French for a Day. On Prom Night.
So my Sophomore daughter was asked by a Junior to join him at prom, which sent the house into a tempest of activity – make-up, hair, nails, dresses. Not a lot of time to make food at home, so we started our day with a short walk down to Le Petit Cafe in Arroyo Grande to enjoy a French Country Breakfast from the most adorable French couple you’ve met – Stephane and Sylvie. Remarkably decadent and simple at the same time – Sylvie’s fresh made baguettes, croissants, french toast and angelic pastries, plus Stepane’s ham and Swiss crepes with chive spread, coffee and OJ. So good. After taking 4,000 pictures of my daughter and her date, and waving as they rode off into the sunset, it was time to pick a great dinner place and recount our own prom days to each other. We decided to continue with the theme and went to Et Voila in San Luis Obispo.
We first met Jose, the Chef and owner at Et Voila, serving up his remarkable food at a wine dinner at Eberle Winery in Paso Robles. It was quite by accident that I ran across a strip mall one day on the way to Costco, and saw Et Voila on the sign. A strange place for a traditional French restaurant, but don’t let that scare you. You’ll be welcomed by great attitudes and people loving what they’re bringing to your table. Chef Jose will join you and chat about food and wine, and the love of his art oozes out of him like a little boy with a sling shot and a squirrel in his sights.
We first ordered the Vouvray, and you must too. A very different white wine that’s flavorful and light, dry and sweet, full bodied and cleansing all at the same time. I fell in love with this wine at a fondue restaurant in Los Angeles, and get it every time I have the chance. When picking up the food menu, I noticed it was kinda sparse. It was Prix Fixe with 3 selections for each of 4 courses for $38. My initial thought was “pricey,” but hey, we’re eating French. It will be worth it. And I was right.
Okay, you’re forgiven if great restaurants in strip malls scare you, but don’t let unusual gourmet foods like pates do so. You may find an inferior chef and get the wrong one, or one that is way too gamey, but then you’ll cozy up next to Jose’s. Pate is traditionally goose liver that comes in a creamy spread a little like butterscotch pudding consistency. Just look at the picture of Jose’s Country Pate – more like a meatloaf than a pudding, and no gamey taste at all. The secret he volunteered was that it was duck, pork and pheasant. Now I’m not sure if that means it was meat or liver of those animals, but who cares. It was delicious. And the sweetness of the onion confit, spice of the mustard, acidic bite of the cornichon and crunch of the crusty bread created a myriad of flavors and textures all at once to the dish.
Somewhere in the middle of really enjoying the pate came a bowl of Oz green asparagus and corn soup. Both ingredients I love, so I was curious how Jose would treat them. I’ll start by saying it was perfectly balanced and then imbalanced in a delightful way with a touch of curry. You couldn’t really tell if you were tasting corn chowder or asparagus or smelling Indian food. It would transform in your nose, then your mouth. Then you’d taste a creaminess smoothing it all out confounding the flavors fighting for your attention. What I also love about Jose is he’s a master of making chowders and creamy soups without dairy – he uses potato as his base. Another wonderful dish.
Next came our entrees. I ordered the Seafood Duo, and Hillary ordered the Beef Tenderloin. I’ve found out that when ordering seafood, you invariably learn just how good your chef is. There is a fine balance between cooking too much and too little. Between serving warm enough and refrigerator temp. Between being crisp and dry or mushy and wet. Jose impressed me here once again. My Norwegian Salmon and Scallops came served with mustard and dill beure blanc sauce. It was savory with a bite and a creamy finish, but what made it remarkable was the crisp outside, perfect temp and just-medium consistency inside. The bok choy, though not a traditional French ingredient as far as I know, was a great pairing, along with red potatoes. The butter, wine, dill and mustard worked really well with it all.
And then there was Hillary’s Beef Tenderloin entree with a bunch of fancy French words. Some I understand really well, like “Syrah reduction.” Take my favorite wine varietal, boil it a while to concentrate its flavors, and pour it all over yummy charcoal grilled meat. Check. Then there are the accompanying “haricot verts and gratin dauphinois.” Junior high French didn’t teach me those. But I think that means green beans and scalloped potatoes. I don’t know how a strip mall kitchen created such delicious smoky grill flavor, but it could stand up to any of our Santa Maria barbecues. The green beans were perfectly crunchy and thin. Potatoes have that delicious French cheese fondue bite. And Syrah gave everything a deep, dark Frenchy flavor you don’t get anywhere else.
What French meal would be French without a delicious sweet dessert or pastry? Well not this one. We had two yummy finishers. I got the apple compote with caramel sauce, and Hillary got the flourless chocolate cake. Cakes made this way are more like baked puddings – they fluff a little, but maintain a rich, gooey center and concentrated sweetness. They are moist without being cloying. They can be crunchy as this one was when the eggs and sugar crisp up. They also remain remarkably hot, which lets you enjoy them for a long time just like you should enjoy any multi-course meal.
Which segues (not a French word) into my conclusion. I’ve heard the French eat all their rich foods while keeping fabulous figures not because they smoke like chimneys, which was my first guess, but because they spend hours enjoying their meals. They eat many small bites. They chew. They don’t stress their digestive systems, and relax while eating over a glass or four of wine while they eat. I encourage you to be French for a day, eat in style, enjoy life, and I bet you too won’t gain an ounce. After all, you have to look good in your prom dress.