Cabernet Bistro and Wine Lounge reopens in Solvang

 

The cheers were almost audible. After nine years on Fourth Place in Solvang, the beloved Cabernet Bistro finally reopened its doors May 4 in its new location upstairs in Frederik’s Court.

Owner and Executive Chef Jacques Toulet and his wife, Diane, have provided Solvang with a little slice of France since 1998, and in the process nurtured a faithful following. A following, it turns out, that stretches all the way to Los Angeles and back to Jacques’ early years as restaurateur.

 

The restaurant business has always been a way of life for Jacques. As a boy in St. Gaudens, a town in the Pyrenees mountain region of France, Jacques’ family lived in the apartment upstairs from his parents’ restaurant. Almost from the time they could walk, Jacques and his brother, Joseph, were helping in the kitchen, and Jacques remembers first pouring wine for patrons at the tender age of seven.

“It was sort of a joke at first, something to do when my parents weren’t looking; but the people loved it, this little boy pouring wine,” Jacques recalls.

 

Eventually, the family immigrated to Montreal to escape the oppressive French taxation, but Jacques and Joseph ultimately found their new home in Los Angeles.

“Once I met California, I knew I would never go back to Canada,” Jacques said. His brother took on the executive chef position at notable establishments such as Beverly Hills Hotel, Au Petit Jean and The Factory Night Club, and for 15 years the two worked as a culinary duo.

 

In 1974, the two frères opened the acclaimed Les Pyrénées, quickly garnishing praise from Gourmet Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Regis Philbin Show, and food critic Elmer Dill, who extolled the brothers for having the best duck in town. The recognition just kept rolling in when, in 1993, Jacques was selected from over 2,000 candidates as North America’s Outstanding Chef.

“It was a big surprise. One day three chefs from France came in, had a meal, and the next thing I know there is an envelope in the mail saying I’ve won North America’s Outstanding Chef,” Jacques said. 

 

In due course, Jacques needed a break. In 1994, he sold Les Pyrénées and moved to the East Coast for a stint before coming back to California and relocating to the Santa Ynez Valley with Diane. As with most chefs, it was hard for Jacques to stay away from the kitchen for long and, so, Cabernet Bistro was born.

“The menu is pure and traditional French. French cuisine is the most complex in the world. It can take days just to make the fish, veal, beef or lamb stock that becomes the base for a sauce. Each step is meticulous and very important,” Jacques explained.

 

When asked about portion sizes, Jacques explained the difference between Nouvelle French and traditional French cuisine.

“Nouvelle French nearly killed the French restaurant business in America. I would have reservations hang up on me when I said we serve French,” Jacques said.

“Nouvelle was a trend -- small portions, high prices. Real French cooking you eat. It is not Picasso. Yes, presentation is important, but it isn’t everything. My food will fill you up and be extremely satisfying,” he said.

 

Another myth debunked -- it’s even healthy. In fact many of Jacques’ sauces and dishes, especially the duck, contain no cholesterol and very little fat. Hard to believe when you have a taste, but, Jacques says, “Everything I say to you here is the truth.”

 

With a full reservation book most weekends, it’s apparent that local patrons believe him, too. With a menu that includes Escargot Maison; Sand-dabs Grenobloise, a white fish sautéed with capers in a white wine lemon butter sauce; Duck Magret with a blackberry currant sauce; and the Crepe Maison with Suzette Custard Sauce and Fresh Berries, it’s hard to worry about counting calories anyway.

The final surprise is the prices. Again, not your typical French restaurant where you walk out feeling as light as your wallet. In January, Jacques and Diane are featuring a prix fixe menu, four courses including soup, salad, entrée and dessert for under $20. A staggering price when you consider the entrée choices include Chicken Provencal, Salmon Bistro, duck confit, sand-dabs, or a Flat Iron Steak with Garlic French Fries. And for those of us who can’t eat fries without the red stuff, Jacques jokingly offers 1959 special reserve ketchup.

 

In the spring, patrons will also have outdoor dining to look forward to, with the completion of the patio wine lounge. The wine lounge is positioned right off the intimate dining room, and features a retractable roof and a special appetizer menu to enjoy on balmy spring and summer nights. Completion is slated for Valentine’s Day, Cabernet Bistro’s most popular night.

 

Lunch is served Friday through Sunday; Dinner served Wednesday through Sunday. Reservations are recommended, but walk-ins are welcome, too. With Diane at the helm in the dining room and Jacques working his French magic in the kitchen, they are a team dedicated to your dining pleasure.