Not the kind of dish you'd do at home, the veal was one of those rare creations when sophisticated technique really pays off -- offering the soulful flavor and fork-tenderness of slow cooking with the caramelized crunch of saute.
The memory came back in full force during the third course of an $80 prix-fixe meal last week at Trevese in Los Gatos. Michael Miller was back in the kitchen, and braised and crispy meat was back on my plate.
After two dainty courses of apple caviar (more on that later) and a transparent sliver of tuna, Miller sated my restless tummy with art rendered in duck. As if the shredded confit (leg meat slow cooked in its own fat) needed enriching, Miller hides a chunk of duck foie gras in the center before pressing it. When the duck is seared, the fatty juices escape to form a crust you'd swear was crackled skin.
How do you sauce something so unctuous? With golden foam, of course: an airy expression of curry powder.
Miller is a thoroughly modern chef now operating in a sprawling 19th century Victorian. The fairy-tale setting -- it's set back from Santa Cruz Boulevard, the town's main drag -- was home to a Chart House steakhouse
Muted tones evocative of comfort -- chocolate, cream and sage -- echo a kitchen visible through smoked glass. It's modern without feeling moneyed. Floating canvas sheets soften the room. It's "thoughtful," a word Miller himself likes to invoke to describe Trevese (the name is a hybrid of Trevor, his young son, and Therese). Shadow box displays are judicious, decorated with as much restraint as Miller's plates. Like the ambient soft jazz, it's all of a piece; every element is just so much background to your table's unfolding story.
After the duck comes pork cheeks, a nugget of meat centered between two sauces drawn from pheasant stock. One a sticky gastrique, sweetened a la minute with sugar and sherry; the other a creamy emulsion of cream and pheasant liver -- an "espuma" as refined as silk and as satisfying as Thanksgiving gravy.
Espuma is the Spanish term for foam -- a playful shout-out to Ferran Adria, the Spanish chef who pioneered the high-tech cooking trend. Completing the dish -- as wondrous and satisfying as duck -- is a grain with all the crunch of Post Grape-Nuts: deep-fried bulgur.
While Wolfgang Puck is Miller's original mentor, he's influenced by the likes of Adria. In fact, your first taste, the amuse bouche -- the apple caviar -- is a direct steal from the master. Granny Smith apples, an evocation of Americana if there ever was one, are juiced and mixed with a gum thickener derived from algae. The viscous result is put in hypodermic needles and dropped, one tiny ball at a time, into a poaching solution of calcium chloride. Sound yummy? It is, actually, but so is sausage before you learn how it's made. (You can find the recipe online by searching for "apple caviar.")
Miller's dabbling in food science seems more designed to keep his hungry young chefs motivated than to reflect a personal style. That second course of tuna came with a soulful base of marinated grapes, darkly toasted pine nuts and -- Huh? -- powdered olive oil. When Miller stopped by our table, he admitted it was just for fun.
That the same chef who indulges froufrou has a gutsy foundation is clarified on the a la carte plate of pork loin ($27). A double boned brined slab of meat looms over a tiny napoleon built from minced ratatouille and potato chips. Both delicious, but born from separate worlds.
Back to the prix-fixe, lamb comes after the duck and pork. A little heavy, perhaps, but much more satisfying than the recent oh-so-precious prix-fixe meal I had at the Michelin two-star Manresa, just a five-minute walk away.
A fat New Zealand chop is served much like an old-fashioned main course with pearl onions and a single German butterball potato. Each ingredient was expertly cooked, but it was all rather cool, like at a dinner party where everyone takes too long to find their seats.
A cheese course was merely good, with hunks of honeycomb and homemade quince paste larger than the portions of cheese. And the dessert flopped, a peanut butter, chocolate, rice-crispy pudding and salty caramel melange that had the appeal and taste of bad modern art. Something clean and vibrant would be much more welcome after such a parade of meaty flavors.
While Miller wants to move toward a prix-fixe-only dinner menu (he already has an all-vegetarian six-course option), and while that style of dining is well-suited to the serene ambience, his a la carte offerings are a better value right now.
Preceding the pork with his signature scallops ($14), the only Asian accented on offer, gives you big portions of meat and seafood at half the cost of the prix-fixe, leaving you plenty of money to choose your own dessert, like a delicious tart composed of 100 thin layers of apple. The scallops are tremendous, well-caramelized but supple and warmly enrobed in a buttery mirin sauce. A chewy bite of chilled, expertly twirled soba noodles is a study in contrasts.
That I was ready to travel to Los Gatos to track down Miller is a compliment itself; that I rediscovered all that I remembered in that long-ago veal dish is a solid endorsement. The duck and pork cheeks were each worth the miles by themselves.
And I'm even compelled to return to Trevese this winter after hearing from Miller what he's contemplating. Something about a veal chop -- grilled, then braised -- with verjus, mandarin oranges, paprika, chickpeas, cardoons and, um, "reconstructed cauliflower."
"We don't want to get carried away," Miller says. "We want to be soulful."
I think he's achieved that. The restaurant makes its own bread and charcuterie. Our server was a true Trevese devotee -- as caring, well-informed, calming and chatty as you would expect from a member of Miller's own family.
It's partly the old building and partly Miller's round-the-clock dedication, but if anyone can make powdered olive oil pass for comfort food, Miller can.
Reach Nicholas Boer at 925-943-8254 or email@example.com.
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