At the return dinner, I spotted somebody at another table with a truffled artichoke risotto, and it sidetracked my resolve to start with escargots or onion soup. The dish arrives in a small covered glass jar, and the waiter instructs you to bend close and shroud your face with your napkin when you open it, deeply inhaling the initial aroma. This brings a blast of concentrated truffle scent (the earthy essence the Japanese call umami). The rest of the risotto is fascinating, too. On top is a black layer of thin truffle coins, mingling with the red of tomatoes. Below comes a white heap of rice, diced artichoke hearts, and grated Parmesan. At bottom is a creamy coral liquid -- the juices of all the other ingredients mingling with mascarpone cheese.
The grand poo-bah of the truffle menu is beef tenderloin Rossini. This is one of the great old haute cuisine dishes that you rarely see anymore. Who could resist? (Not I.) Arriving rare as ordered, the top-class beef was as tender as a baby's butt, capped with chunks of foie gras and disks of truffle, snuggling up joyfully to more truffles in the port wine sauce. Alongside came soft puréed spinach and a crisp domino of porcini polenta.
At the return visit, the evening's soup was a lobster bisque with a distinctive personality. Made in the style of Breton lobstermen (or their wives), its cream component is modest, and its flavor and aroma are pure sea life. (If you should luck into this bisque, you might want to try a really dry white to drink with it -- perhaps a French Chablis or a New Zealand sauvignon blanc -- to match its relative leanness.)
The duck confit from the regular, everyday menu is no quotidian quacker. In fact, it's spectacular -- which is how it's supposed to be but seldom is. For confit, duck legs are slowly braised in the duck's own fat, then rapidly fried in the same fat to crisp the skin. If you've ever tasted a dried-out duck confit and wondered why those frogs swear by the stuff, you'll finally learn the answer. For one thing, Cavaillon buys Moulardes -- the foie gras duck, a busty, plump, and well-fatted species created by crossing the hefty Pekin and the flavorful Muscovy breeds. (At my visit, the menu misspelled it as Mallard, which is a smaller, much leaner wild duck; the typo should be corrected by now.) The confit arrives with skin as light and crackly as the best Peking duck, over rich, fall-apart meat set atop a port wine demiglaze, and comes with savoy cabbage mixed with diced carrots and a dollop of creamy butternut squash purée.
The first evening's entrée special was Australian barramundi (in the sea bass family). I'd recently chawed on the same species, overcooked, at Bondi in the Gaslamp (more about that next week). Here, it was done swiftly and properly, grilled on the skin (making it crisp and easy to slip off) and accompanied by a très provençale sauce of tomatoes, fennel, and French black olives. Butternut squash again added sweetness to the plate.
The second dinner's irresistible special offered two cuts of free-range Brandt Farms veal with morel mushrooms. Rosy noisettes of veal tenderloin (the prettier sister) were quickly grilled and paired with a small hunk of slow-braised flat iron (shoulder) -- two very different routes to tender meat. Unlike its pallid formula-fed cousins, the veal tasted as if the calf had enjoyed its short life -- here a sip of milk from mom, there a nice bite of grass (hence the reddish color). The morels, wild mushrooms with a delightful crenellated texture, embodied a flavor so deep and rich it rivals that of truffles. Spinach and butternut squash purée reappeared on the side. (This is, after all, a bistro, not some exorbitant shrine of cuisine.)
Desserts range from simple to perhaps overelaborate, a.k.a. frou-frou. Profiteroles were fascinating, baked crisp and firm rather than the more typical soft and fluffy rendition. They were stuffed with pistachio ice cream and whole pistachios and drizzled all over with bittersweet chocolate syrup. It's a chocoholic's dream dessert. Samurai Jim is a chocoholic, ergo.... Cheesecake parfait arrived in a large milk glass. Topped with diced pineapple and passion fruit, it held more cream flavor than cheese flavor, so Lynne and I (cheesecake-aholics) were disappointed.
Tangerine confit presents a whole clementine poached and steeped in syrup until even the peel is edible. It's intense. Next to it is a madeleine that begs to be dipped in the syrup. Further down the long rectangular plate is a pouf of thick, sweet chocolate ganache and then a tangerine sorbet. The chocolate added a sweetness that many will welcome, but the austere sorbet (which I loved) was the smart skinny kid bullied by its platemates. A warm chocolate tart is something like a small soufflé but with a dense, fudgy interior instead of an airy one. It comes with a scoop of bashful coconut ice cream (not as blatantly coconutty as I prefer) over a mound of diced tropical fruit with a passion fruit coulis. If you still have wine and appetite, you can choose a cheese plate of three fine French fromages, which includes nothing truly stinky or scary.
At long last the starving
masses of Scripps Ranch, Sabre Springs, and Rancho Peñasquitos have a serious nearby alternative to chains, pubs, and mom'n'pops. But even downtowners have a new destination to savor. As the Michelin Guide says of its two-star (out of three possible) recommended restaurants, Cavaillon is "worth a detour."
ABOUT THE CHEF
"My father used to own a butcher shop in France, and I was going to do that, but he told me, 'No, do something else, because it's gonna be really rough in 20 years.' And he was right. So I decided to be a cook, because since I was young, I was always cooking and baking," says Philippe Verpiand.
"I began cooking when I was 16, and I went to a culinary school in France for two years. When I was 18 and graduated, I began to work all around the country. I tried to do one year each in different restaurants, in all the regions of France. I worked in a lot of restaurants and resorts rated two stars in the Michelin Guide -- each year for ten years I worked in a different one. Some of them were Café de Paris in Biarritz, and La Poularde near Lyons, next door to Troisgros [three-star destination], Le Bateau D'Ivre in the Alps. In the French Riviera, I worked in a two-star hotel where Alain Ducasse began his career.