SUCH SIMPLE but endlessly satisfying sweets as chocolate mousse, crème caramel, profiteroles and oeufs à la neige (caramel-drizzled poached meringues set afloat on custard sauce) appear as often on Paris menus as they do on the tables of French grandmothers. Better restaurants generally note that their profiteroles are faites maison—made on premises, as opposed to bought—and the differences are highlighted by crisper pastry, richer ice cream and an unctuous sauce made from best-grade chocolate and thick cream.
In the hands of a chef like Philippe Verpiand, whose new Cavaillon in the far-north San Diego neighborhood of Santaluz showcases the heights that typical French fare can reach, the everyday profiterole is transformed into a delight that grows more ravishing with each bite and, while substantial, leaves behind a trace of regret when the last drop of sauce has been carefully scraped from the plate. Heart-shaped and baked to order (haute cuisine touches that add value to the $7 dessert), the cream-puff pastry encases smooth pistachio ice cream and luxuriates beneath a ladleful of warm, dark chocolate sauce that is the liquid equivalent of velvet.
Verpiand opened his restaurant after serving several years as executive chef at Tapenade, and he fulfills the promises made by the earlier courses of the meal by composing desserts that earn the comment “The entire dinner was marvelous.” Yogurt becomes unexpectedly attractive in the form of a mousse garnished with homemade apricot preserves and an almond Madeleine ($7), and the little pastilla cake ($8) is yet another wonder. A play on the savory Moroccan pie of many-layered phyllo pastry filled with minced chicken and almonds, Verpiand’s pastilla is a spectacular dome-shaped composition of dark chocolate mousse, crisply fragile pastry, fresh raspberry sauce and homemade raspberry sorbet.
Simplicity taken to perfection characterizes Cavaillon, which is named for the chef ’s hometown (famous for melons) in the south of France and provides the correct yet gracious service that has become all too rare in San Diego. The dining room’s awkward rectangular shape is rescued by French taste, with such decorating details as textured walls hand-sponged in a buttery shade that appears to have been overlaid with sea salt, and soft lighting that flatters carefully nurtured, Rancho Santa Fe–aspiring complexions. For some reason, the votive candles puckishly refuse to flicker, but they do cast a reliably romantic glow over guests clad in good sports clothes.
ON THE MENU, the heading “small starters” precedes the appetizer list and offers three street-market-style nibbles that can give the meal a bright Provençale opening. All meant as finger food, the choices are crisp fried cakes made of chick peas ($5), fried-to-order pommes frites tossed with truffle oil and grated Parmesan ($6) and paper-thin shavings of vegetables ($6 for zucchini, eggplant and whatever might be fresh and wonderful that day) simply coated in flour, sizzled in deep fat, seasoned boldly with sea salt and served with an exceptionally creamy aioli (garlic mayonnaise).
Some of the formal appetizers reprise the menu at Tapenade, such as ravioli stuffed with forest mushrooms and doused with the most suave of Port sauces ($11). Verpiand knows how to brew soups, and offers an absolutely lovely chilled asparagus veloute (a stock-based purée lightly thickened with cream and egg yolks; $9) as a standing alternative to the day’s soup ($6), which on the happiest occasion is a soupe de poissons that rivals those served at famous Paris brasseries like La Coupole and Le Dome. Served hot enough to scorch the tongue (patience is indeed a virtue), this tomato-enriched essence of the sea typically is served with the garlic–red pepper sauce called rouille on the side, to be added at will or spread on toasts. Verpiand instead beats rouille into each serving before it leaves the kitchen. But those who really like this sharp, mayonnaise-like sauce ask for a dish on the side so they can dive in and have a memorably pungent good time.
THE STARS among first courses are an elegant salad of pears, honey and walnut sided with “crostini” (baguette toasts) topped with smooth Fourme d’Ambert cheese ($10), and a sensational serving of duck foie gras ($19), roasted in a towel, thickly sliced and served with toasted brioche and mounds of light-as-air dried apricot mousseline. “It’s like biting into a cloud,” observed a guest whose first mouthful was her first experience of foie gras. “By the time you try to bite through it, it’s already permeating your senses.”
As is true of the dessert list, the relatively brief entrée selection highlights French “comfort” dishes such as coq au vin ($19) and duck confit ($23), prepared with exceptional skill and garnished more elaborately than those from the home kitchens in which they developed over generations. The chicken is joined by a nicely textured “smash” of red potatoes into which a particularly energetic cook beats cream and a longish list of seasonings; for the duck, the additions are a Port-flavored brown sauce, polenta and sautéed apples. Steak-frites ($28), another bistro classic, comprises a juicy New York cut topped with a shallot-red wine sauce served with perfect French fries and a well-balanced salad of tender greens.
The fish of the day ($22), roasted to a gentle succulence, is simply but effectively presented with a Provençale garnish of long-simmered tomato “fondue” with fennel and kalamata olives. Other choices are pan-seared scallops with lentils, green apples and caramelized onions ($24) and salmon garnished simply with baby spinach and a shallot-flavored cream ($21).
When Verpiand truly wants to show off, he does so with dishes like the “pork duo” ($22), a name that gives away nothing of the complexity of a dish that is really quite wonderful but might challenge conservative diners. The first half of this porcine marriage consists of pork cheeks that require a full two days to simmer to a remarkably tender finish; when done, they look like a pair of pork medallions but are infinitely more tender and bathe in their own slowly rendered juices. These are paired with pork belly (think bacon, and watch out for fainting cardiologists) that is sizzled on a flat metal grill until the fat (mostly) drains away. The cliché about perfectly contrasted textures and flavors rings true in this case—and oddly enough, the pudgy glazed carrots that garnish the dish make it all the more marvelous.
Cavaillon serves dinner nightly as well as Sunday brunch at 14701 Via Bettona in Santaluz. Reservations are suggested; call 858-433-0483.