April 8, 2011

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.

14701 Via Bettona
San Diego, CA 92127-4808
(858) 433-0483