Classy, classic dining lives at Chez TJ

A chef in his 20s from Highland Park, Ill., and his all-female (except one) kitchen crew are turning out heady world-class cuisine in an immaculate 113-year-old cottage in downtown Mountain View. As unlikely as this scenario may seem, Chez TJ, a Peninsula fine dining destination for a quarter century, is nurturing a genuine star in young Christopher Kostow.

Chez TJ’s original chef/owner, Thomas McCombie, died in 1994, and his partner George Aviet cast about for chefs until he found Kostow, who apprenticed in France, and most recently worked under Daniel Humm when he headed Campton Place.

Whatever confluence of natural talent and mentoring led to Kostow’s self-assured culinary voice, beautiful ingredients from local sources have inspired him. Every morsel he puts on the plate possesses the shimmering clarity of the just-picked. He cooks fancy but his food never feels manipulated or contrived. The textures embrace; the flavors excite; the presentations delight.

A case in point is the edible miniature still life that began one meal: wedges of purple radish dressed literally with a few grains of sea salt and a drop of golden olive oil; a halved hardboiled quail egg with a meltingly creamy yolk topped with three orange fish eggs; and a quarter-inch square of melon gelée topped with mascarpone and slivers ofglazed prosciutto. Simple, austere, stunning — but hugely and surprisingly tasty.

I could go on about many dishes — unctuous slow poached beef; swooningly luscious roasted suckling pig; a velvety squab breast bathed in melted foie gras — but Kostow’s fish cookery is the best of all.

With his naturally light hand, he composes revelatory seafood dishes that pay homage to the integrity of the animal. Kampachi (an amberjack relative of yellowtail or hamachi) in a trompe l’œil salad of grilled red and yellow watermelon cubes and peeled red and yellow cherry tomatoes, whispers smoke. Like the fruits in the salad, the nutty-flavored fish seemed raw, but not quite, and this little bit of transformation worked magic.

In another creation, the creamy, oil-rich texture of gently steamed Atlantic cod was reprised with like-textured foods — slivered olives, plump-leafed purslane, little cubes of cuttlefish, butter bean puree. Cumin, olive oil and a few drops of fresh tomato essence added haunting counterpoint.

As much as I adored the first bite that arrived at table, I was equally enamored by the last — a thumbnail-sized key lime pie. My tennis partner and I eagerly consumed every morsel of the meal and never felt overfed or palate-weary. We floated out the door into the warm Peninsula evening.

We drank a bottle of elegant red burgundy, a 2002 Vosne Romanée Les Suchots — a buy at $100 — plus a few glasses of Alsatian sparkling wine and a dry, aromatic muscat. The sommelier, Philippe Dreyer, comes from Alsace, and one of the gifts of this restaurant is the almost-retail pricing on premier cru Burgundies.

The tab for the whole transcendent evening came to $185 per person, including the wine, and 20 percent service. Yes, I know that this seems like a lot for dinner, but in Paris similar food and wine would cost $500 per person; in San Francisco or the wine country, at least $250. If you’re in the market forthis kind of eating and drinking, it’s worth taking a trip to Mountain View.

Chez TJ

Location: 939 Villa St, Mountain View

Contact: (650)964-7466; www.cheztj.com

Hours: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Price range: $80 for four courses; $110 chef’s tasting menu

Recommended dishes: Everything sings

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Recommended

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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