A PEACOCK PREENS IN FULL GLORY on a stained-glass panel in the entry to Paon, a fine new restaurant in downtown Carlsbad. You might therefore infer that Paon means “peacock,” as it does in French; in this writer’s opinion, the name needlessly challenges patrons. On recent visits, guests at nearby tables consistently inquired of servers: “How do you pronounce ‘paon,’ and what does it mean?” “Le Paon” at least would indicate the French origin, while “The Pheasant” would prefigure the beautiful décor.
In an era uncertain it likes anything posh, Paon is swanked out with discreet luxury. The look, a kind of streamlined Art Deco, boasts soft chairs upholstered in bronze fabric, windows edged in draperies that shimmer with metallic hues, fine stemware and elegant amusements like a panache of peacock feathers arranged in an urn. The lounge is a bar hound’s dream of dark woods and stained glass. A friendly, knowledgeable staff demonstrates its understanding of the elements of good service.
The menu avoids peacock but features pan-roasted pheasant ($30), a bird that until now had flown the coop of San Diego County eateries. Pheasant balks at cooking to perfection (it prefers to dry out), but the savors are sublime when it cooperates. Chef David Gallardo refuses to be intimidated, and his plate pleases enormously, with lightly gilded meat starring in a careful construction of wild mushrooms, Swiss chard and truffle-flavored risotto, the whole memorably accented with foie gras and Madeira sauce. This is the sort of dish to enjoy slowly, one little bite at a time, after which the server likely will return a spotless plate to the kitchen.
Gallardo spent recent years as executive chef at the secluded, highly regarded WineSellar & Brasserie in Sorrento Mesa. He excels at “building” plates that weave various components into seamless triumphs. He has a fairly brief history in the kitchen and evidently learned much of what he knows from Douglas Organ, the autodidactic WineSellar & Brasserie chef who packed up his talent and moved to Boston some years ago. Just as Paon speaks French in a whisper, Gallardo’s contemporary cuisine disdains fuss.
Since partner/manager Steve Barr formerly was general manager at Brasserie, a theme begins to spin itself—and sure enough, Paon incorporates a wine shop and tasting bar. Diners who venture down the longish hall can buy a bottle to enjoy at table for $10 corkage. The principal partner, Mayur Pavagadhi, is a longtime developer and restaurateur with considerable interests around the United States, and it seems reasonable to regard Paon as an extravagant preen that celebrates success in a particularly unforgiving industry.
GALLARDO CONTRIBUTES lunch and dinner menus that embrace luxury but don’t insist on it. Guests inclined to spend $75 on an appetizer should enjoy the “black pearl” American paddlefish caviar, served with crème fraîche and the other accompaniments traditional with Caspian Sea fish eggs. Pan-seared Hudson Valley duck foie gras ($20) might be the better choice; cut into a good, thick scallop, it sizzles in hot butter long enough to acquire a tasty crust while retaining a wondrously creamy interior. It arrives angled against a crumbly nubbin of brioche spread with a remarkably fragrant peach compote.
Other starters include a savory arrangement of warm, walnut-crusted goat cheese with grapes, peppered honey and walnut-raisin bread ($11) and wild-mushroom ravioli ($14) quite unlike anything found on local menus. “The chef treats the ravioli more like pastry than pasta,” observed a waiter, explaining that the plump packages were crisped and browned in butter before bubbling in chicken stock and red wine that reduced to an unctuous sauce. Generously stuffed with forest mushrooms, layered with chopped herbs and crowned with wide ribbons of Parmeggiano-Reggiano, they made a superb lunch.
Gallardo diligently simmers an organic celery soup, which he presents stylishly with diced green apple, crème fraîche and emerald pistachio oil ($9). It’s clever and tasty, like the salad of Indian-spiced prawns with fennel, greenery and avocado ($12) or the simple, perfect tumble of sliced Comice pear with bitter-sweet-pungent accents of Belgian endive, candied walnuts and creamy Stilton ($10).
The entrée list does well with seafood preparations, such as seared Maine diver scallops arranged around fluffy potato purée with garnishes of lobster and a vegetable ragout ($32). Mostly, the chef favors meat, such as a golden-crusted flatiron pork steak, carved into rosy slices to roof a row of apple and turnip wedges, a lovely puddle of melting Swiss chard and crisply browned spaetzle in a sticky sauce of pan juices and butter ($18). The menu also offers duck leg confit paired with duck breast in balsamic vinegar sauce ($28), rack of lamb crusted with herbs de Provence and sided with golden raisins and porcini mushrooms ($35), a few steaks and a big, richly garnished veal chop ($40). New Zealand Cervena venison ($40) is flavored with black pepper, carefully roasted and finished with celery-root purée and port-flavored cherry sauce.
The same cherries surround a creamy, sugar-glazed arborio rice pudding like a necklace of chubby garnets. Crème brûlée appears among the sweets (all desserts cost $8), eclipsed by delicate hazelnut cannoli with caramelized banana; a sizable pastry “croute” stuffed with green apple and studded with blueberries; and for something light, strawberries with balsamic vinegar, cracked black pepper and vanilla bean ice cream.
Not surprisingly, this wine-oriented restaurant offers a good list of Ports and Sauternes. The surprise is that several are just $8.
Paon serves lunch Wednesday through Sunday and dinner nightly at 560 Carlsbad Village Drive, Carlsbad (paoncarlsbad.com). Reservations are advised; call 760-729-7377.