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French Twist

La Maison du Cafe
Christopher Gardner

Crème de la Crème: Chef Noe Villa Valdez cultivates a loyal following of diners at Los Gatos' La Maison du Cafe.

La Maison du Cafe's owner and chef
make a small treasure of a bistro

By Andrew X. Pham

PURVEYOR OF dining experience, merchant of gastronomy, Ibo Ibrahim Guney is a host with the natural gift for disarming hospitality. He is the maitre d' and the waiter. Last and least, he is the proprietor.

Those planning a romantic dinner where every tone must exude discerning perfection could do no better than to entrust the entire affair to Guney. From apéritif to coffee, Guney guides his charges through a dining experience with the artful ease born of a lifelong devotion to the hospitality and restaurant business.

Throughout our meal, the service was seamless--formal but personal, jovial but not intrusive, and classy without trying. Each course was precisely timed, each wine service drop-perfect. And because the food was first-rate, it was difficult to say who played the melody and who carried the chords of the evening, Guney or chef Noe Villa Valdez. Together they made a formidable duet for this small treasure of a bistro.

In one quiet corner of Vasona Station Shopping Center, La Maison du Cafe cultivates a loyal following of diners who seem bent on keeping the restaurant their little secret. Frosted windows cozify an interior trimmed in wood lattices, framing a personable country-inn ambiance. The orderly arrangement, simplified with impeccable details, conveys easy comforts. A vaulted beam ceiling lifts the eyes from selections of Impressionist paintings mounted high on the walls to the faux balcony where a classical guitarist often plays. Softened by spotlights angled on potted plants and warmed by candles, the air seems imbued with occasion--unforgettable impressions in very few strokes, each brief, simple and deft.

As always, in gentle coves such as this, the wise surrender to the day's specialties. But first we were greeted with a complimentary apéritif followed by a fresh baguette and butter petals. Stimulated, we beckoned forth, at our waiter's recommendation, a spinach mousse and eggplant sensation that gentrifies humble vegetables with international flavors. Flawlessly sculpted, a pair of eggplant discs, seared in olive oil, carried generous strokes of tomato sauce and spinach mousse made with pine nuts, diced tomatoes, mushrooms, black olives and ricotta cheese. A baked-in coat of Parmesan covered the entire ensemble, which was served with a dollop of house yogurt. Extremely light and balanced, this recipe appeals with untutored ingenuity.

We were also impressed by the crabe de poulette, composed of snow crab legs lightly floured, vanishingly sweet, in a white wine and fresh cream sauté. Sprawled atop slabs of buttery house-made croutons, the crab meat, checked with notes of lemon juice and mushrooms, serenaded our palates with irresistible flavors.

It seemed a crime to forgo escargots in such a splendid place, so we didn't. Baked in sweet butter with mushrooms, shallots, parsley, red wine, Dijon mustard and garlic, these carefully prepped snails proved worthy of their reputation as a delicacy.

We followed these with a soup course, sampling both white bean cream and asparagus cream. Again, the kitchen impressed with the care invested in these flavorful intermissions, each redolent with the fragrance of fresh herbs and vegetables. Labors of love show in the minute details.

Without a doubt, the lamb fillet in portobello mushroom sauce marshaled the most praise. Suffused with an overnight herbal marinade, the fillet crooned to our palates with tarragon, red wine and Dijon mustard. A proper pan searing imparted the lightest of caramelized coats to the meat.

Then there was the memorable sea bass dressed in a Marsala wine sauce. Freshness won the day for this entrée. Fresh basil, dill, sorrel, artichoke hearts and diced tomato, moderated by the wine, seasoned the flawless white flesh of the sea bass, making it one very fine piece of fish.

For the happy endings, we selected a sweet trio: cappuccino crunch, chocolate blackout cake and espresso velvet. We started this last act with a complimentary round of champagne, ended it with coffee, and occupied the balance with seemingly endless and luscious nibbles from our hoard of sweets. A fitting finale to an exceptional meal. Bon appétit.

La Maison du Cafe

Cuisine: country French
Ambiance: classy casual
Menu: lunch $7­$15; dinner $14­$22; Sunday brunch $10­$16
Hours: Lunch Tue.­Fri., 11am­2:30pm; dinner Tue.­Sat., 5:30­10pm; brunch Sun. 10am­2pm
Address: 14103-C Winchester Blvd., Los Gatos
Phone: 408/378-2233
Extras: extensive wine list and discerning service

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From the December 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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