By Michelle Lee
California Avenue has always been a birthplace of subtle sophistication and timeless trends. Spanning just under half a mile for their commercial sector, every tenant has rightfully earned their spot here. The newest addition to the area is no different and successfully aims to set a new standard for the neighborhood. Nestled between ex-Nobu chefs’ creation Jin Sho and the two Michelin star restaurant Baumé rests the highly-anticipated Protégé, started by two French Laundry alumni.
Their soft opening in March already hinted at their overall atmosphere and vibe: an upscale fine dining experience without the usual accompanying pretentious or grandiose nature. Instead, they remain casual and approachable, perfect for a trendy date night spot or a laid-back place to swing by after work. From their transparent glass exterior and warm wood decor, to their friendly staff and exceptional customer service, the message is unmistakable. Co-owner and master sommelier Dennis Kelly said that Protégé aims to be your “home away from home with a welcoming neighborhood vibe,” and to that they executed perfectly.
Everything about the restaurant, from the location and decor to the food and alcohol selection, has been carefully selected and thoughtfully curated. They all exude a sense of complexity and elegance, while maintaining their own sense of place. Protégé set a remarkable vision for itself to disrupt the dining scene here and has surpassed it. Kelly spoke to their prime location and described vetting locations all over Silicon Valley before settling on the small town he used to call home years ago. He noticed residents flocking to San Francisco and beyond to experience fine dining and knew Palo Alto was ready for one to call its own. He anticipated and received appreciation from the surrounding like-minded niché community, with Facebook, Tesla, HP and Google headquarters sitting within an 8-mile radius.
Their dinner-only menu, served Tuesdays through Saturdays, offers an extraordinary expression of cuisine and focuses on taking a unique spin on contemporary American fare, with French, Spanish and Asian influences. As their bartender Trenton said, “you’ve seen [all the dishes] before, but we provide the best version of them.” They offer an exclusive dining experience in their formal dining rooms with a four-course prix fixe menu starting at $95 per person, from foie gras confit to A5 wagyu ribeye, while the lounge and bar areas serve à la carte offerings along with an excellent alcohol selection.
Protégé’s seafood plates boast a fresh and succulent flavor, from their shigoku oysters and charred octopus starters to their sea scallops entree. Their richer savory entrees tastefully balance that out, with plates of brick chicken and short rib, that pair beautifully with their full-bodied Arietta or sweeter Dehlinger Pinot Noir red wines. Every dish is beautifully plated with the perfect amount of food that leaves you happily satisfied yet curious to try more. All of their dishes exhibit a pristine blend of texture, flavor and seasoning that isn’t too rich, too sweet or too tangy, but rather the perfect ratio and taste. Their dessert menu tops it off with all-age classics, from grandma’s scrumptious apple pie to warm, mouth-watering chocolate chip cookies.
If you’re waiting to hear my favorite, I’ll let Kelly answer that: “they’re all my children and I can’t select a favorite. This ‘no greatest dish aspect’ [of Protégé] is part of how we set ourselves apart.” Every single offering balances a wonderful combination of flavors and their limited selection ensures that everything is purposeful and incredible. Kelly always had a goal of coming back to the area and is happy to officially be a part of the Palo Alto community, and here at DeLeon we welcome them with open arms.