French Cuisine, Russian Art, and International Music at Bon Vivant Café
Palo Alto, California, is known internationally for the city’s cultural and historical traditions, Stanford University, always sunny weather, and upscale restaurants catering to the Silicon Valley crowd.
A recent addition to the restaurant scene is Bon Vivant Café, on a quiet side street right off University Avenue. Bistro-style marble tables with blue glasses on them line the outer wall of the café. When you step inside, it’s easy to imagine being in a Parisian restaurant. Spherical crystal chandeliers, old silver, freshly cut gardenias, and potted orchids complement the white tablecloth-establishment that is also an art gallery and a music hall with a grand piano in a corner of the spacious dining room.
Music-themed artworks by Moscow painter Andrey Anisimov cover the walls, and on weekends diners are treated to classical music, jazz, rock, or blues performances by famous musicians from different countries.
Bon Vivant Café’s kitchen is headed by Brandon Paige, an experienced chef with Aqua (San Francisco) and MK (Chicago) stints under his belt.
On the night we dined, our exquisite meal started with a glass of Provencal rose, Whispering Angel, and a bowl of chilled melon soup with charred prawn, basil seed, and tarragon float. The velvety sweetness of pureed cantaloupe was balanced out by the fleshy seafood and minty flavors of herbs and spices.
This soup alone could be well worth a visit to Bon Vivant, however, since all produce comes from the local farmers’ market, the house specials change with the season.
The charcuterie board, suggested by our attentive server, included silky duck liver mousse, tender rabbit rilette, salami, stone-ground mustard, and cornichons. The black kale salad had a wonderfully chewy texture and was garnished with a savory parmesan vinaigrette and lemony croutons.
Although it was hard to imagine the baby beet salad ingredients on the same plate, they worked splendidly together as a testament to Bon Vivant’s creativity and the popularity of its original recipes created in-house. Cooked red and orange beets were served with marinated plums, cottage cheese, granola, and arugula, combining all tastes and textures imaginable.
There is also a smoked trout salad – a very satisfying dish that uses excellent house-cured fish, boiled heirloom potatoes, crispy shallots and citrus crème – delish! Roasted sweetbreads en papillote came as a star of the starters menu. This is a very French dish that requires a lot of prep work, but done right can outshine anything else. Bon Vivant’s sweetbreads were probably the best I’ve ever tried – both in America and in France.
For the main course, my dining companion chose an intriguing-sounding roasted wild boar, prepared to chef’s specifications. That turned out to be a medium-well lean gamey loin, its texture enhanced by soft creamy polenta, ratatouille, and olive vinaigrette.
I was in a mood for a more conservative chicken “Grand Mere” with a side of petit carrots, English peas, and served in lemon-thyme jus. Its golden-brown goodness did remind me of my grandma’s roasted chicken, but my grandma was an outstanding cook.
Our desserts were crepe Suzette with fresh orange wedges – a twist on a classic dish, only lighter – and rich chocolate pot de crème with shortbread cookies.
Dining in Bon Vivant is a guaranteed pleasure, plus art and entertainment in a good company. No wonder the place is packed for lunch and dinner, and often reserved for private parties, birthdays, and corporate celebrations.
Bon Vivant is located at 535 Bryant St., Palo Alto. Call for reservations (650) 485-3228 or visit their website.