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Herbal Infusion

[whitespace] Tarragon
Skye Dunlap

Shake, Rattle and Boil: Mike Miller, Tarragon's executive chef, designed a menu to match the new Sunnyvale restaurant's cosmopolitan decor.

Tarragon, a new restaurant on Murphy Avenue, adds big-city spice to Sunnyvale's emerging restaurant row

By Andrew X. Pham

FOR YEARS, downtown Sunnyvale has been the gastronomic black sheep of Silicon Valley, harboring a little of everything--good and bad, ethnic and all-American. Then came a glamorous nightclub/restaurant, the Palace, and Stoddard's Brewery on the other side of the street. But the city still lacked a restaurant that served lunch and dinner daily with enough panache and innovation to draw the epicurean flock--a place where business executives could entertain and lovers could woo. Until Tarragon.

First the disclaimer: we did not see the herb tarragon showcased anywhere on the fundamentally New American menu hanging in the window. However, we did note the occasional pan-Asian seasoning twist, such as mirin, Thai curry, plum sauce and sake--our first signal that this nondescript storefront contained surprises within.

Sculpted in undulating curves, the dining room led the senses down its riverlike terrazzo, tricking one's spatial perception with muted illumination and mirrors. There were few straight edges. Even lamps were encased in molded glass. Lit in classic shades of bronze and trimmed with glasswork the color of mother of pearl, the whole effect conjured up ballroom expansiveness.

The house cuisine, designed by executive chef Michael Miller, lived up to the unique décor. Tarragon's changing menu can be described in the same cornerless terms. Eastern and Western delicacies share the bill, often transmuting into wholly new creations. For starters, we had crab spring rolls with sweet red peppers ($7.50). A pair of fat-fingered spring rolls, separated at the knuckle, were filled with buttery crab meat and Thai curry and overlaid with a mild green cilantro aioli casually dripped like spilled paint. A side of cool Asian coleslaw augmented the slightly oily rolls.

Then the tomato Napoleon ($5.75) conquered our attention. Rising from a trench of olive oil, freckled with a dark balsamic reduction faintly citrusy with lemon, stood a gorgeous, two-toned turret of yellow and red tomatoes. The Napoleon was cleverly layered with clouds of French goat cheese, red onion hiding between the folds of sautéed and grilled tomato. Undoubtedly, this is one of the best vegetarian appetizers around.

It's a good thing we split the smoked duck and pear salad ($8), because even when we divvied it up, our portions were huge. Copiously laden with strips of smoky duck breast, the salad was anything but ordinary: an ingenious alternative to the popular warm-duck-over-spinach theme. The salty, lean duck had a faint prosciutto undertone perfectly enhanced with cashews and verjus vinaigrette borne on leaves of butter lettuce.

Our roasted salmon ($11.75) arrived beached on a mashed potato and celery root puree beside a stream of vegetables and squash sautéed in sesame seeds. Cilantro sprigs laced the plate. Farm-raised salmon lack the complexity of their wild cousins, but our captive-grown fillet was of generous cut, and almost as flavorful. Unfortunately, while attempting to encrust the outer coat in caramelized sake, the chef had inadvertently overcooked the fish. The tang was there, as was the sweet crunch, but the magic tenderness of salmon had been bleached away.

Tarragon's grilled ribeye steak ($16) looked intimidating, covering most of the surface and bullying the side dishes almost off the plate. Seared to perfection, the beef dripped with a sweet plum and Dijon sauce, the scales tipping more to plum than Dijon, a little off-kilter in our opinion. There was plenty of work to do, as the steak still contained plenty of fat. A smaller, more selective cut might not have been as visually impressive, but it could have granted due notice to the attending "new potatoes" and grilled vegetables. The small, halved potatoes had a pleasantly crunchy, pan-seared face; the vegetables were savory and properly grilled.

The banana-nut bread pudding was more bread than pudding ($4.75). Served with a fanfare of caramel, it trumpeted a decadent finale, calling for at least two cups of coffee to finish. Three-flavor sorbet ($4.25) was the sort of dessert that captures the imagination of lonely hearts: earthy guava, cinnamon rooted; passion fruit, crimson deep and maverick; and angelic pear, as pristine as driven snow.

Far from being the poor man's Spago, Tarragon has much of that celebrated restaurant's flair, none of the attitude and no wait, all at a fraction of the price. Smart, lovely and ambitious, Murphy Street's new resident elevates downtown Sunnyvale another notch in the valley's culinary hierarchy.

Cuisine: New American
Ambiance: Mutable, romantic and corporate
Menu: Moderate (review reflects lunch menu; add $3-$5 for dinner)
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sun. 11am-midnight
Address: 140 S. Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale
Phone: 408/737-8006

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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