Dining Outside at Chez TJ
Operating a restaurant during the worst of the pandemic has untold challenges. But imagine if it’s one that’s housed in a historic circa-1894 Victorian with small rooms and tight hallways, and a tiny kitchen geared toward turning out exquisite upscale tasting-menus, not takeout fare in cardboard boxes.
Michelin-starred Chez TJ in downtown Mountain View not only weathered all of that, but also made a big chef change mid-pandemic, remodeled its interior, and even added a splashy outdoor dining area complete with modern fire pit, and a snazzy louvered roof that can close in inclement weather.
It remains a lovely and special experience, as always, as I found when I dined outside last week.
Owner George Aviet has a gift for spotting talent. Among the celebrated chefs who have headed Chez TJ early in their careers are: Joshua Skenes, who went on to open San Francisco’s Saison and Angler; Christopher Kostow, who went on to earn three Michelin stars at The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena; Bruno Chemel, who later opened his award-winning Baume in Palo Alto; Scott Nishiyama, who worked at the French Laundry, and is expected to open Ethel’s Fancy in Palo Alto this year; and most recently, Jarad Gallagher, who left to open Smoke Point BBQ in San Juan Bautista.
Christopher Lemerand took over in summer 2020, bringing along an equally impressive background, having cooked on the team at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco when it received its second Michelin star, and at Coi in San Francisco when it received its third Michelin star.
The team is rounded out by Pastry Chef Diana Caswell, formerly of the Bay Area’s Alexander’s Patisserie, Sugar Butter Flour, and Bushido Izakaya; and by Wine Director Paul Carayas, who has been at Chez TJ for more than four years and has helped the restaurant garner a “Best of Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator magazine since 2016.
The outdoor dining space is like being at a friend’s very well appointed backyard. Only, I don’t think any of my friends would think to place a purse stool next to my seat, as is done here — a thoughtful touch. I’m not sure any of my friends would impart such an air of mystery to the experience, either.
You see, when you dine at Chez TJ, you know the tasting menu will be $225 per person. But that’s all that you know. An actual menu won’t be handed to you until the very end of the meal. When one of my friends inquired what dish the black truffle option ($70 for 7 ounces) was designed for, the server would only hint that it would be for a game-meat dish. It’s all done to ensure that everything is a surprise when it’s set before you.
Of course, dietary restrictions and allergies are taken into consideration, as servers ask about them when you are seated and you can also add notes to that effect when making a reservation online.
Three different wine pairings are available: $150 for the nightly, $295 for the grand pairing, and $595 for the vintage. I went with the nightly, which introduced me to a beautiful 2019 Hans Wirsching Scheurebe Trocken from Germany. Made from a hybrid of Riesling and the German white grape known as Bukettraube, this pale-yellow wine has grapefruit and a hint of petrol on the nose, a light body with notes of honeydew and flowers, as well as the surprising minerality and near-raciness of a Sauvignon Blanc.
Dinner begins with a trio of one-bite canapes: a pomme souffle with a shell as thin and crisp as a potato chip, crowned with golden Osetra caviar; a crisp, airy meringue that’s savory not sweet with squash, thyme and sage; and a warm gougere with oozy whipped Parmigiano Reggiano inside. It’s the way you wish all gougeres were made.
Bread arrives in the form of Pogne de Rhone, a traditional crusty yet tender sweet bread from the Rhone-Alpes. This one was made with orange blossom water, the haunting floral taste of which was evident from the first bite. You’ll be smearing every last bit of the the house-cultured butter with flecks of Perigord black truffle all over it, too.
Spring means asparagus, and both green and white spears arrive on the plate with blood orange gel, a sous-vide egg, crunchy smoked buckwheat groats, and sweet-smoky Jamon Iberico jam. It’s the taste of Sunday brunch, but done up ever so chic.
There is pasta, and then there is Chez TJ’s agnolotti, which is in a realm all its own. The thinnest, most supple pasta sheet gets pinched up around a forcemeat of Maine lobster. You expect it to taste delicate, but it is anything but that. Instead, it’s shockingly as intense as any hearty meat filling would be. There’s a touch of orange and vanilla that go so well with lobster, along with celery three ways — shaved, foamed into a gentle emulsion, and its leaves as garnish.
Lemerand dry ages Devil’s Gulch Ranch squab for three weeks before roasting and serving alongside confit beech mushrooms, sunchoke puree, and crispy sunchoke chips. A roasted squab jus gets poured tableside, adding even more rich savoriness.
Before the next savory course, a palate cleanser arrives — a fragrant and floral sorbet made with Makrut lime and jolting Tasmanian peppercorns that gets garnished with crunchy millet and sorrel flowers from the restaurant’s garden. With its prickly peppery kick, it really does the job of perking up the taste buds.
That’s all the better for when the New Zealand red deer arrives, which is tender and so concentrated in dark poultry flavor. Yam medallions and crisp, frilly brassica round out the dish. It comes napped in smoked onion jus. Alongside is sourdough bread served with extra virgin olive oil plus a touch of strawberry vinegar.
The cheese and salad course arrive in one and in just the right amount. A lilliputian stack of radicchio leaves and nasturtium from the garden gets dressed with an umeboshi vinaigrette, providing crunch, bitterness and acidity as a counterpoint to the whipped cow’s milk Paso Vino cheese. I’ve bought this wonderful Stepladder Creamery cheese from Cambria in wedges, but never experienced it whipped like this to the texture of frosting. It’s amazing, especially when scooped up with the crunchy and airy puffed red rice crackers.
Next comes a pavlova, sweet and crispy, filled with bergamot orange cream, and finished with a red wine-strawberry sauce.
That’s followed by a shiny, ganache-glazed dome of Valrhona milk chocolate mousse sprinkled with cocoa nibs and served with mint ice cream with a wonderful purity of flavor. It’s like the fine-dining equivalent of a Thin Mint.
Lastly, mignardises are brought to the table on trays arranged with milk chocolate coffee ganache truffles, blackberry pate de fruit, and pretty Linzer cookies filled with jam made from kumquats from the tree on the property.
The pandemic may have changed so many things, but it’s a relief to see a landmark restaurant that’s been around for decades still operating at the top of its game.