Saturday, December 27, 2008

Treating Myself to an Classic French Lunch

Today was a cool clear day, just two days before Christmas and three work days into my two week winter vacation. It was the perfect day to treat myself to an authentic French lunch.

You may wonder..."but Mark, aren't you cooking from LCBAH?"..."Well of course, but other than following the recipe, how do I know how authentic my techniques and flavors are if I have never remembered eating a real French meal?"

I have qualified this because I have, in fact, been to Paris, spending 4 days there with a school group the summer I turned 16. I have therefore eaten real French food; however I struggle to remember much of the food experiences from that time with the exception that our restaurant being located above an adult movie theatre. I also seem to remember most in my group really dreading the food that was served, although most didn't like a mushroom crepe, I seem to remember enjoying it. I also remember getting a banana and nutella crepe from a street vendor outside the hotel, and also another vendor selling baquets and the worlds longest hotdogs. From what English he spoke, we could tell he wasn't really fond of Americans.

Paris was an experience for me...a couple of us enjoyed the walk from the Louvre to the Arc de Triumph one day, and I am so glad I happened to go to the Musee D'Orsay as I think that impressionistic art is so amazing in person. I did find the streets to be rather dirty, compared to some of the other places we visited, and I did not feel as safe and secure on Bastille Day (at least in the evening) as I was used to at home.

Twelve years have past since my visit to Paris, and another 10 may be likely to pass before returning. I don't recall in the years since every going to a restaurant or to a home that was specifically serving a French meal. I may totally be mistaken, however we typically seek out Italian and Mexican restaurants as our staples.

Since beginning this project, I have been searching for a French restaurant to enjoy...I found one listed online that had been shut down, and a few others that didn't really cross me as being authentically French. I had heard about another restaurant, and had been checking it out online, finally I had the time to go today.

El Voila! is a small French Restaurant and Catering Service located in a small storefront on a main road in San Luis Obispo. They have 4 lunch services a week and 2 dinner services. The menu changes weekly, or possibly even more frequently than that. When arriving early, I was greated by the server and the Chef himself, finding that I was the first guest to arrive, I selected a seat where I could see most of the open kitchen as well as the rest of the dinning room (at tops 20 tables in all, but I think more like 15).

The Chef let me know that he did not have any printed menus (fine by me, as this would mean I wouldn't have to make any choices other than the recommendations by him) and that he was offering 2 choices for a first course (an Orzo salad and a Corn, Carrot and Ginger Soup). I selected the soup, both on his recommendation as well as the fact that I was happy to have a warm starter on a cool day. Next he let me know that he was preparing a seared duck breast with apples and cranberries as a main course. He said he could tell me some other options, but I knew that would be fantastic! He selected a Pinot Noir to go with the duck, which was served right before the main course. I thanked him for the selections and he was off to begin the meal.

My three course meal began with some bread, water and the Corn, Carrot and Ginger Soup. The soup was very smooth, a soft orange color ( I could have mistaken the color with a butternut squash), drizzled with a slight bit of cream on top. It was very tasty, in which I could distinguish the corn flavor, however the combination of the carrots and ginger were subtle and unique. I thought the soup was a great way to start and I made sure there was nothing left in the bowl when it returned to the kitchen.

As each guest arrived, they were seated by the waitress who took their drink orders and then the Chef came to welcome each guest (about half of which were regulars) and let them know what was on the menu. I enjoyed hearing the other offerings, as he was willing to customize different entrees for those who wished. A regular customer sat close to me and he knew what the couple enjoys, so he made some Beef Tenderloin for the gentleman. 

My main course arrived in a large white plate that was almost like a bowl. It was Seared Duck Breast that was sliced and fanned over a bed of Sautéed Apples, Onions, and Cranberries with a dark rich sauce. There were two potato triangles that were almost like Latkes that added some starch and a little crunch on the outside. The texture of the duck was so tender, and all of the pieces both individually and together were very flavorful. The wine did not overpower the meal, as the meal also didn't overpower the wine, they worked in great balance.

Although the soup and duck were plenty of food and very satisfying, I couldn't leave without dessert. I was served an Apple Tart with Vanilla Ice Cream and a Caramel Sauce. The pastry was light and flaky, while the apples and ice cream were great.

I am glad that I took the opportunity to go for lunch, as I feel that I was able to not only enjoy a good meal, but also learn a few things that will help me along the way. I think the plating of each dish was really important, something I am not terribly good at. This starts with warm plates, something I don't do at home, or at least haven't. It was also something that was mentioned several times in The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry. Next, it has to be thoughtful in how each item is placed on the dish. This will take some practice and patients, but something I can take with me to work on. The final thing was the soup broth. Even thought the soup was pureed and was orange in color, I could tell that the stock used as the base had been extremely clear. My stocks have not been that clear, and I could tell the broth had been created with great care. I am running low on stock at the moment, so hope to improve my stocks, as I know how much they make a difference in the final product.

I really enjoyed my meal, and am hoping to return again.

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