I took this online quiz called “Are you a Francophile?” and scored pretty high, so I guess that makes it official. Food-wise, I'm exceedingly partial to France's stinky cheeses, red wines and pastries. Most of all, I'm awed by a French chef's skill with a sauce.
In the early 19th century, French foodies developed a handful of master sauces, including béchamel, hollandaise and the classic brown sauce, which are the bases of hundreds of variations of sauces that exist today. The word, sauce, is French in origin, and sauces are so hugely important in French cuisine that there's even a name, saucier, for a person who specializes in making sauces. They're so fundamental that cooking schools devote lengthy courses just to their perfection.
(It might sound downright silly to some, but I still harbor a dream of going to culinary school in France, imagining weeks learning sauces while being benevolently berated by a toque-wearing chef.)
Before I get too food-nerdy, I'll just get to the point. I really love French food, and Cavaillon Restaurant, just off Highway 56, is one of the good ones. Its chef/owner, Philippe Verpiand, who started cooking at 16, has logged more than 20 years in a kitchen and definitely knows his sauces. Too much time passes between my visits to Cavaillon, but after my last delicious meal there, I'll try not to let that happen again.
While North County is surely glad to have Cavaillon, its somewhat remote location is both a blessing and a curse. After some early favorable reviews, the place hasn't really been on the radar lately, aside from the insular world of food message-board posts and food blogs. It's allowed the restaurant to slowly perfect what it does and operate without pandering to the latest trends, but the isolation has also kept it out of people's regular rotation. For those afraid that it might be too fancy, it's not. It's in a strip mall, albeit a new and spacious one, and the restaurant's atmosphere is warm and comfortable. The menu is more special-occasion than everyday, but it doesn't come close to some of the exorbitant prices of other upscale restaurants, and I'd say the food is better. I went by on a recent Monday, when it offers a prix fixe dinner, with three very nice courses, for $32.
Among the dishes I tasted was a smear of creamy, mild Fourme d'Ambert blue cheese, spread on a crispy pastry and topped with half-moons of shaved pear alongside a honey and walnut salad. Then came a crunchy-skinned square of Barramundi, a delicate sea bass-like fish, that comes with a sweet and salty tomato and olive mixture, ringed with a foamy lobster sauce. Pheasant pot pie, with its dome of flaky dough, sat on bed of the best cabbage I've ever tasted and was covered with an incredible brown sauce, almost caramel in consistency and rich with meaty flavor.
I also couldn't miss out on my two favorites: truffled parmesan fries and crackly batons of fried savory custard, smooth and tender within. The custard wedges taste like gorgeous, oozy cheese but are actually made from chickpea flour—sort of a subversive twist on fried mozzarella sticks. They are a vegetarian's dream, but this omnivore fantasizes about them all the same. No sauce is needed for either snack.
Wine, both white and red, was sipped and shared before we moved on to the desserts, all good, but the standouts were an apple lasagna made from delicate sheets of sliced fruit with a crumble topping, a coconut ice cream laced with chewy strands of the nut and a trio of crème brulées, including a tangy passion fruit version.
Independent of the food, I'm also fond of Cavaillon for its three degrees of separation from Anthony Bourdain. Before becoming a TV star, he was a working chef in a French restaurant in New York called Les Halles, whose owner came out to San Diego to open Tapenade Restaurant. Verpiand worked in that kitchen for seven years before opening Cavaillon, which is named after his hometown in France. Since chefs are today's rockstars and Anthony Bourdain is my food-world equivalent of Keith Richards, I think the connection's pretty cool. Cavaillon seems like the kind of place Bourdain would go for dinner. In my reoccurring daydreams, the two of us would pleasurably fill our bellies before moving on to my favorite local dive bar. Cavaillon, 14701 Via Bettona, Ste. 200 in Santaluz is open for dinner daily from 5 to 9:30 p.m. and breakfast/brunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m Sunday. 858-433-0483.