14701 Via Bettona, Rancho Santa Fe
Cavaillon is likely to become your favorite neighborhood French restaurant, no matter how far you live from its neighborhood. It's located in a new upscale suburb in the former wilds southwest of Rancho Bernardo and northeast of Del Mar, with the usual component of chain stores and chain restaurants in homogenized strip malls. But when you step through Cavaillon's door, you're transported to the mythic small-town heart of France, where housewives flirt with their butchers to get the best piece of meat and sniff and thump on every melon at the farmstand. The comfortable, medium-small restaurant could even be a bistro in the Provençale market-village of Cavaillon -- hometown of chef-owner Philippe Verpiand, who was the sous-chef at La Jolla's renowned Tapenade for seven years before striking out on his own.
The decor is pure Gallic nostalgia for preindustrial days: Polished tables of dark wood are set with heavy white linen napkins and brass chargers but no tablecloths. The wooden chairs are comfortable during a long meal. Art Nouveau light sconces, shaped like ecru calla lilies with gracefully curved stems, alternate on the walls with sepia photographs and vintage black-and-white postcards portraying the town of Cavaillon at the turn of the last century.
The menu offers several options for how you want to play dinner. You can enjoy a delicious, modestly priced meal at the Monday night prix fixe dinner ($32 for three courses). You can have a slightly more expensive meal from the regular menu, especially if you shut your ears to the siren songs of the evening's specials. (On the other hand, you're not going to live forever.) Or you can rush to the restaurant before March 15 to take advantage of an outpouring of black truffles fresh from Provence -- a menu available à la carte or as a full tasting dinner for $79.
Moi? I did it all, you-all. That's (heh heh) my job.
The Lynnester's charming mom, Mary Ann, had just arrived to escape the frigid winter in northern Michigan. Like daughter, like mother -- Mary Ann had already done her research and singled out Cavaillon as a destination, even if it meant driving north with Samurai Jim a few hours after her plane landed.
We thought we were coming for the Monday night prix fixe. But then we discovered the "Black Truffle Celebration" in a one-page menu inset. We mixed and matched two prix fixe dinners with à la carte choices from the regular menu and the truffle dishes. I returned a few nights later, determined to try more of the regular menu's dishes -- but succumbed again (partly) to the temptations of truffles and specials.
Whatever you choose, your life will be a happier one if you start with a mini-appetizer of panisse ($5), a specialty of Provence. It's misleadingly described as "chickpea cakes," but don't think falafel -- think deep-fried satin. What you get are four puffy, golden-brown rectangles (like steak fries), crisp outside, light and soft inside -- essentially custard with fine-milled garbanzo flour as a binder. This proves to be a superb, sugarless substitute for the toasted marshmallows of childhood campfires, rivaling deep-fried tofu in texture. The flavor is subtle and clean, and the thick aoili dip does not stint on garlic. (The myth is that Provençale girls never get mosquito bites because their flesh is so imbued with garlic. Did the story originally feature Dracula instead of aedes?)
Cavaillon is not the sort of restaurant where they stick you with the "cheap" dishes on the Monday prix fixe menu. Here, the choices are every bit as tasty as the more expensive entrées, with most drawn from the regular menu. The soup du jour was a creamy potato-leek purée sprinkled with finely minced chives. It was rich, subtle, comforting, a caress to the soul. Tartiflette, arriving in a small baking dish, was a gooey gratin of potatoes with leeks, bacon, and mild melted Roucoulons cheese. Jim loved it, as did the rest of us, but all three women found it rich for a starter. "I'd prefer this as a side dish with an entrée," said svelte Mary Ann.
Coq au vin consisted of two plump thighs robed in a thick, soul-soothing reduced-wine sauce sweetened by cooked-down carrots and onions. You'd never guess that peasants invented this dish to wring the last bit of nutrition from retired laying hens and bruised roosters beaten on the alpha-male battlefield. The hens at our table gossiped about Julia Child. "Her recipe for coq au vin isn't nearly this good," Mary Ann said. "Coming to think of it," I added, "the coq au vin I ate in Burgundy wasn't this good either." "Are you actually saying this is the best coq au vin you've ever eaten?" asked Jim. Yes, it was.
Slow-braised salmon proved a prodigy, too, the flavorful fish, clearly wild catch, so gently cooked that it was as velvety through the narrow strip as it was in the thicker part. It came with a lighthearted mixture of diced apples, leeks, and rutabaga.
From the truffle menu I zeroed in on duck foie gras "au torchon." The torchon treatment (wrapping, slow-poaching, and then chilling) creates a deluxe cousin to pâté, with a texture like semifirm butter. The generous cylinder included plenty of delicious black truffle shavings running through the center. It came with a madeleine-shaped oval of black Mission fig mousse and toasted brioche slices to spread the manna on. The ethereal mousse is only slightly sweet, an elegant alternative to the usual syrupy fruit explosions.
Maine diver scallops are an entrée on the truffle menu, but the staff graciously accommodated my plea to have a half-portion served as an appetizer. The interiors of the tremblingly supple scallops were the nacreous tint of a pink pearl. They were scattered with a king's ransom of coins of black truffle, all embedded in an asparagus risotto so rich with Italian Parmesan that it might be difficult to do it justice were it a main course.