The stars are aligned for Chez TJ
After 25 years, Mountain View's contemporary French restaurant becomes international foodie destination
When Americans think of Michelin, usually what comes to mind is the French company that makes tires under the roly-poly Michelin Man logo. Now, Michelin makes U.S. restaurants famous, and Mountain View has one.
Christopher Kostow, 31, has been the chef at Chez TJ less than two years. His first star came in this year's guide, Michelin's grand entrance into California. In late October, the 2008 guide to San Francisco, Bay Area, and Wine Country restaurants bestowed the remarkable two stars.
Suddenly, says Chez TJ owner George Aviet, the phone starting ringing from faraway states and Europe, and there were a lot more reservations from the 415 area code. In a reversal of the usual tide, San Franciscans are traveling to Mountain View for dinner.
"One star tells people this is a valuable restaurant," says Aviet. "Two mean it's definitely worth the travel."
Chez TJ also made Food & Wine magazine in December. Kostow's maitake mushroom consommé made the top ten of the magazine's Best Restaurant Dishes of 2007.
"It has satisfied our egos," Aviet says. "But what am I going to do? Put the stars on my shoulders and march around like a general?"
Not quite. Aviet is still the carpenter, gardener and all-around fixit guy at Chez TJ, located in a century-old house that needs a lot of tending. "I'll still be crawling around the basement."
Still, Michelin placed little Chez TJ in a select group of six Bay Area restaurants, all with bigger names and marketing budgets. (Chez TJ has no marketing budget.) Only the French Laundry, in Yountville, got three stars.
Aviet is aware of what stars do to diners' expectations. He is upgrading Chez TJ's carpets, flatware and china.
"Our goal is to keep the two stars," Aviet says. "But a lot of well-deserved restaurants haven't received any stars. I'm not going to commit suicide if we lose one."
In France, these ratings have serious consequences. Three-star chef Bernard Loiseau killed himself in 2003 when the Gault-Millau guide downgraded his restaurants and he heard rumors that Michelin was dropping one of his restaurant's stars. It turned out not to be true. What was true was that Loiseau had resisted change, especially as other chefs adapted Asian touches to French cuisine.
Kostow embraces change. As printed at the bottom of the 12-item chef's tasting menu: "Spontaneous changes in the tasting menu are to be expected and, we hope, welcomed." A recent tasting menu included Butter Poached Lobster Sweetbread Ravioli, Chanterelles, White Alba Truffle as one course, followed by the palate-cleansing Young Coconut Sorbet with Grilled Pineapple and Toasted Coconut Tuile and then, Confit of Suckling Pig. Who's hungry now?
These are beautiful, kaiseki-size portions. Much of the diner's satisfaction is in the play of tastes and textures. You won't leave Chez TJ and roll directly to the nearest Jenny Craig.
For Kostow, the Michelin stars are bigger than any other food honor, including the James Beard Awards, the Oscars of the food world. Michelin began printing restaurant and hotel guides a century ago to encourage driving, thus to sell more tires, but the guides have long been an international sensation in themselves.
Having earned the second star, Kostow says, "I don't plan on losing it." He lives in the cottage behind the restaurant. He begins work by 8 a.m. and finishes around 10 p.m., a schedule he learned at the sharp elbow of a Michelin-starred chef on France's Cote d'Azur. "The thought of him still scares me," Kostow says.
Keeping his mentors in mind keeps Kostow sharp, thinking about what would please them. He also loves to circle the intimate dining rooms at Chez TJ and chat with customers.
Kostow's other mentors include Daniel Humm, who was the chef at San Francisco's Campton Place when Kostow was sous chef, just before coming to Chez TJ. First to take Kostow under his wing was Trey Foshee, chef of Georges at the Cove in San Diego.
Chez TJ's four-course dinner is $80, before wine, service and tax. The tasting menu is $115. Service aims to be professional but not stuck-up.
"It's not like, 'Chef recommends you hold your knife at a 90-degree angle,'" Kostow says.
Growing up in Highland Park, near Chicago, Kostow worked for restaurants located around the iconic Ravinia summer music festival. He was a cashier, and noticed that the kitchen staff was having more fun. After studying philosophy at Hamilton College, he moved to San Diego and met Foshee.
Aviet grew up in Tehran. While a student at Foothill College, he worked as a busboy at a restaurant in Menlo Park where T.J. McCombie was the chef. Aviet and McCombie traveled around France, dining at Michelin-starred restaurants, and decided they could compete in America. They bought a little bed-and-breakfast in 1981 and opened it as Chez TJ the following year. McCombie died in 1994, and Chez TJ has had a bumpy ride with chefs.
Aviet knows that somebody always is going to be unhappy, that the portions are too small or the paint is too thick, but loyalty to Chez TJ runs deep. Regular customers include Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford University, and John Chambers, CEO of Cisco.
Joan Baez was dining the night before Halloween when the little building rocked to the tune of a 5.4 earthquake. Aviet was pouring wine at the time, to which Baez said, "Bring more wine!"
STARS IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Junnoon in Palo Alto is one of 50 restaurants noted by Michelin with the "Bib Gourmand" icon, notable for menus with two dishes and dessert or a glass of wine for $40 or less. Café Gilbraltar, near Half Moon Bay, also made this good-deal category.
The Michelin Guide to San Francisco, Bay Area and Wine Country 2008 includes a total of 384 restaurants. Only the French Laundry gets three stars, meaning "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey." Six get two stars ("excellent cooking, worth a detour"), including Chez TJ and Manresa, David Kinch's contemporary restaurant in Los Gatos. Among 27 one-stars ("a very good restaurant in its category"), none are south of San Francisco.
Michelin Guides are published in 21 countries. Its inspectors visit restaurants anonymously, using the same five criteria in every country: product quality, preparation and flavors, the cuisine's personality, value for the money, consistency.
— Sheila Himmel
938 Villa St., Mountain View
Dinner 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday