Breathtaking Baume

With all due respect to the Michelin inspectors, if Chef Bruno Chemel was creating food this dazzling when he was at Chez TJ in Mountain View as he is now at his Baume restaurant in Palo Alto, the man was robbed.

For those who haven’t followed this sordid culinary saga, Chemel parted ways — apparently not amicably, either — with Chez TJ in December after owner George Aviet grew displeased that his restaurant had garnered only one Michelin star under Chemel. In comparison, Chez TJ had been awarded two stars under Chemel’s predecessor, Chef Christopher Kostow,  now at the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena.

Chemel left to open his own restaurant in January, taking much of the staff with him.

In contrast to the high drama that led to its creation, Baume, named after an 18th century French chemist, is the picture of serenity. Take a seat in the tranquil, chocolate brown and burnt orange dining room with its Japanese fabric art work and seaweed-covered glass panes, and feel as though everything else in the world is a million miles away.

Baume asks you to trust and be open to adventure. The dinner menu offers only options for five courses ($78), 10 courses ($108), and 15 courses ($158), with wine pairings extra. The menu lists that evening’s featured ingredients, such as asparagus, vermouth, liquid nitrogen, and pineapple, but holds no clue as to how they will be presented in dishes. After all, Baume wants to tantalize and surprise, and it succeeds very well.

Service is professional and extremely knowledgeable in this tiny, 22-seat restaurant, but not at all stuffy or overly fussy. In fact, our server did a fine job of charming not only us, but the table next to ours who were all smiles and laughter all night long.

When I was invited to dine as a guest recently, Chemel chose to showcase his 10-course offering. The dining room was almost full, even on a Sunday night.

Chemel was practicing the art of “molecular gastronomy” even before it grew so fashionable. His dishes are modern and organic in look. There are a lot of bells and whistles to them, as befits a man who has quite a few high-tech cooking gadgets in his kitchen. But surprisingly, they never cross over into pretentiousness. Somehow all the flourishes work and appear more subdued than expected. This could easily be food that’s all looks and no substance. But at Baume, that’s not the case at all. Instead, the food is rarefied elegance with clever, sometimes playful, nods to familiar memories.

The evening began with the signature “Baume-tini,” a festive sparkling sake cocktail with pearls of lilikoi that burst in your mouth, sending an intense tart, floral, fruitiness dancing across the taste buds.

Baume makes all its own bread, including the two triangles of crispy nori-shoyu flat bread that arrived next, resembling handmade Japanese paper. The flat bread was shatteringly crisp and so thin that the dining room lights fairly illuminated it. Accompanying it were two spreads: a speckled tofu parsley one, and an olive oil one somehow emulsified with a 20-year aged balsamic until it was unusually thick and creamy.

The amuse arrived in a porcelain spoon — a doll-size day-boat scallop done sashimi-style with tamari, Basque espelette pepper, and more lilikoi pearls. It was a bracing welcome in one tiny bite.

That was followed by a lone asparagus spear. It takes audacity to spotlight one thick, asparagus spear, with its end shaved smooth, and crowned with shards of Parmesan, tiny purple flowers, and “hollandaise’’ pearls that burst and immediately made you think of Sunday brunch.

Next, Chemel’s “62-degree’’ egg. Jiggly and with an oozy yolk, it was accentuated by earthy mushrooms and clouds of foam flavored with Noilly, a French dry vermouth. It was accompanied by a most intriguing shot glass of celery-lime juice with a burned branch of rosemary. The drink was bright and herbaceous, with the rosemary adding an intriguing smoky pine quality that almost had a meaty character to it.

You’ll never look at rice the same again after eating “Terra-Aqua-Air,’’ nutty, brown rice with seaweed, vegetables and tempura. It tasted like a Japanese home-style, comfort dish, but one that has been lightened and refined into something all together new.

With it came a glass of unfiltered sake afloat with ginger “caviar’’ that carried a fiery hit of my favorite rhizome.

Next, silky striped bass atop a bouillabaisse gelee that tasted of the deep sea, and was topped with the crispest purple potato chip.

A bit of fun ensued with a spoonful of lavender foam that had been frozen with liquid nitrogen. Eat it quickly, in one mouthful, and watch your dining companion giggle when “smoke’’ starts spewing from your mouth like dry ice from a Halloween haunted house.

Seared foie gras is usually served with something sweet to cut through its fatty richness. Here, it came in the form of a delightful apricot-miso sauce and the thinnest sliver of candied pineapple.

