Dining Outside at Le Papillon
This might be one of the South Bay’s best-kept secrets: You’ll find zero mention of it on its web site, but San Jose’s venerable fine-dining Le Papillon actually offers outdoor dining.
Granted, not much of it, as there are only three tables.
But for those like myself who still prefer dining al fresco in these times, it’s definitely news you can use and appreciate.
When my husband and I had driven past the elegant, 44-year-old restaurant, which is located incongruously on the edge of a strip mall off congested Saratoga Avenue, we thought we caught a glance of a small outdoor area at the rear. A look-see of Yelp images showed what appeared to be a couple tables outside there. Finally, a quick call to the restaurant confirmed it.
When you make a reservation online, you can request an outside table, though it’s not guaranteed. However, if you make a reservation on the early side on a weeknight, and show up a few minutes beforehand, there’s a good chance you’ll score a patio table.
When my husband and I dined with another couple last week, we were the only ones dining outside along with one larger party. It’s a small, slender space, which is why it can accommodate so few. But it’s a very sweet spot, dressed up with walls of live succulents and pretty potted plants. There are plenty of heaters, too, which will keep everyone toasty enough after the sun sets.
After enjoying an impressive takeout meal from the restaurant months ago, I was eager to dine on the premises properly. (For those who still prefer doing to-go food, you’ll be glad to know the restaurant is still offering that option, too.)
The restaurant offers a choice of a $95 three-course, $110 four-course, and a $155 tasting menu. We went with the four-course option, which turned out to be far more than that, given the generous parade of amuse-bouches that preceded, plus the fact that the courses are all generously sized.
It’s not hard to relax and soak up the moment, when small cups of golden mussel soup with saffron arrive moments after you’re seated. Le Papillon does soup exceptionally well, which I first found out when enjoying some as takeout. The mussel soup was velvety, smooth and boasting intense flavor.
That was followed by the most buttery tiny round of brioche that held a soft quail egg yolk. Yes, you should definitely eat this in one bite. Next, itty-bitty, peeled cherry tomatoes that burst in the mouth that lay atop creamy fromage blanc; rounds of nutty tasting pistachio mortadella, and lastly, Artic Char roe with mini potato chips akin to the addictive crisp crumbs at the bottom of a bag of Lay’s.
For my first course, I chose the agnolotti with Burgundy snails, because it’s so rare to spot the mollusks on a menu. The plump agnolotti enfolded a black garlic filling with the tender, toothsome snails scattered here and there. Like so many of the restaurant’s dishes, this one came garnished with pretty edible blooms.
For the second course, a sizeable baby lettuce salad that showcased fresh fig halves with toasted fromage blanc, and hazelnuts two ways — first in the toasty, nutty tasting vinaigrette, and then creatively pureed into nut butter with small dollops propping up each fig. Dragging the fig through the hazelnut butter created the ultimate bite.
Duck takes so well to fruit, so the vincotto reduction of syrupy unfermented grape must was the perfect sauce for the tender roasted duck breast and duck leg with morels and black Forbidden rice. It was sublime with an accompanying glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Half a dozen desserts are available. But who can pass up the signature Souffle Grand Marnier, even if it has a $3 supplement? It is served out of its ramekin, so that you can appreciate its puffy, cloud-like magesty in its entirety. This one is a beauty, too. Airy and magical, it’s garnished with a sweet Grand Marnier cream, along with fresh berries.
The evening ends with mignardises of chocolate terrine and toffee.
If outdoor dining is still your go-to, you’d be remiss not to seek out this lovely, intimate spot.