Cavaillon (San Diego)
Posted 08 April 2011 - 07:16 PM
Cavaillon (San Diego) – Two Black Truffles Tasting Menus
When we started our food blog about a year ago we hoped that we would be able to write quite frequently new posts every few days. We rather quickly found out that we really enjoyed to document our culinary adventures, might it be cooking at home or visiting a restaurant by photographing everything and writing about it, but at the same time we also started to realize that each post takes much longer time than we expected. As a consequence we have a continuously growing list of to-do-posts which we slowly work off. There is nothing wrong with writing about a restaurant some time after the actual visit since it still provides all the information but we always tried to post immediately after visiting special seasonal restaurant events. Unfortunately sometimes the best intentions don’t turn out to be accomplishable and somehow some special dinners fall through the cracks as it happened last year with one very enjoyable visit to Cavaillon. One advantage of special seasonal dinners are that they most of the time return after a year. Since we always want to highlight the progression and evolution of restaurants and its dishes we felt that writing about the two Black Truffles Tasting Menus at Cavaillon last and this year would be a good start.
Fine dining restaurants have of course hardly any limits on what kinds of ingredients they use but there are few which are often directly associated with haute cuisine – foie gras, caviar and truffles. We had many tasting menus where foie gras played a special role or tasting menus which heavily focused on caviar like at Petrossian under Chef Ben Bailly, but even though we often had single dishes which involved truffles we never had a full tasting menu solely build around them which really got us interested in the tasting menu at Cavaillon. Truffles were called “diamonds of the kitchen” by Brillat-Savarin and are in a simplified way underground mushrooms. Since truffle mainly exist in a symbiosis with plant roots they are commonly found in close association of trees. Pigs and dogs can easily recognize their characteristic odor and therefore are predestined for the truffle “hunt”. Even though there are hundreds of species of truffle only two are really of culinary interest – white truffles mainly from Piedmont and black truffles which predominantly come from France, Spain and Italy.
Black truffles are harvested and used in many different cuisines but they are still often closely associated with French cuisine. So what would be better than having a truffle menu prepared by one of the most talented French chefs in San Diego – Philippe Verpiand at Cavaillon. He was born in Cavaillon in the Vaucluse region in the South-East of France. Quite typical for the European system he started already at the age of 16 at the culinary school in Avignon and graduated after two years. He then honed his skills by working at numerous Michelin starred restaurants throughout France for the next ten years often only staying for one year. Some of his stations included Café de Paris in Biarritz, La Poulard near Lyon and Hotel Juana in Juan Les Pins. With the help of his friend Patrick Ponsaty, now at Mistral in Coronado, he was able to start in the US as Chef de Cuisine of Tapenade in La Jolla. After working for more than seven years under Jean-Michel Diot he finally was able to fulfill his dream of his own restaurant in 2005 named after his place of birth.
Cavaillon is in a quiet unusual location for a restaurant – several miles north of I-56 in the upscale community of Santa Luz. You have to drive on Camino del Sur for some time passing several residential communities until you see the restaurant sign which is the only thing distinguishing it from the surrounding residential houses.
The restaurant consists of one big room which even though the tables are quite close and it is often well attended is actually not too loud to have a nice conversation. The restaurant might not resemble something you would find in Chef Verpiand’s hometown but it still has its charm and we like the ambience.
First black truffle tasting menu
1st Course: Celery root risotto with black truffles
Even though Chef Verpiand is French one of his signature dishes are his risottos. The risottos at Cavaillon are perfect examples of this dish – the rice cooked to the right creaminess but still with some bite, not to saucy, not too dry, the appropriate amount of parmesan cheese to give the desired saltiness. This variation had the unusual inclusion of celery root which gave some slight sweetness and earthiness which worked particularly well with the shaved truffle.
2nd Course: Seared scallops, roasted caulifowers & fingerling potatoes, black truffles, watercress.
Wonderful roasted cauliflower and fingerling potatoes in a cream-based sauce form a strong foundation in this dish which helped to accentuate the truffle flavor without overpowering the dish. The watercress added some slight spicyness whereas the perfectly seared scallops showed some of their characteristical sweetness. This dish was a good example for a composition where the whole dish is stronger than the sum of its parts.
Bread service at Cavaillon consists of one type of bread roll which is freshly made in-house and comes still warm to your table. It’s perfect to eat with the butter but even better to soap up the delicious sauces of the different dishes. There is hardly ever a visit at Cavaillon where we don’t have at least a second round of bread rolls.
