Saturday, June 28, 2008

Do Horses Have Plumes? Well They Do in Saratoga

The Plumed Horse
(408) 867-4711
14555 Big Basin Way
Saratoga, CA 95070
$115 Tasting Menu

We came with a purpose. My mother, brother and I came to have the tasting menu; my dad and aunt were just along for the ride. We were not dismayed by the $115 price for a seven-course meal. We were here to eat well.

After an $8 million renovation of an old Silicon Valley work-horse, the new restaurant is now designed for modern elegance in a beautiful dining room and bar. The onyx bar serves a $50 martini next to the fire place and lounge area. I guess that's how they're going to recomp their costs. Separating the bar from the dining room is a four-story glass wine cellar holding over 24,000 bottles of a Wine Spectator approved wine list. The intricate glass work for the lights in the room changed colors periodically, going from a subtle green, to lavender, then a soft white. While visually simulating, it made for difficult food photos. The champagne cart, liquor cart and cheese cart were ready to stop by each table at a moments notice. In fact, the first thing that happens upon seating is an offering of their extensive list of sparkling wines from all over the world.

An army of waiters, busers, runners, sommelier and maitre'd stood by ready to answer every request. Water glasses were always kept full and napkins were folded whenever a patron arose. It always pleases me to see restaurants that give out black napkins for people wearing dark clothing to avoid the lint from the white napkins. To me, that thin black napkin is what characterizes truly high-class service. With each course, a stream of waiters each carrying one plate surrounded the table so that they could present it all at once. A little excessive, since it took five waiters to deliver each course, but a giddy thrill at the same time.

I ordered a glass of pinot grigio for my meal. It was probably around $12 per glass, but it was a solid wine, especially speaking as someone who doesn't particularly like wine. My aunt said her Manhattan was excellent and she has been drinking them for twenty years. Knowing that, I wouldn't mind stopping in at the bar for a drink by the fireplace. The sommelier seemed a little young, but he was friendly and talkative. He does much to put you at ease with the vast wine list. Not the snobby French type I expected, but genuine and relatable.

Caviar and Ahi Tuna, quail egg, brioche toast

Ahi Tuna and Foie Gras, foie gras torchon and mustard fruits

Our first course was Tsar Nicolai ostera caviar on a bridge of brioche toast over a quail egg and ahi tuna tartare. I have had caviar before, but nothing this good. The tartare was a bit tart, but didn't seem to have any complexity. It was good tuna, but I wanted some more flavors rather than just the fish, especially since the next course is also tuna. Sure ahi tuna's a solid fish, but I don't need to eat it twice in one meal. The second course was seared tuna with an inlaid foie gras torchon and mustard fruits. This was my first experience with any type of foie gras, even if it was only as a torchon. It didn't do much to dazzle me. The thick texture contrasted well with the tuna and the sweet mustard fruits contrasted with the savory foie gras. Unfortunately, the tastes were so far apart that it was hard to bring them together.

Foie Gras and Onion Souffle, Armagnac prunes

The third course of the tasting menu was served with the first course for my father and aunt. He got the crab bisque, which tasted fresh and had a pleasant crustacean flavor. She had the porcini mushroom soup with a piece of foie gras in the center. The soup was rich, but not as rich as the foie gras. It felt like butter and didn't taste like much to be honest. On the tasting menu, we had the chef's signature foie gras and onion souffle served with a fricassee of Armagnac prunes. As a souffle it had good texture, but the taste was completely dominated by the onions. It resembled a puffy French onion soup and tasted like it too.

Hawaiian Walu, onion soubise, braised beef cheek

Poached Rib Eye "Pot au Feu," garlic flan, bone marrow dumpling

Roast Duck Breast, foie gras, white peach

Wild Venison, piquillo pepper, candied yams

Our fourth course was the Hawaiian walu fish with braised beef cheek. I can see how the two worked together, the beef cheek being more heavily flavored compared to the butterfish. It was one of my favorite courses of the night. The chef demonstrated his respect for balance in flavors and textures that excels far beyong the one-dimensional tastes of the typical meal. For the fifth course, we had a poached center-cut ribeye with bone marrow dumpling and garlic flan. While the two white lumps on my plate weren't very appetizing, the steak was tender and cooked to a perfect doneness. This was my first experience with poached beef, and I would still prefer some browning. My aunt's duck breast with foie gras and poached peaches was the best duck I've ever had. It tasted hearty, hardly even poultry at all. My dad's venison steak was not too gamy like the venison I've had before. It had just the slightest hint that it was more than just beef. I would highly recommend both the venison and the duck to anyone ordering an entree.

Bone Marrow and Truffle Cheese Fondue, potato croutons

Pain Perdue, camambert cheese, candied kumquat, orange gastrique

Baked California, vanilla ice cream, blueberry sorbet, meringue

Grand Mariner Souffle, sweet & sour yuzu, creme anglaise

Following the beef, we had a course of bone marrow and truffle cheese fondue. I'm not sure what kind of cheese it was, but it came as just a streak on my plate paired with potato croutons. The croutons were extraordinary, soft but flavorful and even better when streaked with the truffle cheese. Next, the entire table received a pre-dessert of peach sorbet with orange foam on top of raspberry gel. I liked how each layer of the dish had a progressively lighter texture. My dessert was a pain perdue similar in texture to French toast, although the flavor was heavier than I preferred. My aunt's baked California with blueberry sorbet and vanilla ice cream topped with toasted meringue made an interesting presentation and a satisfying dessert. My dad's Grand Mariner souffle was sadly too sweet and I was not able to pick out the rest of the flavors. The check came with a cherry gelee and almond candy that was a nice post-dessert finish, as if I needed another course.

After the meal, I talked with Manuel, the maitre'd about the restaurant's recent renovations. He said that they've been open a few months, and recently the Michelin people were there taking pictures and getting copies of the menu. They're hoping for a star come August. Our topic of conversation shifted to the chef Peter Armellino and Manuel asked if I'd like to meet him. Chef Armellino came out and asked me if I was interested in being a chef. I responded that I wanted to be a food writer and he recommended Jeffrey Steingarten for me to read. Previously, he had worked as chef de cuisine at Aqua in San Francisco when it received its two Michelin stars, so I wished him luck for The Plumed Horse too. He was also Traci Jardin's sous chef on her winning appearance on Iron Chef America.

Chef Armellino and Me

Overall, I think the tasting menu made a satisfying meal and that it would have been more expensive eating the same things in the city. However, the ingredients were not too imaginative. As you can tell, they really liked their artisan foie gras. I think it's a reflection of the Saratoga community. The median age is much older than San Francisco and I think they expect to eat that type of food when going out. I have faith that Armellino will be a bigger name in time to come. He seems to understand his ingredients well. I just wish there were more variety of ingredients to understand.

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