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New Chef at Chez TJ

Chez TJ in Mountain View welcomes new chef Scott Nishiyama and keeps reaching for the stars—Michelin stars

  • Chez TJ
    938 Villa St, Mountain View, CA 94041 (Map)
    +1 650.964.7466

GENERALLY SPEAKING, high turnover in top-tier restaurant kitchens is not a good thing for the dining public. True, chefs are an especially peripatetic lot and typically jump from job to job to develop their skills and gain exposure to a variety of cuisines and restaurants, but the revolving door of chefs at a particular restaurant can also be an indication that the restaurant is poorly managed, that management can’t retain quality employees or that there are difficult personalities at play. Or all of the above. All the changes and false starts can result in inconsistent food.

In the case of Mountain View’s Chez TJ, there have been four chefs in the past five years. That’s a lot. Yet through all the personnel changes, the food has remained consistently excellent. I can’t say what factors were at play in all the turnover, but I do know that owner George Aviet is seeing stars, Michelin stars, that is.

Chef Christopher Kostow put Chez TJ on the map, earning the restaurant two Michelin stars back in 2007 but departed soon thereafter for Meadowood in Napa Valley. Next up was Bruno Chemel, a talented chef who nonetheless failed to wow the Michelin inspectors and earned only one star. He and Aviet parted ways last year in what was reported to be a rather high-drama affair surrounding his failure to score a second pentagram. When Chemel left, most of the kitchen staff departed with him; he opened his own restaurant, Baume, in Palo Alto this past December.

Enter chef Scott Nishiyama, who walked through Chez TJ’s door three months ago. Like Chemel before him, he is expected to earn a second star. Nishiyama brings an impressive résumé. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he has worked at Daniel Boulud’s restaurant Daniel in New York City and Daniel Boulud Brasserie in Las Vegas. He then moved to Yountville’s famed French Laundry and later Yoshi’s in San Francisco.

I have eaten at Chez TJ under Kostow, Chemel and now Nishiyama. Nishiyama’s cooking strikes me as the most accessible of the three. Where Kostow was wildly inventive and Chemel the skilled technician, Nishiyama is the confident minimalist. His dishes and presentations are no doubt the result of great labor behind the scenes, but on the plate they display an understated elegance and simplicity—a perfectly seared cube of fish sharing the plate with a few dots of sauce and squares of gnocchi, a frothy soup accented with just a hint of black truffle and some ruffled leaves of roasted Savoy cabbage. He dabbles in molecular gastronomy here and there, but for the most part, his cooking doesn’t rely on science lab tricks. He just cooks. Really well.

Like his predecessors, Nishiyama creates menus that consist of a four-course menu gastronomique ($85) and an eight-course tasting menu ($120.) The tasting menu is the best way to appreciate Nishiyama’s cooking, because you get to taste your way through a greater arc of flavors and ingredients. He hooked me right away with the velouté of golden turnip and pear soup, a creamy, wonderfully rich soup poured over a few bits of crisp veal sweetbread and Savoy cabbage. I loved it and couldn’t wait for what was next.

What came next was probably the showiest dish on the menu, a frozen torchon of foie gras shaved at the table into a snowy dust over a bowl of chewy, banana-flavored gelatin, cubed and crunchy Jerusalem artichoke and puréed cashews. The banana/foie gras combination was an unexpected one, but flat-out delicious. As the foie gras warms up, it melts and matches the consistency of the banana confection and the cashew butter. It’s fantastic.

My other favorite dish was the grilled Japanese octopus. I love octopus, but too often it is served rubbery. Not here. The beautiful nubs of octopus are juicy and tender, and the smoky bits of char are a perfect match for the meaty cephalopod. The octopus shares the plate with an impossibly light and crisp little pillow of pan-crisped gnocchi, the silken deliciousness of bone marrow and the balancing acidity of sorrel leaves and stems. It’s a masterful plate of food in both execution and presentation.

And so it went into the more substantial fish, duck and beef dishes with nary a false step. The Liberty Farms roasted duck breast was particularly good—the skin fatty and crisp, and the meat tender and juicy. The duck was matched with dates and a honeylike coffee jus. As with Nishiyama’s other dishes, the combinations really take his food to another level.

Desserts are very good, particularly the chocolate ones. From the four-course menu, I loved the trio of chocolate pavé, chocolate pot de crème and thick coconut ice cream. On the tasting menu, “chocolate, mint and tea” consisted of mint ganache, spheres of malted milk and Thai ice tea–flavored ice cream. There are only a few Silicon Valley restaurants willing to break out of the crème brûlée and molten chocolate cake dessert doldrums. Chez TJ does. Deliciously.

Service at Chez TJ has always lagged a few steps behind the talent in the kitchen, and that’s still the case, but the gap is closing. The servers’ descriptions of the food as each course is delivered can feel rote or strained, as if they didn’t fully memorize what all the ingredients were and must recall their notes. I don’t know if it’s the kitchen’s or the servers’ fault, but the timing of the courses can be a little erratic, too. Some come in close succession, while others take longer. But through it all, the service is crisp and attentive.

Sommelier Susan Chowla is a great addition to the restaurant. Her wine pairings are creative and unexpected. I loved the razor-edged acidity of the 2008 Urki Getariako Txakolina with the grilled octopus and the smoky, earthy 2008 Manu Pinot Noir from Malborough, New Zealand, with the duck. It’s a superb combination; Chowla’s unpretentious approach to wine is refreshing.

Say what you will about Aviet’s fixation on multiple stars, through all the comings and goings, the chefs at his restaurant are consistently excellent. Will Nishiyama earn two Michelin stars? I don’t know, and I don’t care. All I know is that Chez TJ has yet another talented chef behind the stove. Enjoy him while he lasts, however long that may be.

Chez TJ
Address: 938 Villa St., Mountain View.
Phone: 650.964.7466.
Hours: 5:30–9pm Tue–Thu and 5:30–9:30pm Fri–Sat.
Cuisine: Contemporary French.
Price Range: $85–$120.