Palo Alto, California
Date Visited: 5/20/16
Meal Length: 2 hours [lunch menu]
Why should you be interested?
I can’t say that I had very good reason to book a lunch reservation at Baumé. In truth, it happened to offer one of the few lunch tasting menus in the Bay Area. Beyond that, the restaurant has rejected whoring itself out to the food media–or even claiming its social media handles (gasp!). Bruno Chemel has two Michelin stars but has his focus set firmly on the food–that’s why you should care.
How easy is it to locate?
While Baumé is located in a nondescript strip mall out in Palo Alto, parking is plentiful. You probably won’t ding your car after a few pours of wine either.
How do you feel when you enter?
Confused for a moment, as your eyes adjust to the all too dark space (perhaps this is a unique problem for lunch guests taking refuge from the midday brightness). As you strain your eyes and tiptoe towards the hostess stand, a seasoned but supple voice welcomes you and registers your name immediately. Christie, the patroness (and wife of the chef), winds you around a corner and past tall, standing curtains to your table. It struck me instantly that I’ve never seen a restaurant, fundamentally, provide guests the level of privacy Baumé surrenders. The darkness made it hard for me to remember too much of the space: gleaming china, cushioned chairs, and the two of us at a sprawling, dark wood table looking towards a small cellar. This sort of privacy removes any thrill of people watching—and you’d better be fond of who you’re dining with—but provides a rather wonderful intimacy and comfort, like you’re dining at an exclusive, underground French supper club. Though you almost feel your table is under a spotlight, the moody surroundings do their part to amplify the chef’s cooking and promote a covert, finger-licking enjoyment of the meal.
How does the service make you feel?
Special, and not because someone is straining to make you happy. Intimate husband and wife operations like this (and 42 Grams, Goosefoot in Chicago), just seem to capture a warmth and eternal sense of hospitality that few traditional fine dining restaurants—even on their best days—can match. And I really do think Baumé’s environment would work against it otherwise–nobody wants to be alone in a dark, quiet restaurant with just the chef’s wife. You can tell the restaurant is home for the Chemels, and even if most hosts don’t Coravin sauternes for you at the start of the meal, you’re made to feel honored and (most importantly) at ease despite the dignified setting.
How should you order?
Baumé serves one set, seasonal menu for lunch (6 courses, $228) and dinner (8 courses, $298). The only choice, and it is a big one, is between the accompanying wine pairings—there’s no wine list and outside wines are not allowed. While I once eagerly ordered any wine pairing that corresponded to a tasting, I’ve found that unless I’m in the mood to learn and develop my taste for wine, I find far greater satisfaction working with the sommelier to find one or two bottles of good value and drinking on their list. My cynical side immediately suspected Baumé was looking to fleece their captive audience once seated at their plush, private table: “pony up, or it’ll be water with the boeuf for you, Mr. Teetotaler.” Yet the pairings at Baumé are disarmingly and proudly… honest… and thoughtful. Yes, there’s a “Prestige” pairing that costs $500 alone, but the menu plainly reveals its contents (and reminds that prices are inclusive of service, gratuity). Other diners won’t feel comfortable parting with $250 or $150 for premium and reduced pairings. However, those who enjoy wine and food—or perhaps never really understood how the two improve each other—should not hesitate. Baumé’s excellent offerings only amplified my suspicion of pairings in general: why aren’t they all this well-conceived and so obviously, intuitively satisfying?
What are the notable dishes?
Le Caviar: Rather than pair the coveted golden osetra with traditional flavors of crème fraiche or chive, the caviar course surprised us with flavors of yellow squash and kumquat. They brought earth and tart/acid, but the flavors seemed restrained until we actually sipped the sauternes curiously paired with the course. The dish needed the wine but unquestionably shined with it. While I’ve enjoyed more standard pairings of caviar and champagne or even caviar with sake, the dish was a real education for me in how a pairing can bring its own impressive personality while making a dish whole.
Le Poisson: To spoil some small part of my next couple reviews: San Francisco’s restaurants really wowed me with the quality of their cooked fish preparations. Starting with Baumé, each meal seemed to deliver that simplicity, that elegance of light texture and rich sauce others obsess over. The fish that afternoon, turbot, came from the island of Noirmoutier near Nantes, and it needed nothing more than fava beans, lemon foam, and a few crisps of potato to awaken me from my usual cooked fish malaise. The fillet was slick with butter and soft on the tongue but didn’t lack any heft. The tiny fava beans were nutty and sweet, the potatoes wafer-thin yet wonderfully crisp. And as the vegetables pulled the turbot towards richness, the lemon foam cut through it all, reminding you how effective (and still relevant) the technique is when done with care. With a swish of white burgundy to wash it down, I told my companion: “you know, I’d really like another plate of fish for once.”
