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Worth the Wait
Carolyn Jung | Photo: Liz Daly | April 2, 2018
After months of delays, the much-talked-about Protégé is a must-visit.
Beyond the dramatic backlit bar, tufted banquettes, and custom cheese and tart carts, there is a seemingly inexplicable memento tucked away on a back shelf at what is arguably the most anticipated restaurant to debut in Silicon Valley of late. After more than a year of delays, master sommelier Dennis Kelly and executive chef Anthony Secviar, who worked together for years at The French Laundry, finally opened the doors in March to their Protégé in Palo Alto, albeit initially on a limited basis with the casual lounge; full service in the prix fixe-only dining room is expected to start any day now. The 80-seat venue is equipped with every accoutrement expected of such a pedigreed restaurant, plus something extra special to Secviar: Hidden away on a closet shelf is an Easy-Bake Oven, the original one he cherished as a kid, which his mother kept all these years. “It’s there to make me remember where I came from,” Secviar says. All it takes is one glance around Protégé’s inviting yet luxe interior with walnut trim and bronze accents to see how very far he has come. Yet getting there was anything but an easy journey.
Kelly and Secviar thought it would take six weeks to get building permits approved for what is their first restaurant together. But that part of the process lasted 11 months. While construction may have begun in July 2017, its completion took much longer than anticipated too. Noise complaints forced crews to limit most of the construction to the early morning hours before nearby businesses opened. The three-story office building on California Avenue, where Protégé resides on the ground floor, initially was required to have 97 parking spaces. Developer Mark Conroe was able to provide 41 spaces on-site and make up the rest by paying into the California Avenue Parking Assessment District. However, once the restaurant took over what was intended to be retail space, the city required two more parking spots. Conroe fit those in by adding a mechanical lift in the parking structure that can fit five cars in a space intended for three. Despite all the fits and starts, Kelly and Secviar remained committed. “I wouldn’t say that we almost seriously pulled out of the project at any point,” Kelly says. “But we may have pulled our hair out.”
Now, diners are finally getting a taste of Secviar’s New American cuisine that’s driven by French techniques, seasonal local ingredients and Spanish influences from his time cooking at Spain’s legendary El Bulli. He’s assisted by chef de cuisine Jeremy Wayne, formerly of Single Thread in Healdsburg. The lounge menu includes hush puppies revved up with ham hock, white cheddar and Green Goddess, as well as entrees like slow-cooked pressed suckling pig shoulder with rye spaetzle. A striking macramé partition of knotted black fishing ropes separates the lounge from the dining room, while a helix macramé chandelier strung with Edison lights is draped across the back dining room’s ceiling. Both are by noted San Francisco textile fine artist and former Apple product manager Windy Chien.
The plan is for the 20-seat formal dining room to feature two-, three- and four-course menus for $55, $69 and $85, respectively, with such refined fare as roasted garlic butter spaghettini with chicken oysters and white sturgeon caviar; Pekin duck with miso, black truffle and a savory pancake; and a pastry-wrapped short rib pithivier layered with chanterelles and toasted barley. Tables will be set with custom chargers in poetic Wishing-Well Blue, crafted by Jered’s Pottery of Emeryville. Secviar fell in love with them 18 months ago and begged potter Jered Nelson to hang onto them and not sell them to anyone else until Protégé opened.
The 250-selection wine cellar holds rare finds such as Romano Levi grappa with hand-drawn labels, and Marc De Bourgogne, considered the best and most expensive example of the pomace-distilled spirit known as marc. Pastry chef Eddie Lopez—formerly of The French Laundry, Grace in Chicago and Vintage Cave in Honolulu—has nurtured his four-month-old rather gassy “son,” his so-named starter used in mini sourdough loaves that come snuggled in burlap-linen pouches sewed by Secviar’s mother-in-law. His desserts possess polish yet familiarity. “I like to touch the heart with things we all grew up with,” Lopez says. His Dark Chocolate Pave for the prix fixe menu was inspired by his love of mixing Peanut M&M’s into a bucket of popcorn at the movies. It’s reimagined here as chocolate cake with caramelized white chocolate, candied peanuts and popcorn ice cream.
Lopez’ desserts come rolling to tables in the lounge on a circular cart with shelves that brim with blood orange citrus tart, streusel-topped apple pie and dark chocolate-Madeira custard tart with a gluten-free crust, along with “temptations” of chocolate chip cookies, canalés and banana-cream-pie cream puffs. None were made in an Easy-Bake Oven, of course. But the dream for all of this surely arose from one. “It’s so exciting,” Secviar says. “If I look back at our plans for this, except for a few tweaks, it’s all there. What we set out to do has come to fruition.” 250 California Ave., Palo Alto, 650.386.1428
Originally published in the April/May issue of Silicon Valley