Clafouti is a light, creamy, baked-fruit dessert, somewhere between a custard and a pancake. Chef Olivier’s version features pear in the airiest, silkiest custard, amended with rosemary ice cream. It was exciting to discover that rosemary would work in a sweet, but I found the ice cream distracting, given the quality of the clafouti itself.
Pot au Crème is normally a chocolate pudding, but here the flavoring was coffee, which was much more interesting in this airy, mousselike confection dusted with cocoa nibs.
And then — ta-da! — there was the chocolate tasting with coffee. The chocolates range from near-conventional milk-chocolate hazelnut through bittersweet filled with passion fruit, blueberry, and a fierce black peppercorn wafer. It’s one knockout after another — and the coffee is fine, too. Ditto the decaf espresso (which is so often a huge enough drag to spoil the end of a meal). Marty was so thrilled, she told the handsome blonde waitress (an obvious pro at her job, not some surfer wannabe) to give our compliments to the chef. Olivier promptly emerged from the kitchen. He is compact, blond, handsome, with a smile as sunny as the first golden dandelion of spring. He graciously accepted the praise and returned to the kitchen. “He’s always so nice,” said the waitress. “A lot of chefs are very tense and egotistical, but he’s always sweet and good-natured.”
A week or so later, I returned for the weekend brunch. Normally I breakfast minimally and regard brunch as something of an ordeal, but when I looked at various foodie blogs, they were all a-rave about the ricotta pancakes and the eggs en cocotte. Jim, Fred, and I snagged a heavenly table on the shaded patio on one of the first warm days of spring.
Mimosas are made with Cava (Spanish sparkling wine) with interesting fruit purées — passion fruit, pomegranate, mango, and peach are among the choices, as well as standard orange juice. The thick purées aren’t housemade but are high quality, and they sink to the bottom of the glass, where, topped by the diamondine sparkle of the wine, they look like jewels.
The brunch menu offers numerous choices but no clichés — no Benedicts, no maple syrup (real or fake), no pseudo-Grand Slams or oeufs McMuffinées. (You can, however, get muffins from the list of side dishes if that’s what you want.)
The ricotta pancakes fully justify all the praise: They’re airy fluff, barely subject to gravity, garnished with poached mandarin sections. A swirl of tangy orange-butter sauce (made with reduced juice and no added sugar) is plated under them and lightly drizzled on top. It’s the perfect breakfast food. (Light eaters can get a “petite” portion for just $5; ditto the French toast.)
The French toast goes by its French name, pain perdu, because it’s the actual Gallic version of the dish, made with sliced day-old baguettes only lightly robed in egg batter. The slices are crisp rather than soft, very different from the soaked-through American rendition made with more porous bread. Their sauce is a discreet application of seductive warmed lavender honey.
Torn between the choices (eggs en cocotte? asparagus omelet? house-cured salmon?), we finally settled on the dish that most roused our curiosity: “sausage, biscuits, and gravy.” I’ve put quotation marks around the name because it’s not the sloppy Southern classic as you know it, but a conceptual art remake of the dish — and probably the healthiest rendition in the whole USA. The biscuits are moderate-sized, crisp-surfaced, and supernally light. They’re leavened with baking powder (not yeast), just like standard Georgia drop biscuits, but they’re more likely to fly away than to drop to the bottom of your stomach like starchy cannonballs. The crisp-skinned sausages are Bruce Aidells’s sublime chicken-apple links (I think Bruce actually invented this sausage), moist but lean and slightly sweet. Instead of the plumper, coarser, cured version you sometimes find in groceries here, Farm House has gotten hold of the original fresh (uncured) product with its fruitier flavor, slimmer profile, and more delicate texture. And the pale brown gravy? Instead of Bubba’s roux-thickened, sausage-studded starchy milk gravy, it’s light and silky — a puréed mushroom-cream reduction sauce. By the way, if you want the sausages without the biscuits, they (and apple-wood–smoked bacon) are available from the list of side dishes.
“I can’t believe it!” Fred exulted. “The prices are so low for such quality — and not one of these dishes makes you feel weighed down.” “Yeah, I feel like I could go for a six-mile run right now,” said Jim. “No more Sunday mornings at Rudford’s for me. This is the place.” Me? I’d eat brunch here every week if I could, even though I hate normal brunches — and I’d have dinner at Farm House once a month. It’s that good.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef Olivier Bioteau was born in the Loire Valley, one of France’s loveliest regions, famed for its majestic riverside chateaux and lyrical white wines. He seems to have burst upon the local food scene from out of nowhere, but he’s actually been cooking in San Diego for 19 years.
Unlike many French chefs, Olivier chose the profession rather than having his family force him into apprenticeship at age 14. (Perhaps this explains his sunny temperament.) “Becoming a chef was a goal of mine ever since I was a little boy,” he says. “Both my parents were huge gardeners. They showed me how to [build] soil and grow strawberries and beans, and shaking the walnut trees until the nuts fall, and how to dry them out, and Grandma was hanging and smoking the hams and the sausage — we were growing our own food and fishing for our fish. It was such a good experience of raw product, you had to see what you could do with it. After graduating from high school, my parents said, ‘You’re sure you want to be a chef?’ and I said yes, so they sent me to chef’s school in Saumur in the Loire Valley for two years, and after that the school finds you a job, and after that you’re on your own.