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French Laundry Alums Quietly Bring Fine Dining Magic to Palo Alto

With a choice of tasting menus or upscale bar dining, Protégé is elevating Silicon Valley dining options

Ricotta dumplings with English peas
Courtesy of Protege

Among the Palo Alto startups going public this week is Protégé, which launched at 250 California Avenue. “High-tech” at Protégé is classic haute cuisine technique, honed in the world’s finest kitchens and casually dressed as a neighborhood date night eatery. In reality, it’s a restaurant serving meticulously crafted modern American dishes alongside a wine lover’s dream list.

Protégé is the brainchild of two French Laundry veterans, chef Anthony Secviar and Master Sommelier Dennis Kelly. They aim to disrupt the notion that fine dining has to be drawn-out formal dining, or that you have to drive to San Francisco for a night out. But when opening a neighborhood joint for the Google and Facebook elite, casual does not mean low-fi.

Before it became a fine dining destination, the address 250 California Avenue had a much different past, as The Edge. It was the only place where kids could rock out to live acts like The Cars, Blondie, and the Talking Heads. It shut down 18 years ago and the building was demolished, but the property is back in a new bid to shake up the neighborhood.

Courtesy of Protégé

Rather than a four-hour marathon of endless tiny bites, the reservation-only dining room offers prix fixe options of two courses for $55, three for $69, or four courses for $85. Dishes like charcoal-roasted white asparagus specially flown in from their fishmonger’s grandmother in Holland demonstrate their commitment to sourcing truly special ingredients, but they also plan to take full advantage of the weekly Cal Ave. farmers’ market on their doorstep. The cheese cart is stocked by Andante Dairy’s Soyoung Scanlon, and the dessert cart is the brilliant handiwork of fellow French Laundry alum and pastry chef Eddie Lopez, who also hails from Grace in Chicago and The Vintage Cave in Honolulu.

Despite the impressive pedigrees, “approachable” is Protégé’s mantra, and most of the space is given over to a stylish yet comfortable no-reservations lounge. “We want to showcase our style, training, and talent, but this isn’t an art project,” says Secviar. “We want to appeal to a wide demographic.”

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“The idea is for people in the neighborhood to stop by, maybe for a spontaneous date night. They can decide just to have a glass and a couple of dishes to share, or have a four-course meal,” explains dining room manager Kent Bui, formerly of Manresa. The airy room accommodates tables of two to four people, with a 10-seat bar. Outdoor seating will also be available.

The dishes served in the lounge are supposedly more casual than those of the dining room, but the ham hock hush puppies ($8) turned out to be four gilt spheres served on a bed of tiny popped grains. The beautifully executed short rib pithivier with that Holland white asparagus, rich potato puree, and red wine sauce ($30) would be at home in any Michelin-starred dining room. It’s not your usual bar fare.

Every detail of Protégé shows the team’s unique fingerprints, from the chicken foot impressed into the handmade brick made specially to weigh down the “brick chicken” Cornish game hens ($27), to the founders’ life stories written into literal giant thumbprints on the wall by local artist Rafael Arana. Lopez is even baking breads with Palo Alto wild yeast starter.

Anthony Secviar’s Easy Bake Oven
Lydia Itoi

Besides redefining dining in Silicon Valley, Protégé’s other goal is to serve as a kitchen incubator and launching pad for rising talent. “I had so many great mentors. Thomas Keller and Corey Lee at French Laundry helped us visualize and conceptualize, and William Bradley at Addison taught me so much about building great flavor and taste,” says Secviar, who first learned cooking by watching his mother and experimenting with the Easy-Bake oven he received as a child and still displays in his office. Dennis Kelly, who is one of only 236 people to hold a diploma as a Master Sommelier, also reminisces with gratitude all of the tastes shared with him by his teachers along the way. “I just want to pay it forward.”

The lounge and bar will offer a la carte during dinner from 5:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m.- 10 p.m. The dining room offers tables for two to four people Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.