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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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