Dennis Kelly and Anthony Secviar, a former sommelier and chef, respectively, from the three-Michelin-star The French Laundry in Yountville, said that some people perceive their soon-to-open California Avenue restaurant to be "The French Laundry 2.0."
"That's not what we're trying to do here," Kelly said.
They're gearing up to open at 250 S. California Ave. in February, with the kitchen and bar fully built out but the dining areas still missing seating and some millwork. The space has been under construction since August, following a protracted city-permitting process that, the owners have previously said, nearly led to them pulling out of the project.
Protégé is set to open soon on California Avenue in Palo Alto. Photo by Veronica Weber.
In an interview, Kelly and Secviar described Protégé as a neighborhood restaurant with "approachable" food that will reflect their technical skill and background. Secviar was sous chef at The French Laundry for six years and most recently worked as chef de cuisine at Addison, a San Diego fine-dining restaurant. Kelly, who is one of 236 people in the world to earn the title of "master sommelier," worked at The French Laundry as captain and head sommelier for more than a decade.
They envision Protégé as falling somewhere between casual eatery and special-occasion restaurant, with a burger on the lunch menu but also a reservations-only dining room with a prix-fixe menu that starts at $52 per person.
"We don't want to alienate anybody," Secviar said.
The "heart of the restaurant," Kelly said, is an "upscale, casual" lounge area with an a-la-carte menu that will serve both lunch and dinner. It will be walk-in only.
The menu will feature shareable snacks (think oysters on the half shell; ham hock hush puppies; and smashed, fried potatoes, Secviar said), appetizers and entrees such as a burger and crispy chicken sandwich. For dessert, a custom-built pie trolley will roll by tables with three daily options: one chocolate, one fruit and one "market" pie special, with the option of going a-la-mode with hand-churned ice cream and sorbets. A sample dessert menu features a caramelized apple pie with cinnamon streusel, a baked custard tart with dark chocolate and sour cherry and a meyer lemon tart with coconut and ginger.
Protégé's desserts will be overseen by pastry chef Eddie Lopez, who previously worked at The French Laundry, acclaimed Chicago restaurant Grace and The Vintage Cave in Honolulu, Hawaii.
An average lunch in the lounge will cost about $38 per person and dinner, about $50 to $60.
A separate 20-seat, reservation-only dining room will offer a hybrid of a tasting and a-la-carte menu. Customers can choose two to four dishes from a prix fixe menu with appetizers, seafood, pasta, meats and dessert. There will also be a cheese cart curated by Soyoung Scanlan of Andante Dairy, a longtime Petaluma company that makes goat's milk and cow's milk cheeses and imports and ages other cheeses. (Andante cheeses are served at The French Laundry, among other Bay Area restaurants.)
Sample dining-room dishes include petit lettuces with king crab, avocado and blood orange; smoked polenta agnolotti with taleggio cheese, black truffle and an oxtail consommé; veal tenderloin with a beef brisket dumpling, cabbage and borscht; and a warm Medjool date cake.
Two courses in the dining room, which will serve dinner only, will start at $52 per person.
There is also a private dining room that can accommodate parties of up to 10 people.
Secviar describes Protégé's cuisine as "New American with global influence," the menus a reflection of his personality and experience.
He plans to whole-roast meats and serve them in sliced form, such as stuffed pork loins or chicken in the lounge and duck in the dining room.
Protégé's wine cellar, a 90-square-foot room with an African blue slate floor, has room for 2,200 bottles. A full bar, the focal point of the main dining area, will serve cocktails as well as lunch and dinner.
The restaurant's name is a reference to the owners' intent to create an incubator-like environment focused on "mentoring the next generation of restaurant professionals," Kelly said. Both hope to pay homage to their own mentors, including The French Laundry's Thomas Keller, who "preaches mentorship," Secviar said.
Ideally, staff will stay for two to four years before moving on to achieve their next career goals, Kelly said. Instead of simply being employees' source of income, the owners will focus on training and education. (A bookcase next to the sommelier station will be filled with books on dining, service, wine and cocktails for staff to check out.)
Protégé will be open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Saturday.