3rd Course: Petrale sole, white bean ragout, tomatoes, olives, oyster mushrooms, black truffles
When this dish arrived at the table we were first surprised that hardly any black truffles were included in the dish. Once we cut and tried a piece of the fish we realized where all the truffles were – the fish was cut into two halves and had a thick layer of black truffles in between. But even though this was a fish preparation we would like to see more often in restaurants, the star of the dish was the bean ragout. Perfectly cooked white beans in a very rich broth with olives and tomatoes which added a nice acidity and balanced the dish. We could have easily eaten a large bowl of the white bean ragout alone.
4th Course: Filet Mignon, black truffles, asparagus, potato cake
The focus of this dish was clearly on the filet and black truffles. The asparagus and the potato cake were nice additions and completed the dish but taking a bite of the melting tender filet mignon together with some black truffle shavings convinced us that these both were a perfect match.
5th Course: Truffle short bread, vanilla ice cream, truffle honey, shaved truffle
Reading this dish on the menu we suspected some truffle overkill but as with all dishes Chef Verpiand understood how to balance all ingredients, especially the black truffles, but was at the same time also able to showcase its distinctiveness. The ice cream with its strong vanilla flavor worked hand in hand with the sweetness of the honey and the earthiness of the black truffle. The short bread which only had a faint truffle taste added some textural variety.
Second black truffle tasting menu
1st Course: Truffle “torchon” foie gras, cherry mousse.
One highlight at Cavaillon is always the foie gras course and this one was no exception. Chef Verpiand is specifically known for his foie gras au torchon which has an outstanding creaminess without diminishing the livery taste like so many other variations. Foie gras and truffles are always a great pair and here the chef decided to add some cherry mousse which had the right amount of sweetness to cut through the richness of the foie gras without being overly sweet. The dish was accompanied appropriately by some toasted brioche.
2nd Course: Black truffle risotto.
No black truffle tasting menu without risotto – and risotto is something Cavaillon is always delivering perfectly. This time Chef Verpiand decided to use a risotto bianco to really focus on the interplay of the truffle, rice and cheese. There is a reason why risotto al tartufo is a dish in Italy reserved for only special celebratory occasions.
3nd Course: Scallops carpaccio, chestnut and celery root velouté, black truffles
Velouté means velvety in French and best describes this dish. Velouté is made out of stock and a blond roux to give its creaminess which was in this dish combined with chestnut and celery root. Both components worked perfectly together with the black truffle stripes to give the velouté a luxurious feeling. What really put this dish over the top was the inclusion of scallop carpaccio – slightly warmed from the heat of the velouté this completed the dish by adding some sweetness and texture. The best dish of both tasting menus.
4th Course: Duck breast Rossini, squash puree, port wine demi-glace.
Perhaps one of the most famous preparation including truffles is tournedos Rossini – seared foie gras, truffles and filet mignon. Chef Verpiand used here tender duck breast instead of the filet but the interplay of the foie gras, truffles and meat was as good as you would expect from such a classic. We also liked his use of the sweet squash puree to cut through the richness of the dish.
5th Course: Truffle cheesecake
We ended this truffle tasting menu with a deconstructed cheesecake consisting of some shortbread, scoops of the filling, truffle honey and shavings of truffles. Somehow this dish didn’t really work for us and we didn’t feel that it came together. The honey made the cheesecake too sweet, the shortbread didn’t complement the fillings and this was the one dish for us where the truffle flavor didn’t add much to the dish.
We don’t really have a favorite neighborhood restaurant in the area we are , but Cavaillon is as close as it gets for us to have such a restaurant. We come here fairly regular, enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, and the cooking style from Chef Verpiand reminds us of French bistro and comfort food but often with an interesting twist towards more upscale French cuisine. Even though we also sometimes pick from the regular menu we often enjoy just letting Chef Verpiand choose for us with one of his tasting menus. Based on these many positive experiences here we were really looking forward to have our first black truffle tasting menus in this setting and the restaurant didn’t let us down. Tasting menus focused around a certain ingredient are difficult for chefs as the guests can easily get bored from having the same component over and over again in every dish. It might be even more challenging if this ingredient is truffle with its very characteristic, dominant taste. Initially we were wondering if we would get a truffle overkill after a few dishes but the chef creatively was able to incorporate truffles in every dish in such a way that it was always present but never overpowering. Many of these dishes would have been interesting without any truffles but the addition of the black truffle really put every dish on a completely different and elevated level. Black truffles were the key ingredients in these dishes and the focus of the tasting menu but never the lone reason any of the dishes worked. It was also beneficial that Chef Verpiand only used real truffles in all of his dishes and forbear from using any truffle oil which is an easy way many chefs use to have a dominant, often overpowering, truffle flavor in their dishes but it also gives these dishes a distinct artificial truffle taste.
