Wine and Food with Micah

 

The French Connection

 

It isn’t often that someone will drive over 100 miles just to have dinner. That’s a lot of time behind the wheel for most of us, but there are a few lovers of French cuisine down in Los Angeles that have made the trip all the way up to Solvang just to have dinner at the recently reopened Cabernet Bistro. I sat down at their new location to taste the magic for myself, thinking, “There’s no way the food could be that good!” How was it?  Let’s just say that I am beginning to understand.   

Owner and executive chef Jacques Toulet has decades of experience in French cuisine. Born in France, he and his brother Joseph grew up in an apartment just above the restaurant that their parents owned. Both brothers spent a lot of time in the kitchen and took to the chef’s life quite quickly. After honing their skills at the family restaurant the brothers moved to Los Angeles where they worked as a team at highly respected places including The Beverly Hills Hotel, Au Petit Jean, and The Factory Night Club. Their greatest success was Les Pyrenees which they opened on their own in 1974. Les Pyrenees was an immediate success and was praised by the Los Angeles Times as well as Gourmet magazine. It wasn’t until 1998 that Jacques and his wife along with co-owner Diana Toulet opened the Cabernet Bistro in Solvang.

The rise in popularity of whole foods and natural health has driven some folks away from French cuisine, and this is unfortunate. Yes, this may not be the “healthiest” food one could choose to eat. However, I can almost guarantee that well prepared French cuisine will satisfy the belly and soul better than just about any other food on the planet. C’mon people. It’s one meal. Go for a jog in the morning. It’s worth it. 

As I sat at the bar perusing the menu Chef Toulet approached me and introduced himself in his thick and jolly French accent. Sweat on his brow was an indication that even to this day he is in the kitchen getting his hands dirty. “Do you like escargot?” he asks patting me on the back smiling from cheek to cheek. I love escargot, but somehow I got the impression I didn’t have any choice in the matter either way. I was about to get the full experience at Cabernet Bistro and I wasn’t about to put the breaks on this ride.

Minutes later I was presented with a plate of classically prepared Escargot. Perfect snails submerged in garlic butter and fresh herbs served with slices of French bread.  Escargot is a rare treat that tastes something like a cross between clams and crab. Thankfully, like shellfish, escargot requires some work to get out of its shell. This extra effort helped slow me down enough to truly enjoy this delicacy for all it was worth. 

Cabernet Bistro is famous for its duck, so I wasn’t surprised when Duck Confit Ravioli with Black Peppercorn Sauce was presented as my second course. Duck is good, but duck cooked in its own fat is great. Stuff it inside sheets of homemade pasta and, well, some might call it sublime. Duck confit isn’t necessarily oily. In fact well made confit like I was served does not feel oily or overly rich to the palette at all. The spice and slight sweetness of black peppercorn sauce was a superb compliment to the richness as well.

French Onion Soup is one of those simple traditional dishes that is often just “ok”. When done right, however, it may be one of my favorite soups. You know, when the onions are caramelized just enough but not burned; when the stock is rich, but not overwhelming; when the bread is crusty, not old; and of course, artisan cheese melted on top to perfection. Cabernet Bistro does onion soup the right way, and I made that very clear as I tipped the bowl towards my face in search of the last few spoonfuls. 

My soup was lifted and a proud chef presented me with his most prized dish that evening. Duck Thighs Confit glazed with Blueberries, Cranberries and Apples. Chef Toulet knows that duck loves fruit. Pulling pieces of meat from a whole duck thigh can be challenging, but when the meat comes free and mixes with the sauce on the plate the palette gets treated to a multifaceted experience. The wildness of duck meat combines with the crispness and sweetness of well glazed skin, only to be followed by the complex spice and stewed fruit flavors of the sauce. I was happy to find some vegetables on my plate as well. Broccoli in béchamel sauce and a banana squash puree were thoughtful additions that my health concerned conscious was pleased to see. 

I knew it was coming. A good French meal must be ended with a rich dessert. Making sure that the final course would be memorable Chef Toulet created a dessert sampler for me. Dark Chocolate Cake and Chocolate Mouse with fresh Raspberries and English Cream are very traditional and well known French desserts, but like the French onion soup I had earlier, they were great examples of these desserts true potential. I’m a sucker for nuts, so it wasn’t surprising that my favorite thing on the sampler was the Belgian White Chocolate and Praline Cake. Chef Toulet uses almond flour instead of cake flour in this one. This creates a cake that has more texture, but actually feels lighter on the palette. 

After more than two hours of dining, it was time for me to get up from the cozy bar and leave my new friends at Cabernet Bistro. It isn’t often that I leave a meal feeling like I’m coming home from vacation. When a restaurant can create an environment welcoming and pleasurable enough to convince the rest of my life to fade, that is the sign that I’ve had a great meal. Yes, well prepared and inspired food is essential, but there are many other subtle parts to dinning that Cabernet Bistro excels at as well. Cabernet Bistro is located inside Frederik's Court at 485 Alisal Rd #L2. Call 688-8871 for reservations.