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[whitespace] Ambjorn Lindskog Spirited Sustenance: Owner/chef Ambjorn Lindskog works behind-the-scenes culinary magic at Palo Alto's Bistro Elan.

Photograph by Goerge Sakkestad

Bistro Fever

Deftly demonstrating why it captivates a loyal California Avenue clientele, Bistro Elan conquers again

By Christina Waters

BREADS SO AROMATIC and finely textured that they absolutely cannot be ignored. Normany butter--unsalted. Soft white linens. Bistro Elan makes a stylish impression even before the ordering begins. The patio was already full, so we grabbed a place at the long banquette last week, Corinne looking forward to a glass of Chablis "Vaillons" Barat 1998 ($8.75) and I to a big Rhône-style red from Tablas Creek 1997 ($10.75). We weren't disappointed. The white Burgundy unfolded, revealing crisp layers of fruit and citrus, while the blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah grapes grew silkier by the sip. The house wine menu reads like an adventurous enophile's Christmas list, with over a dozen off-the-beaten-track labels by the glass.

The night was warm and seafood starters sounded cool and inviting. Our waiter brought Pellegrino, took our order and seated guests at a large table, all at once and yet invisibly, as if by magic. At this 5-year-old landmark bistro, the staff, menu and ambience are all seamlessly calibrated.

Starters raced beyond even our high expectations.

A luxurious salad composed of half a Maine lobster--succulent, fresh and utterly moist--white asparagus, firm mango and supple avocados, surrendered to its beurre blanc spiked with black truffles ($17). The mysterious smokiness of the truffles infused each bite of lobster, as if they'd been made for each other. And of course they had, under the visionary eye of chef/owner Ambjorn Lindskog.

Another starter showed off fresh Maine scallops--fashionably flecked with crystals of sea salt--alternated with warm, caramelized plums in an opulent tamarind glaze ($11). A fluff of fresh cress punctuated the center of this stunning creation. These two dishes were among the finest I'd tasted in years--including what I sampled in Paris three months ago. Even the usually loquacious Corinne fell under the spell of her truffled lobster, allowing long minutes to go by in which she barely breathed, savoring the flavor alchemy. Such extraordinary cooking. And one look around the dining room, vibrating with appreciative murmurs, made it clear that Bistro Elan's patrons know exactly why they are there.

Our extraordinary starters gave way to a shared entree of grilled Niman Ranch New York steak ($23)--kudos to our creative and skilled waiter. The deeply flavorful beef--hand-raised free from any antibiotics or hormones--arrived juicy rare with huge slabs of yellow and orange Heirloom tomatoes, in a balsamic jus hinting of anise. A large wooden bowl overflowing with crisp, hot, slender French fries was brought with our steak. The archetypal flavors of grilled beef and crisp potatoes must be embedded in our DNA. This is immaculate brasserie food--cooked and presented with European flair transplanted to New World climes. Before you begin drifting, let me quickly add that the desserts were even better. Beautiful and direct, impossibly wonderful.

Does the very idea of fragrant pistachio cake, layered with an ethereal mound of mascarpone mousse, all topped with tiny fraises des bois encircled by pools of strawberries make you feverish? It should. And it did me, with every berries and cream and piquant pistachio bite. I considered offering myself to the chef on the spot, but thought better of it. Not very ladylike. The thin circles of cake, nearly 3 inches across, sat atop an equal delicate round of pistachio cookie--why don't more California chefs use the magnificent pistachio? The scalloped edges of tender cake supported a central core of mascarpone as light as a cumulus cloud. I glanced up in time to see Corinne levitating over her gratin of warm lemon custard in which a harvest of plump blueberries lay like dark pearls at the bottom of the ocean ($7 each). I gently called her back to earth. But she was right to enter an altered state--the dessert was too seductive. Its transparent caramel glaze shattered to the touch, and everything was lightly dusted with powdered sugar. Even the tiny pistachio cookies. Celestial pistachio cookies. No wonder Palo Altans strut--Bistro Elan is within walking distance.

Bistro Elan
Address: 448 California Avenue, Palo Alto
Phone: 650.327.0284
Cuisine: Contemporary bistro
Chef: Ambjorn Lindskog
Entrees: $17.50 - $23; prix fixe menu

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From the September 28-October 4, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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