A few years ago Cavaillon had service issues with some inattentive and unprofessional servers but after some significant changes at the front of the house some time ago the restaurant has now one of the better waiting staffs in San Diego. The servers are friendly, attentive and knowledgeable enough to provide an enjoyable dinner experience. The outstanding food with the good service would make Cavaillon one of the most notable restaurants in San Diego and so it was quite a disappointment for us when Chef Verpiand recently announced that he is unhappy with his situation in San Diego and that he is planning to sell Cavaillon soon to move to Texas. Not only will San Diego lose one of the most talented chefs but also a unique restaurant which covered a niche with its mix of French bistro and haute cuisine not seen anywhere else in San Diego on that level. Cavaillon was perhaps one of the most underrated restaurants in San Diego due to its location and the chef not being involved in one of the chef organizations like Cooks Confab important for far-reaching publicity. We can only hope that the new owner and chef will either continue with Cavaillon on such high quality level or find their own unique niche to adequately replace Cavaillon.
Posted 30 June 2011 - 12:49 PM
Posted 01 July 2011 - 10:38 AM
Had I known I would be posting on eGullet I would've been more prepared with more sophisticated tasting notes but heres some observations from the evening :)
Pommes Frites, Truffle Oil & Parmesan - addicting, the truffle aroma absolutely intoxicating
Wild Mushroom Ravioli, Port Wine Sauce, Aged Parmesan - excellent
La Milpa Farms Organic Spring Salad with Extra Virgin Olive Oil & Balsamic, Panisse Croutons - the croutons were a pleasant cheese-filled surprise
Seared Salmon, Celeriac Purée, Broccolini, Shaved Apple Salad, Red Wine Sauce - salmon was moist and perfectly cooked (always fear overcooked/dry salmon)
Beef Tenderloin, Black Peppercorn Sauce, French Fries - very tender with a great sauce
Roasted Duck Breast "à l'orange", Glazed Mushrooms and Daikon Radish - the duck itself was delicious and not too gamey, roasted beautifully
Ribeye Special for the evening - well marbled meat that melted in your mouth, nice classic steak
Creme Brulee - very rich vanilla bean flavor with the thickest brulee crust I've seen! delicious
Edited by Dan C., 01 July 2011 - 10:50 AM.
Posted 13 July 2011 - 11:31 PM
Two Chefs, One Tasting Menu
There are normally two ways how the time of a chef at a restaurant often ends – either the restaurant runs out of money and it has to close or the owner of the restaurant decides on a different culinary direction of the restaurant and hires a new chef to initiate these changes. When recently chef and owner Philippe Verpiand of the Cavaillon restaurant announced that he was unhappy with his current situation and the general state of affair of restaurants in San Diego and plans to move to Houston we expected a similar fast end of his restaurant. Cavaillon occupied an interesting niche for us in San Diego covering the culinary space of strongly French inspired food somewhere between bistro and haute cuisine and we had many excellent dinners there including some memorable black truffles tasting menus. After reading that Chef Verpiand thought “California is way too complicated. Little laws. Too much taxes. Not enough customers. I can do the same thing with a better lifestyle… Everybody wants to bring his own wine and they complain about I’m charging corkage… It’s a sad joke” we didn’t expect any future for his restaurant. So we were caught by surprise when after a few weeks we heard the news that he was actively searching for a new owner and successor in the kitchen who could continue his restaurant and cuisine even under the same name of the restaurant. And indeed soon thereafter the restaurant webpage announced that the search was successful and Cavaillon had a new owner and chef – Michael van Euw.
Chef van Euw was born in the German speaking part of Switzerland and originally pursued a completely different career path by getting a degree in economics and environmental studies. But he then decided to switch gears and followed his culinary interest and enrolled at Le Cordon Blue in London with a focus on French cuisine and patisserie. After apprenticing at the Capital Restaurant in London under Chef Erick Chavot he moved to the Culinary Art School in Tijuana in Mexico to establish a pastry curriculum. An important career step for him was then his work as Executive Chef at the Le Cordon Blue supper club Signatures Restaurant on board of the Seven Sea Mariner. He then recently came to San Diego not only to acquire Cavaillon but also to start VE Chocolates, a private label chocolatier.
His background seemed to make him a perfect candidate to take over Cavaillon and continue the tradition of French cuisine but at the same time incorporate his own style. When we recently received an e-mail from the restaurant that Cavaillon would offer a special tasting menu featuring both chefs at the same time (two chefs, one tasting menu) we saw this as a good opportunity to experience and compare the cooking styles of both chefs.
