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A Night at Paolo's

[whitespace] Jalil Samavarchian and chef Mark Hopper
Christopher Gardner

Past, Present, Future: Paolo's veteran Jalil Samavarchian works with newcomer chef Mark Hopper to please patrons, both new and old.

A new chef with impeccable credentials takes the helm at Paolo's and provides some glorious Mediterranean accents

By Christina Waters

ALWAYS seasonally creative, the menu at Paolo's has never looked better. Filled with artistic spins on California-meets-Italy, the kitchen here is refreshingly elegant, spearheaded by the thinking of new chef Mark Hopper, whose spring menus bloom with asparagus, artichokes, green garlic and some of the finest sorbet made anywhere in the world.

Sasha and I allowed our bottle of 1995 Avignonesi Nobile diMontepulciano ($48) to open while we addressed the bread and surveyed one of downtown San Jose's most glamorous dining rooms. Tonight the multitiered seating was filled with professionals happy to unwind under the flattering lights reflected in acres of white linen. Among these were several contingents on their way to the Rolling Stones concert--accounting for the sudden surge toward dessert at around 8pm. But we were here to sample some new items and enjoy the attentions of consummate maitre d' Jalil Samavarchian.

Though it's extremely difficult to choose from Paolo's ample temptations, we started off with a salad of house-made Muscovy duck prosciutto, fanned out like crimson pools punctuated by infant mache lettuce, exquisitely ripe pink grapefruit and a rich lemon jam ($8). Our only complaint was the urge to have a few more tastes of the wonderful cured duck--the paper-thin slices, with a superfluous rim of fat left on, represented altogether only a few forkfuls. Sasha's tour de force appetizer, Sapore di Parmigiano Reggiano ($8.75), was lovely in a very pale, unadorned way, but again quite modest in portion. A straw-colored Parmesan custard--tender and delicate but tiny--sat in the center of a watery Parmesan broth, topped by a crunchy, delicious Parmesan galette. A touch of tomato or even chive would have added visual appeal--the color beige doesn't exactly stimulate the appetite.

Entrees were confidently presented. My special dinner of grilled squab arrived juicy and aromatic, adorned austerely with four perfect spring onions ($25). The onions were noticeably undercooked, though the outer layers were sweet enough to enjoy. A glorious sauce of reduced duck juices pooled around the fine poultry, infusing every rich bite. Sasha noted that, for the price, a starch of some sort--even as a token offering--might have been provided.

Her pretty entree of gnocchi and roasted asparagus tips ($16.75), laced with shavings of black truffles and asparagus butter, was exquisite. A sauce of pureed asparagus thickened with potato blanketed each delicate gnocchi, which looked like huge pearls dusted with black diamonds. Tender yet deeply satisfying, it showcased the chef's light hand with this most difficult of pasta creations and tasted exactly like the spring day turning to evening outside the tall windows.

Desserts at Paolo's would tempt St. Anthony himself, especially on our last visit, when we contemplated panna cotta, tiramisu, cannoli, even a selection of Italian cheese. But with the apt advice of our fine waiter, we went for the Tuscan bomboloni ($6.50) and a trio of sorbetti ($5.75).

Despite the amusing description, "Tuscan Big Bombs," my dessert was a comforting creation of what tasted like deluxe pastry-cream-filled beignets, topped with a decadent chocolate sauce ($6.50). Utterly indulgent, they were almost as good as Sasha's platter of sorbetti: chocolate, strawberry and--the best--pear essence. All were celestial, but the pear won us completely. Here were sorbets capable of reducing predictable desserts like chocolate mousse or tiramisu to sheer boredom. We made a note of that, while sipping glasses of incredibly interesting Sicilian Malvasia, a dessert wine with echoes of Greek retsina.

A night at Paolo's is never a forgettable experience.

Address: 333 W. San Carlos St., San Jose
Phone: 408/294-2558
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11am-2:30pm; Mon.-Sat. 5:30-10pm; closed Sun.
Entrees: $14.50-$28.50
Cuisine: New Italian
Chef: Mark Hopper

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From the May 13-19, 1999 issue of Metro.

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