It was followed by a small glass of house-fermented pineapple beer that was sprightly and hoppy tasting.

Chemel does his luscious grass-fed filet, sous-vide-style, in a vacuum-sealed bag cooked in a circulating water bath at a low, controlled temperature. Then, each piece is seared to order. The Eel River’s organic, grass-fed filet was incredibly marbled and buttery tasting, with an intense, orange vinaigrette.

The cheese course was a duo of Tete de Moine, the Swiss-made cheese that’s usually served by scraping a knife against it to create whisper-thin curls. The buttery, pungent cheese was served that way, and also fried up in a fritter with thick yuzu marmalade.

Like the savory olive madelines that welcome you at Manresa in Los Gatos and bid you adieu in similar fashion in copycat sweet ones,  Baume does a riff on that signal that the evening is coming full-circle and to a close. Here, the porcelain spoon returns seemingly holding the scallop sashimi again. But surprise, it’s actually lichee “sashimi’’ with crispy little chocolate balls instead.

Desserts, by Pastry Chef Ryan Shelton, formerly of Chez TJ, were dainty interpretations of strawberry. There was the world’s tiniest and cutest donut alongside strawberry gelee that tasted like the best Jell-O ever. A silky wedge of chocolate ganache flavored with tarragon was accented with creamy, frozen, burnt almond “rocks.’’ And the smallest strawberry ice cream float was girly and precious.

Dinner ended with raspberry truffles made by Chemel. Indeed, the restaurant hopes to sell handmade chocolates and tiny macarons packed in little gift boxes in the future.

Chemel has said he’s not cooking for stars this time around, but rather for the pure satisfaction of his diners. Still, it would be hard to believe that even the Michelin Man wouldn’t find gleaming pleasure in what’s on the plate here.

More: My Q&A with Chef Bruno Chemel of Baume restaurant

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Date: Thursday, 25. March 2010 5:25
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25 comments

  1. 1

    Unreal shots. Felt like I was there..sitting on the plate..about to grub down. Then I woke up. Looked like a true experience. Congrats. Representing the oft overshadowed South Bay.

  2. 2

    Sounds like a star meal to me! Wow, truly very impressive. Now I have to go and make a frozen lavender foam!

  3. 3

    Beautiful food and gorgeous shots! What an experience!

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  4. 4

    Interesting to see a lot of Japanese influence in the cooking style. Did the glass really have seaweed on it? Sounds interesting but I wonder if cockroaches will end up eating it up? ;-)

  5. 5

    This looks like an amazing meal. I’ve been perusing your site with much jealousy. Thanks for visiting our blog: I’m very glad your comment brought me here to yours!

  6. 6

    Wow…the food is utterly spectacular. I just love to see all the presentations…so awesome. You are very lucky to be invited. How I wish I was invited too :P

  7. 7

    Single Guy Ben: No worries — the seaweed is sandwiched in-between two sheets of glass. So, I don’t think any little creatures will be able to get at it. ;)

  8. 8

    So glad you got your Baume experience! Too wonderful, yes? Oh, those Baume-tinis…

  9. 9

    OK, Carolyn — I will admit that in the past some of my comments have tended toward the direction of levity, but this one’s serious. Also, I don’t in any way mean for it to be controversial in terms of other readers’ spiritual beliefs.

    (What, oh what, in the word could she possibly be planning to say??!)

    I am totally taking notes now on how you do what you do so very well…just in case, in some other blessed lifetime, I am fortunate enough to come back as a “Laid-Off Food Journalist Turned Freelance Writer/Blogger”

    OH MY GOODNESS that meal sounds sublime!

    Thank you so much for “taking us with you” on these experiences, Carolyn. I’ll wager that only a privileged few of your regular readers will ever be so fortunate as to be able to enjoy that cuisine, but the rest of us can certainly dream (and drool!) thanks to your lavish descriptions and lovely images.

    Kudos for another delicious review, Food Gal!

  10. 10

    The food looks stunning..and delicious, sordid saga and all!!!!!!!!!!

  11. 11

    You. Are. Killing. Me.

    I said it before and I’ll say it again: I want to eat every single meal of my life with you.

  12. 12

    Incredible. The food, of course. But also the way you describe it and the photos! This is magnificent.

  13. 13

    This is just too cruel. I know I’d never be able to afford a meal like this, but I can’t help but reading on. :-P The lichee sashimi with chocolate balls sounds heavenly!