Despite the year round great weather in San Diego there are surprisingly few upscale restaurants with a nice patio for an extended lunch or dinner. Even though Cavaillon doesn’t have an ocean view it is still a great place for al fresco dining as it is located in the quite suburb of Santa Luz with no significant traffic close by. And since the summer just recently started and the temperatures are getting higher it was the perfect night to sit outside for a relaxing dinner.
Cavaillon just offers their house made rolls as the only choice for bread but the fresh, warm rolls are addictive and we never end up with just one basket.
1st Course: House cured salmon, micro fennel, lemon mustard vinaigrette (von Euw)
The salmon was a very good start to the tasting menu with its elegant flavor and distinct but restraint taste of spices in the background. We wished the salmon would have been cut a little bit thicker to have more pronounced flavor. The vinaigrette with its lemony taste brought some acidity which helped to brighten the flavor of the dish. Only the presentation of the dish with its swirls of vinaigrette reminded us more of something from a cafeteria and didn’t really fit to this good dish.
2nd Course: Seared scallops, white corn risotto, vanilla foam (Verpiand)
Risottos were always one of the signature dishes at Cavaillon and this one was an interesting variation. This risotto appeared to be soupier than usual which was also caused by the vanilla foam which had a strong aroma. At first it appeared that the vanilla flavor would be too dominant and cover all other ingredients but once we mixed all components the risotto was very well balanced with some sweetness from the corn and some saltiness from the parmesan countering the vanilla. The perfectly seared and tender scallops completed the dish.
3rd Course: Pan roasted wild turbot with truffled gnocchi, mushroom sauce (von Euw)
Pan roasting a fish can easily dry out the filet and especially with such delicate fish as the turbot it was impressive to see how moist and perfectly cooked this piece of turbot ended up. The light gnocchi had some truffle aroma which was subdued enough to not overwhelm the dish. The spinach and mushroom sauce were rather classical accompaniments for the strongest dish of the tasting menu.
4th Course: Roasted duck breast “a l’orange”, glazed mushrooms, daikon radish (Verpiand)
A fine example of classical French cuisine – very tender duck breast with a light orange sauce accompanied by braised daikon and butternut squash puree. The glazed mushrooms were a good addition to the dish as the vegetable component but the previous course also had some mushrooms flavors which seemed too much overlap between both courses and we thought that a different vegetable for this dish would have been a better progression for the tasting menu.
5th Course: Warm chocolate molleux, lime ginger sorbet, warm chocolate froth (Verpiand, con Euw)
With the strong pastry background of Chef von Euw we were particular curious about his dessert. The combination of chocolate lava cake and a chocolate soup/froth looked first like chocolate overkill but the combination with the strong lemony sorbet really elevated this dessert. The chocolate components or the sorbet by itself were both well made but rather one dimensional but once you ate both together they were nicely balanced. This dish was for us similar to the risotto course as it really grew on us the longer we tasted it.
On our way to Cavaillon we discussed how much of the restaurant we would recognize from our last visit several weeks before when the kitchen was still run by Chef Verpiand. But once we entered the restaurant we immediately recognized many of the waiters and had some small talks with them and it felt not much had changed. One notable difference was the new GM Michael who was very involved with many guests throughout the night and worked efficiently with his team to make it a good experience for everybody.
Chef von Euw’s decision to have a combined tasting menu with dishes from former Chef Verpiand was a similarly well thought out approach to combine well established parts of Cavaillon with his own new ideas. His own cooking style is similarly to Verpiand also founded in French cuisine and so his interpretation of the dishes, his own and Verpiand’s, felt cohesive throughout the tasting menu. At the same time his own dishes were the highlights of the tasting menus and one could feel that he felt more comfortable with them and that they are a good sign in which direction Cavaillon will go in the future. And indeed when we had the chance to talk with Chef von Euw after the tasting menu he indicated that he didn’t want to overwhelm the regulars at Cavaillon with too many changes from the start but at the same time also give his own team enough time to adapt to his own style and dishes by offering a menu with several “classics” from Verpiand even though he had left the restaurant several weeks before. Throughout the month of July he is planning to change the menu more and more so that by the end of the month all of the dishes will be his own creations. He also mentioned that he wants to continuously evolve the menu at Cavaillon. We felt that Chef von Euw is up to a good start at his new restaurant and that if he continues in the direction he is planning he should be able to keep the regulars with familiar French cuisine but at the same attract new clientele with more modern interpretation and techniques like sous vide. We are looking forward to have the next tasting menu at Cavaillon solely based on Chef von Euw’s own ideas.