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[whitespace] Cafe Brioche
Photograph by Kyle Chesser

Unfussy flair: French ambience and gratifying desserts in Palo Alto.

An Even Better Brioche

What's delicious, softly lit and warm all over? Cafe Brioche, five years later.

By Christina Waters

JUST CROWDED enough to make you feel that you're in the right spot, Palo Alto's Cafe Brioche always seems filled with discerning foodies clearly having a good time. After five years of seasoning its California Avenue neighborhood with delicious French accents, this tiny Gallic oasis shows no signs of letting up. The nightly blackboard listing of specials romances the local and seasonal--last week the latest offerings included sea bass topped with chanterelles, and a tarte Tatin filled with autumn apples.

Tanya and I felt pampered by the soft low lights, the witty canvas umbrellas and the tasteful wall murals. An enormous mirror adds to the ambience. It's all very low-key Parisian, one of our favorite attitudes. From the seductive Cafe Brioche wine list we chose a pair of twin Rhônes: one red, one white. The results, from Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Combes d'Arnevel 1998 ($7.75), were stunning. The white version offered a dry floral bouquet filled with violets, while the red opened into a blaze of blended syrah. All the better to join with a basket of superb crusty sourdough and herbed butter.

Tanya had managed to put away more than one slice of the wonderful bread by the time her langoustine appetizer arrived, the plump seafood moist in its huge shells and bathed in tomatoey marinade ($9.95). My autumn salad of roasted beets, frisée and ripe, aged chèvre was punctuated with the delicate bite of fresh fennel ($8.75). The flavors of succulent shellfish, sparkling fresh greens and pungent goat cheese harmonized well with our wine selections. But, since this is Cafe Brioche, it just kept getting better. Huge white plates bearing sculptural entrees swiftly arrived, and food veteran that I am, even I couldn't suppress an audible, "Ah!"

My main course of rare grilled duck breast was arranged in an aromatic and beautiful partnership with mashed potatoes--"divine" was Tanya's instant verdict--and a menagerie of infant courgettes and carrots ($18.50). A curly crown of flash-fried carrots adorned the very top of the intricate--and completely delicious--presentation, which was impeccably enhanced by green peppercorns and zest of orange, both time-honored friends of game poultry. Unlike many presentations of duck breast, this lean meat was completely tender as well as richly flavored. Tanya's entree special of pan-seared sea bass ($18.95) arrived with similar vegetable accessories and a lavish, earthy topping of chanterelles and shallots slathered in cherry tomato sauce. The sea bass and mashed potatoes showed off their expected chemistry: a plush marriage of classic flavors infused with the depth of wild mushrooms. Terrific autumn ideas--nothing flashy, simply delicious.

Both main courses echoed the kitchen's skill and artistry, yet without being overwrought. In the justly popular category of bistro food prepared with confidence and presented with unfussy flair, Cafe Brioche continues to hit its target. And that finesse carried all the way through to some of the loveliest desserts I've had all year. Along with espresso, I found myself enchanted by a tarte Tatin so authentic I felt I might have to break into what's left of my French vocabulary. Glazed to transparency, the apples had been arranged atop an immaculate pastry crust, together fused into a caramelized something fit for the gods. Vanilla ice cream, a ripe strawberry and a single mint leaf set off the comforting tart. But Tanya wasn't the least bit jealous. And I understood why once I sampled the spectacular understatement of her dessert of warm chocolate soufflé: barely sweet, practically molten and also topped with a single round of vanilla ice cream ($6.25 each). Neither dessert tried to improve upon its time-honored formula. Warm apples in a tender, flaky crust. Warm moist chocolate served a la mode. Why is it so difficult for most restaurants to make these simple, deeply gratifying desserts? Eh bien, at Cafe Brioche it's evidently easy as pie.

Cafe Brioche
Address: 445 California Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650.326.8640
Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner nightly from 5:30pm
Cuisine: Contemporary French
Entrees: Moderate
Sidewalk seating

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From the October 18-24, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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