We'll probably never be able to afford to eat here again, so this review -- including Alba white truffles, suckling pig, and hints of Calvados -- will just have to do.
APPETITE There are meals that live on in memory: dioramas of conversation, heartwarming food, and that misty glow from a fine bottle of wine. Then there are those that are game-changers, the food an elaborate tapestry, weaving complex threads of creativity into an unexpected whole as impacting on the taste buds as to the eye. It borders on art.
Baumé (pronounced "bo-meh") in Palo Alto vies for the latter category at a level not seen enough in the Bay Area. Foams may be long over, but for an adventurous food lover, to sit down for three hours with merely a list of ingredients and almost 20 bites and courses, is an exciting event. I'd call Baumé one of our best fine dining restaurants. It is artful, employing molecular processes alongside classic French technique. A list of menu ingredients like vadouvan, Calvados, kabocha, caviar, and the like tease, but essentially give little intimation as to what lies ahead.
Naming Baumé one of 2010's best new restaurant openings in both the Guardian and my Perfect Spot newsletter, I found chef Bruno Chemel's vision inspiring, even as the restaurant was still discovering itself. Returning at the end of 2011, it is coming into its own. Prices reflect this "sense of self." Formerly just over $100 per person, it's now a whopping $168 without drink. Add on wine pairings and it's $288 (or $368 if you desire the premium wine pairing). It's one mighty expensive night out. But there are more courses than there were before, more intermezzos, bites, and delights at every turn. If you're going to splurge, Baumé is one of the more experimentally satisfying options.
The setting is understated, modern, but still a little staid, even museum-like. Thankfully, intimacy and bright orange and brown tones keep it from being cold, with one small room of four or five tables and additional individual tables behind curtains. Service is seamless — although with this many courses, expect to see waitstaff often throughout the meal. I am always impressed when I can ask even a server filling my water about ingredients and all are well-versed on each dish. This level of care is crucial in a place like Baumé.
Even a menu of expensive aperitifs (four, ranging from $15-28) has been elevated since my last visit. A Baumétini ($18) is dramatically presented with sparkling sake poured over liquid nitrogen lilikoi and passion fruit "ice," a frosty haze erupting from the glass. The taste is tart, intense, palate-cleansing.
On a white, indented ceramic block sits a round roll of fig pistachio "focaccia" — the bread course. Looking more akin to mochi, the warm, green roll perks up in yuzu glaze with salt flecks. This was followed by juicy beets and onions in panko crumbs with a potent shot of celery beet juice. In 2010, Chef Chemel's most memorable dish was a 62-degree egg. This is the only dish I recognize from the year before, silky as ever, though its presentation is different over lentils in a vermouth sabayon, topped with tiny sage leaves and toasted garlic bread crumbs.
Chemel shines at produce: a delicate autumn salad is one of the most beautiful and finest tasting dishes. It combines bits of apple, pear, squash, and vivid red leaves with acorn wafers. The dish blossoms with a gorgeous pairing of 2005 Domaine des Baumard Clos du Papillion Savennieres from the Loire, a 100 percent Chenin Blanc that surprises with orchard fruit contrasted by mineral earthiness.
Other stand-out moments included the add-on course (yes, for even more money) of Alba white truffles from Piemonte, Italy, in season and available for a matter of days. The staff generously shaved a luxurious truffle over cauliflower tapioca risotto, pairing it with 2006 Morey-Coffinet Morgeot Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru from Burgundy.
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