  14. 14

    Oh…holy…wow. This guy even makes a simple egg turn into a masterpiece. What a genius. And seriously, can I have your life? I’ll pay big bucks to be your stomach for a day.

  15. 15

    I am speechless.. the pictures are breathtaking and your depiction is spot on. I can almost taste the food.

  16. 16

    I counted 4 items that you had on the 10-course meal that we didn’t get. (It’s so nice to be special.)

  17. 17

    Yes, I agree with Carroll. Thank you so much for taking us along on this amazing dining experience! Amazing photos (as always)! :)

  18. 18

    baume-tini? ha. pineapple beer? awesome. i’ve never paid that much for a meal and might never, so i thank you for letting me eat vicariously through you! :)

  19. 19

    Carolyn – if you had to pay for that meal, would you say it was worth it? Our meals at French Laundry, Chez Panisse, and Chez TJ were so disappointing that my husband refuses to go to any more chi-chi restaurants with me (although he loved Cyrus). I just wonder why food critics get such better meals than we regular folk – do they treat you differently? Thanks.

  20. 20

    Claudette: When I write about a restaurant that invites me in to try the food, I don’t consider my post a bonafide restaurant review, necessarily. That’s because I’m not eating there anonymously. It’s just my impressions of my one-time experience there.

    That being said, I always judge just how much I like the food and the experience by asking myself two questions:
    1) Would I come back on my own dime to eat here again?
    2) Do I enjoy the food enough that I would order the same thing again and eat every bite of it? In other words, it’s the typical girl-question of “Is it worth the calories”?

    In the case of Baume, I would answer “yes” to both without any hesitation. It is pricey, to be sure. But once you see the care and work that goes into every plate, you understand why a meal there costs what it does.

    It’s understandable to come away disappointed at times when we visit restaurants that have garnered such a huge buzz. That happens to me, too, believe me. I did not write about a particular San Francisco restaurant that I visited months ago, only because I was there with friends I hadn’t seen in ages, and wanted it to be a pure social experience, not a work one for me. In any event, it was a restaurant that had received huge acclaim. But to be honest, my husband and I left there, thinking, “It was OK. Just OK. Why are people so crazy about this place?!”

    There are two schools of thought among restaurant critics about whether it makes a difference if they are recognized when they go out to eat. Some say it doesn’t matter because most of the food is already prepped, so the kitchen can’t really do all that much differently just because a critic is in the house. Others disagree, and say that a restaurant can still bend over backwards to provide a better cut of meat or more attentive service. I tend to agree with the latter. I know that if I’m invited in as a guest of the restaurant, most likely they will be on their toes, trying to provide the best experience possible. But I also truly believe that any restaurant wanting to be taken seriously will go that extra mile for any customer who walks through its doors.

  21. 21

    Now I’m curious: have you ever had any bad meals at restaurants (when they know who you are), and how would you have written them up?!

  22. 22

    Uzbekcelia: I have had bad meals at restaurants where they knew I was with the media. In fact, one of the worst was at a restaurant opening, where it was ONLY media and influential community people who were invited. Now, you’d think with that crowd, they would take extra care. Not this time. Meat was tough, water was spilled all over the table, and service staff was pretty clueless. And this was a restaurant that had sister restaurants in the Bay Area. So, it’s not like they had never opened a restaurant before. I did not write about this restaurant, which I visited when I was still a food writer at the San Jose Mercury News. Well, for one thing, I don’t think it’s fair to write about an experience that terrible when obviously the restaurant hadn’t even opened to the public yet.Plus, all restaurants have to have a certain grace period when they first open in order to give them time to get into their groove.

    Otherwise, if you read my restaurant write-ups on my blog, you’ll note that I don’t always like everything. If a dessert isn’t up to snuff (i.e. the kabocha cake at Nombe in San Francisco) or sauces are too similar throughout a tasting menu (the goat dinner at One Market in San Francisco), I say it like it is.

  23. 23

    Sounds like a wonderful place and the pictures were so fool of color and creativity. The creativity is apparent in each picture and of course your description just adds. Sign, now I just need to find an excuse to check it out. =)

  24. 24

    Interesting post. I dined at Chez TJ under Kostow and Chemel. I preferred Kostow’s style, but have been curious about Chemel’s new place. Thank you.

  25. 25

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by CarolynJung. CarolynJung said: A breathtaking meal at Baume. http://bit.ly/azxhhL […]

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