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Fall Into Paolo's

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Christopher Gardner

Autumn Motivations: Warm, musky dishes dominate the current menu at Paolo's.

Dinner at a downtown favorite delves deeply into luxurious seasonal fare--exactly what you'd expect from the venerable Paolo's

By Christina Waters

THE SENSUOUS attitude at Paolo's seems to deepen as the days grow shorter. Flavors intensify in response to the chill in the air--and somehow the earthy chemistry of bitter greens and forest mushrooms makes sense as night falls earlier and earlier. Continuing the legacy her father began, Carolyn Allen has kept up the restaurant's full-bodied approach to Italian flavors and ingredients, taking full advantage of our own Mediterranean climate and its abundant specialty harvests. The fall menu had just clicked into place when we paid a recent visit to the multi-leveled dining arena.

Early enough to catch one of the corner banquette seats, we surveyed the teal and beige tapestry decor, punctuated by a profusion of seasonal flowers and grasses. The ceiling, with its honeycomb of zigzag molding, looks surprisingly Mayan, I thought, sipping a gorgeous house Barbaresco 1988 ($5 a glass). People-watching is one of the main sports here--that and adoration of the menu, which this time of year has switched to thoughts of mushrooms, game, pancetta and comforting cool-weather crops. New pastas debut on this menu, such as buckwheat noodles with sage, and tortellini stuffed with pumpkin. New desserts include baked pears with cinnamon mousse, and a traditional polenta poundcake with dried fruits and Mascarpone cream.

A budino flan appetizer of white truffle and porcini mushrooms ($8.50) immediately caught my eye, while my companion began with the house insalata mista ($5.75). If we come and dine at Paolo's often enough, maybe our Italian will be fluent. Undecided about entrees, we asked for suggestions from our server, who proved knowledgeable as well as helpful. When my companion wanted the medallions of venison without the accompanying Brussels sprouts (which would have been perfect, but he is one of those guys who never embraced the brassica family), a substitution was graciously provided.

We chose to disregard the rather silly bread. A sesame-studded, over-browned loaf with a spongy interior, it was pedestrian and unworthy of such a dinner house. A francese or ciabatta bread--even some warm house-made focaccia--would have gone smartly with this menu.

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Each dish is a visual feast at Paolo's. The salad sparkled with a superbly balanced vinaigrette, which coated each tiny chicory, radicchio and baby lettuce leaf, with Roquefort crumbled among the greens. My flan was as opulent as its rare ingredients prophesied. A golden pudding, impossibly creamy and pungent with the earthy perfume of white truffle and porcini--one of autumn's great natural combinations--actually seemed to sprout, like a mushroom, from the center of the plate. Radiating from the budino like crunchy fans were house-made potato chips, a bit too oil-saturated for maximum crunch, especially given the drizzling of truffle-laced oil bordering the plate. The flan itself was splendid, its wild ingredients tamed but not timid.

Entrees were equally gorgeous, highlighting the kitchen's fascination with neo-nouvelle symmetry. Tender medallions of pan-seared venison alternated in a pretty mosaic with spears of asparagus and red new potatoes, each element impeccably prepared and up to the challenge of our big, plummy wine ($23.50). A supple juniper berry sauce, heightened with pan juices and wine, united each bite. I'd been anticipating my main dish of pan-seared sea scallops ($15.75). Enormous, moist scallops practically purred under a transparent glaze produced by quick searing. Symmetry ruled here as well. One plump scallop topped a midnight-green island of steamed chard; the others fanned out on a bed of pureed borlotto beans. Too salty and heightened with garlic and a spicy olive oil, the beans were overwhelming. Some mild cannellini beans would have provided a better backdrop for the delicate seafood. These beans grabbed every bit of limelight, more like a Tex-Mex shout than a Tuscan whisper. A simple adjustment can bring this dish into balanced focus.

For coconut lovers, the Panna Cotta--an alabaster custard of coconut cream served with mango sauce ($5.75)--is a fine choice from Paolo's outstanding dessert list. We loved the way the crushed macadamia nuts strewn across the plate worked with the creaminess of the custard and the ripeness of strawberries accenting the pretty plate. A glass of 1991 Tokay ($10) from Paolo's library offered perfect closure, the musky sherry bouquet leading to a sweet apricot finish. Elegant after-dinner sipping for an elegant dinner.


Paolo's

Address: 333 W. San Carlos St., San Jose
Phone: 408/294-2558
Hours: Lunch Mon.­Sat., 11am­2:30pm; dinner Mon.­Sat., 5:30­10pm
Cuisine: Contemporary Italian
Ambiance: Cosmopolitan
Service: Fine
Price: Entrees $15.75­$23.50


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From the October 31-November 6, 1996 issue of Metro

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