July 13, 2011

Cavaillon (San Diego) – 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, von 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.

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