gardette 1995 ($6.50). We were confident that these wines could easily tackle whatever the menu suggested. And we were right.

As usual, about the only problem with Bistro Elan's menu--showcasing the deft touch of chef Andjorn Lindskog--is that it's all too tempting. Duck confit is one of my all-time bistro destination dishes, but then a plate of grilled portobello, with polenta and sun-dried olives, sounded utterly right after a warm day. Since there are all too few occasions to order one of the famed natural beef steaks from Niman Ranch, I went for a New York steak ($19.50), while Lisa pointed to an aromatic bowl of tomato and basil-drenched mussels and just said "Yes."

We started with two pretty appetizers, both making a strong nod to the season. Fresh Maine crab cakes ($9) were enchanting--very tiny and flavorful, perched on a bed of arugula with a sauce of basil and crème fraîche. Topped with caramelized onion, they were classics. Another appetizer of fresh North Carolina white shrimp ($9) was composed rustically with rather too thickly cut slabs of incredibly ripe Charantais melon, interspersed with four moist shrimp. In the center of this symmetrical creation was a tiny nest of cool cucumber salad, and a border of mango puree ringed the whole creation. The flavors were delectable and bright with summer.

Lisa's entree was a brilliantly balanced sauce of fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic and porcini jus saturating a generous portion of sweet Wyborn mussels ($15.50). Every bite took us to Corsica, or maybe Majorca--someplace Mediterranean, that was for sure. With it came a helping of textbook french fries, the thin, ultra-crisp sort that very few kitchens this side of Paris can manage. Also with it came an order of the house potatoes mashed with Maine crab ($3.75), at Lisa's insistence. They were good, but not great. I didn't care one bit because my Niman Ranch New York steak--rare, moist and oozing fragrant juices--was just too good to be true. Although it came with a beautifully made bearnaise sauce, the beef itself was so fine that it required no adornment. I removed the sauce with my fork, and proceeded to enjoy the exquisitely grilled beef. Somehow it tasted the way I imagine beef did back before the west was won (or lost, depending upon your perspective). Heirloom tomatoes--red, yellow and pink--fanned out around the steak, along with coins of red potatoes that tasted as though they'd been harvested just before dinnertime. Kudos to all involved in selecting the seasonal produce--such sensitivity to marketing allows the chef to work with a light touch and let the fresh flavors speak for themselves.

The unfussy approach to Bistro Elan's delightful menu continued to show its stuff in our dessert course. Along with espressos, we sampled two of the evening's desserts. Although Lisa had some trouble bypassing a semifreddo of chocolate and fresh mint, she loved a simple dish of coconut custard ($6)--barely sweet, very creamy--topped rather abundantly with diced mango. I loved my spherical cream cheese tart ($6), which was similarly too drenched with blackberries and a too-sweet blackberry sauce. The tart all by itself was divine, just like the garden behind Bistro Elan.

Bistro Elan
Address: 448 California Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650/327-0284
Cuisine: Contemporary continental
Entrees: $15-$21

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From the September 10-16, 1998 issue of Metro.

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