Bruno Chemel doesn’t like the term “fine dining.” Nor does he apply it to the food he serves at his restaurant Bistronomie by Baumé.
Chemel is a French expat who had Michelin stars bestowed on Baumé, the previous incarnation of his Palo Alto restaurant. Diners who are used to grabbing burritos, wraps or pizzas might disagree with the chef’s assessment of his own restaurant.
But that disagreement would likely stem from the French embrace of sensual pleasures—chief among them eating. Not just eating well, but eating with the intention of finding culinary delights. America’s more Puritan roots favor the utilitarian idea of fast food, which cancels the inclination to linger over flavors and savor them.
While these are, of course, simple generalizations, glancing at Bistronomie’s 4-course ($128) and 6-course ($168) menus does more than suggest that Chemel excels at playing the game of semantics. One can only secure a table at Bistronomie with a reservation. But that, the chef said, is because his business model had to change following the pandemic.
Until early 2020, the Michelin-acclaimed Baumé served a largely international clientele. Local Palo Altans, Chemel explains, considered his restaurant a place only for special occasions. As the pandemic has been winding down, those international visitors have not returned in the same numbers, if at all.
Reservations at Bistronomie are not about exclusivity. It’s a practical matter.
“We don’t do walk-ins because that doesn’t help us fill up the place,” Chemel says. “Sometimes it’s just me, my wife and son. I wouldn’t be prepared to take walk-ins.”
These days, the chef changes his menu seasonally. With Baumé, he did that less because returning customers would want to order their favorite dishes again.
“I go to the farmers market a lot. Like now I know there’s asparagus, beans, sweet peas—all the vegetables that will disappear by summer,” Chemel says.
The chef, who’s been working in the restaurant industry since he was a teenager, says he’s remained in the business to “feed people the best I can.” To many, fine dining conjures expensive, small portions but for Chemel that doesn’t automatically mean the food will taste good.
“A good pizza—that could be fine dining,” he says, suggesting that the Manresa and Mentone chef David Kinch could make a fine dining pizza. “If it’s done well, crispy, just cooked and seasoned perfectly.”
But, for now, Bistronomie serves either that 4-course or 6-course tasting menu.
However, Chemel’s assessment of his restaurant’s financial viability lands in the realm of resignation.
“We’re doing okay. We’re not doing good but we’re not doing bad,” he says, implying a shoulder shrug. The chef seems to have accepted the fact that the heady days of Baumé’s Michelin star is currently behind him, and possibly will not alight upon the doorstep of his Bistronomie.
As Chemel talks about the differences between pre-pandemic Baumé and the current Bistronomie, the main ingredient that distinguishes the two is caviar. Imported caviar conferred the incontrovertible imprimatur of fine dining upon Baumé. Now virtually unaffordable and next to impossible to order from his former suppliers, the chef has been forced to be more inventive with the dishes at Bistronomie.
A cauliflower panna cotta and calamansi gelée used to be topped with an Israeli caviar. Chemel re-conceived the topping by grilling celery, salting it and then adding crispy rice, “to make a little crunch.” And there was the dish itself. “Basically, that’s almost the same, but without the caviar,” he explains.
The loss of caviar coincides with the change in who’s willing to spend the time and money out for a tasting menu.
“When you open your own restaurant, you start because you want to please your guests,” Chemel says. “You think putting more expensive dishes will please them more—but not necessarily.”
He looks back fondly at that time when he was serving a turbot sourced from France—while also admitting the folly of it. The fish he’s now sourcing is from Mexico. It’s more sustainable for the planet and less expensive both for his business and for his diners. These subtle changes signify a shift away from the excesses of what fine dining once meant. Caviar and French turbot might not be on Chemel’s menu but that doesn’t mean we’ll see the death of panna cottas and gelées any time soon.
Bistronomie by Baumé, open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 8:30pm. 201 California Ave., Palo Alto. 650.328.8899. bistronomiebybaume.com.