Editor's note: Sadly Cavaillon did not long survive the change in chef, and closed iin 2012. This is a real shame as it was a culinary oasis in the desert. Its talented original chef Philippe Verpiand has left for Texas; and his successor Michael von Euw was unable to keep the place going.
Santaluz is an unlikely setting for a serious French restaurant. It is one of those communities that sprang up from the Southern California desert, and when the restaurant was started in 2005 there was little around it but bare earth and a building site. It is now an attractive little town, due north of San Diego and a little inland. Chef/patron Philippe Verpiand trained in Avignon and then worked in a series of one and two star Michelin restaurants in France, including Bateau Ivres in Courcheval. He then worked for seven years as chef de cuisine at San Diego’s Tapenade restaurant before striking out on his own in 2005.
The five course tasting menu was $58 (with wine pairing it would come to $83) and we tried both this and a parallel set of dishes from the a la carte menu, where appetisers were around $12, main courses mostly about $25, with side dishes at $6. The wine list was impressive, especially as you move up the list. At the low end it doesn’t seem special, with Pascual Toso Malbec $39 for a wine you can buy for around $10, but the lovely Kistler Noisetiers 2007 was just $88, which is lower than the retail price in many stores. Similarly, Lynch Bages 2000 was a remarkably fair $145 for a wine you will struggle to buy for much less than $200 in the shops.
Foie gras torchon was really top class, the foie gras of high quality and having lovely smooth texture, served with toasted brioche and dried prune mousseline (16/20). Fourme d’Ambert crostini with shaved pear was a nice pairing, served with a pleasant honey and walnut salad (14/20). I was particularly impressed with Petrale sole (which is technically a flounder) grilled a la plancha, served with an organic artichoke risotto. The fish itself was very carefully cooked indeed and had lovely flavour, the risotto also excellent with creamy texture (easily 16/20).
Seared scallops were served with a Basque crab ragout, fennel salad and red pepper emulsion. The scallops were sweet and plump, but I found the red pepper emulsion a little too dominant a flavour in the dish (14/20). A main course duck was also very good. The poultry itself was not of the quality you could obtain in France, but it was nicely timed, and the star component was a genuinely excellent demi glace, rich and unctuous (15/20 for the dish, but the demi glace was better than this, involving serious cooking). Local strawberries from Carlsbad were in season and a pleasant way to finish the meal, though the taste of the fruit was nothing like that you would see in the south of France (13/20). Perhaps I should have ordered differently here.
Service was excellent and very friendly. I highly recommend this restaurant. Southern California is not exactly over-endowed with serious restaurants, and this is well worth the drive. As a bonus, it is very fairly priced, especially when you factor in the generous wine list.