One Garnish Too Many

Montclair Bistro is an outpost of complexity in the land of simple food -- the result is hit and miss.

At heart, East Bay eaters are a down-home lot. For three decades, Chez Panisse has exerted such a gravitational pull on our cuisine that the East Bay’s restaurants follow a separate orbit from San Francisco’s. I’m not talking about taco trucks or South Indian dosa houses. I’m talking bistros. Sixty-dollar-a-plate places.

Berkeley and Oakland restaurants worship purity and authenticity like New Yorkers worship the latest fashion. Chefs who move here start talking up the quality of their ingredients and talking down innovation. Garnishes disappear off their plates. Foams, rare Asian fruits, and other treacherously trendy ingredients are banished. A San Francisco dish such as “rabbit three ways with truffle jus” morphs into “Tiny Farms rabbit stewed with Placer Valley onions and hand-ground mustard.”

But not at the new Montclair Bistro, where Chef Henry Vortriede aims to put the fine back in fine dining. Vortriede studied at Cordon Bleu in France, then worked in a number of Bay Area French restaurants, hotels, and dinner cruises before becoming the chef for the Sequoyah Country Club. He and his wife, Kathleen, saved their dollars and finally opened their own place in Montclair about four months ago. It’s the kind of restaurant you could wear a tie to and not feel out of place, a place of burgundy and gold sponge-painted walls, of heavy linen napkins and big wineglasses.

Every night, Vortriede tours the dining room in monogrammed chef’s whites, greeting diners as he weaves between busers in collarless white jackets and waiters wearing fresh-pressed black-and-whites. Though they sometimes forget little details, with their many silverware changes and respectful demeanors they’ve soaked up the spirit of the place.

Vortriede’s extensive menu, which is priced somewhere between neighborhood bistro and once-a-year splurge, blends French tradition and Californian tradition. He doesn’t go overboard with an all-French menu, but something about the way he constructs his dishes belies a French idiom that Bay Area diners don’t taste much anymore.

For example, for one appetizer, Vortriede gently sautés seasonal mushrooms, binds them together with cognac and cream, then spoons the ragout over a small mushroom-duxelles ravioli, decorating the plate with a puff-pastry leaf. Texturally, the dish sets up contrasts between the creamy mushrooms, the chewy pasta, and the will-o’-the-crisp pastry, but as far as taste goes, you only sense the soft murmur of the mushrooms enriched with reduced cream.

Now, handed the same mushrooms, a good California-cuisine chef would have dropped the cream, say, and would have instead sautéed the mushrooms with shallots, then splashed on a bit of sherry vinegar, tossing in a pinch of fresh herbs at the end. The combined effect would have amplified rather than dampened the other ingredients.

This Frenchified cuisine teeters precariously on the border between fanciful and fussy. Successful execution makes the difference. At the center of a duo of tuna tartares was a wonton cup filled with chopped raw ahi, the bright red chunks tossed with a lively sesame-soy dressing. Around the fluted cup the cooks placed three potato chips piled high with guacamole, cooked tuna mixed in with the avocados and tomatoes. Sheer richness brought the two tartares together without a clash of cultures, and we swirled both around the plate, picking up extra flavor from a Jackson Pollock of balsamic vinegar and chile oil.

By contrast, the vintner’s salad tipped way over into fussy. The “salad,” a tight bundle of mixed greens wrapped in a cucumber slice, formed the body of a butterfly with wings of endive leaves and Parmesan and Gruyère shavings. Looking at the plate, it wasn’t hard to picture the chef using a jeweler’s loupe and tweezers to place grape halves and walnuts around the greens, pushing one a millimeter east, another a millimeter south. With toasted nuts instead of raw ones, half the cheese, and a more dashing vinaigrette, I’d have taken pleasure in deconstructing it.

Once you clear away the orchids, puff-pastry squares, and sweet-potato chips, you may realize that Vortriede is going for your gut. Underneath multiple garnishes, the braised shortribs looked more primal than refined, a big bone falling off from a chunk of beef so tender you could smear it on toast. Unfortunately, the sauce had been reduced to sludge, and the spaetzle covering the bottom of the bowl were still chalky in the center. The sauce on a duck breast had a similar problem — any hint of the merlot in the merlot demi-glace had boiled away — but the rest of the plate delivered good, hearty fun: juicy duck breast, an earthy puree of butternut squash, al dente ravioli filled with shredded duck confit.

Lighter often signified better, as in the crab cakes, the dish I enjoyed most. Vortriede’s cooks mixed big chunks of Dungeness crab meat with tiny diced onion and red bell pepper, binding them with a light mayonnaise and a crust of panko (fluffy Japanese breadcrumbs). They settled three small cakes on dabs of aioli, with a grapefruit segment placed next to each to counteract the oiliness of the mayonnaise. And though the cooks also overcooked a salmon fillet, they kept the champagne grape and golden-tomato vinaigrette spooned overtop light and tart, and presented the fish over a delicate “hash” of mushroom caps and new potatoes. The restaurant doesn’t limit vegetarians to a salad and a veg plate, either, presenting a number of choices for first and second courses.

But the plates contained so many elements, some working and some not, that my companions and I ended up with pro and con lists for each dish. Take the vegetable napoleon, for example. From the ground up:

Pro: Creamy polenta base.

Con: Underseasoned spinach around the edges.

Pro: Stack of tender, just-right grilled zucchini, eggplant, and roast peppers.

Con: Rubbery, bland sheet of mozzarella melted overtop. Vegetable stock reduction sauce tasted undefined.

Pro: Sundried tomato pesto drizzled around the edges a bold flash of color and flavor — more of that, and the dish would be made.

Or a dessert, presented on a plate the size of Cincinnati:

Con: Half-apple baked en croûte, otherwise known as limp pastry.

Pro: Three perfect balls of cinnamon gelato.

Con: Small tartlet filled with custard and fresh raspberries. What was it doing there?

I felt just as ambivalent about Vortriede’s showcase dessert, a Frangelico-Grand Marnier soufflé, which takes thirty minutes to cook. His soufflé mastered the tradition it reflected: Inflated and eggy, it collapsed a little with each spoonful, yet retained just enough air to dissipate in the mouth. But the vanilla crème anglaise and whipped cream served alongside just added rich to rich — a flash of bright berry or citrus flavors would have made the dish light up.

Vortriede’s ambitions are welcome, especially in Montclair, a district packed with cash-rich residents eager for an upscale bistro of their own. But given the pricetag, the chef could stand to deliver a little less garnish, and a little more polish.

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