La Volaille: Given the restaurant’s reverence for wine, I knew a game bird would be right around the corner. As with the turbot, simple and familiar flavors reigned supreme; the chef’s expert touch combining them to reach greater heights than dainty game dishes, for me, usually climb. California squab breast was caramelized and placed into a neat pile on the plate with fennel and some strewn cherry jellies. The presentation, particularly in the sparse setting, evoked a bareness that I suspected (given how well the meal was progressing) betrayed an intense, rewarding flavor. Boy was I right. Just look at the skin on that bird. Look at the loving layer of fines herbes. Though the squab was succulent and highly satisfying alone, bites of the cherry added robust sweetness that further bridged the gaminess to the accompanying Saint-Estèphe bordeaux. Perhaps the freshness of the local bird played a bigger part than I realize, but I just can’t imagine squab being any better.
Le Fromage: For a cheese course to make me happy, the cheese often simply needs to be there. Baumé certainly didn’t skimp by offering a fine French Beaufort; it was the moniker that they were “pillows” that aroused my curiosity. Like with the foam, any savory food molded to an abstract form today runs the risk of running afoul of critics who decry fussy “tweezer food.” And, again like the foam, Chemel shows that technique tempered with care can be timeless. As an ethereally light pillow, the Beaufort ditches the weightiest vestiges of its funk and sets the table for the subtle bite of pink peppercorn. The dish succeeded (and still lingers in my mind) because it so essentially uses the form of the pillow to highlight the milder notes of the cheese.
Le Framboise: It’s hard for me to get excited about dessert, and little dainties like these (including a strawberry made of… strawberry sorbet) often satisfy the camera more than my Herculean appetite. Yet the roundabout of bites–real strawberry, “fake” strawberry, hazelnut cube, and green tea–each struck with a concentrated yet friendly sweetness. Quite in tune with the savory courses and appropriately light for lunch yet heavy in technique.
THE BREAD BASKET
Petit Baguette: I was rather shocked when this appeared at our table. Not just that it graced the center of an alien, glass-shaped bowl but that it looked like an altogether-too-pale anal probe from some other planet. I’d truly never had a baguette presented to me—so proudly—yet lacking the gradient of tan, brown, and (for some) black we covet for its telltale crunch. Baumé’s baguette, contrary to first glance, was a textural triumph dressed up in sheep’s clothing. The far-too-light crust cracked with the sound of a thunderstorm and revealed soft clouds of crumb. All I can remember about the butter is that it was French, soft, and made precious (though it was replaced) by the bread’s warmth. Like so many of Chemel’s creations, the bread course both disarms and rewards with its simplicity.
Was the meal satisfying?
Though the meal clearly benefits from the accompanying wine—with the caviar I thought it was essential to me really liking the dish—lunch at Baumé satisfies by imbuing lighter fare and smaller, more delicate portions with a superb intensity of flavor. Foam and pillows might make fans of “avant garde cuisine” moan, yet their use is careful, considered and a testament to the intellectual and philosophical rigor to Chemel’s cooking. Nothing, to me, seemed like a “trick”—a dish so luxurious or superfluously presented that it satisfies the “fine dining as an experience” crowd at the expense of some distinct personality. I got a real sense I was eating the very same way Chemel would cook for himself and his wife: prepared with that level of attention with winks of the techniques and ingredients used deliberately, personally. It sounds a bit silly to praise a chef for cooking the food they want to eat—and perhaps such is the beauty of occupying an otherwise unexceptional strip mall plenty far from San Francisco proper.
How does the restaurant rank in its category?
In pure flavor, pacing, and thoughtfulness, Baumé puts some of NYC’s most traditional and lauded French restaurants to shame. A talented and experienced chef anchored to such a small and personal project breeds—as it should but so rarely does—bite-perfect, scoop-the-sauce-up-off-the-plate dishes. You certainly sacrifice many of the bells and whistles that help justify such steep prices, as well as the choices and variety that help and individual better tailor such an expensive experience to their liking. Those who relinquish control, however, are well-rewarded by the Chemels’ care and the chance to enjoy finesse without the pageantry.
Would I go back?
I normally don’t subscribe to the moniker of a “special occasion” restaurant (“cost-prohibitive” I think gets a more direct but often intended sentiment across). However, I think Baumé’s attention to wine service merits diners plan on enjoying some form pairing with their meal. Not to wax poetic too much, but a great meal like the kind on offer at Baumé, served with the intimacy and love of a husband and wife, demands and deserves a libation. Here, popping the cork truly is special, and, with everything else, connects you to a tradition of hospitality that goes far back beyond even the nicest selections from the restaurant’s cellar. Don’t go to be wowed in any obvious, head-nodding, half-smiling way. Go for a great meal with the same sort of company you’d be just as happy having In-N-Out with. That’s not to say it’s quite as free-wheeling of a time, but just as eternal an experience.
How hard are reservations to get?
The restaurant takes reservation via e-mail/text request, though I imagine you can call the number as well. Given Baumé is only open for dinner Wednesday – Saturday and occupies such a small space, I would reserve a few weeks’ time planning should you really want a particular seating. Lunch service, offered Thursday – Saturday, is no afterthought and allows for greater flexibility.
Seating times, directions, and other information can be found at www.maisonbaume.com