By Frank Sabatini Jr.
There we were dining for the first time at Et Voila French Bistro just hours after friends touring Paris had taunted us on social media with magnificent pictures of the Eiffel Tower, as seen from their hotel balcony.
And earlier that day, my dining companion saw Disney’s adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast,” set within a fairytale French village and castle. We were in a Francophile state of mind.
No restaurant in San Diego does a better job at sending you to the hexagon country than Et Voila, which was launched nearly a year ago by southern France natives Ludo Misfud and Vincent Viale.
Both worked at La Jolla’s former fine-dining Tapenade Restaurant; Ludo was its maitre d’ for 11 years and Viale served as executive sous chef before moving over to Bernard’O before that closed.
Et Voila captures all the charm of a seasoned Parisian bistro within a linear design featuring old-style globe lighting, classic floor tiling, and silver Champagne buckets parked along the paneled walls. The owners’ attention to detail means that tea candles are lit and share plates are set on the tables long before you’re seated.
Even better, the wait staff is neither overbearing nor aloof, thus striking a conscientious balance I don’t witness too often in breezy Southern California.
Ravioli aux champignons is one of Viale’s signature appetizers that you’ll remember forever. The crimped pasta purses are filled with a duxelle of wild mushrooms, much like a thick paste. They’re served in a lush, foamy sauce of port wine, chopped mushrooms, Parmesan shavings and truffle oil.
We left nary a molecule behind after mopping up the bowl with a crusty baguette that is actually imported from France. The bread arrives in regular shipments to the restaurant frozen and half-baked. But nothing is lost in the transport. It was as airy, elastic and crunchy as any I’ve consumed when foraging the bakeries of Paris.
Less complex, though equally praiseworthy was a trio of phyllo cups oozing with buttery Reblochon cheese. The delicate pastry shells were in poetic contrast to the rich, melty cheese inside — and ultra-savory until swiping them through the accompanying berry jam, at which point they qualified as a semisweet dessert.
Count me among the diners who can’t pass up onion soup au gratin when I see it listed on just about any menu. Viale, however, injects it authentically with herbes de Provence and enough sherry to know that it’s in there.
Capped with a bubbly layer of Emmental cheese and not as salty as American versions, I was too enthralled to bother much with my companion’s carrot-butternut squash soup, which was flavored boldly with ginger and served with tasty sweet-onion madeleines on the side.
For our main courses, she chose seared Scottish salmon plated artistically with cauliflower gratin. Both were set in a pond of lemon beurre blanc and pureed purple romanesco (Roman cauliflower).
In classic French style, the flavors and textures were coherently comforting with nuances of butter and cream stemming from some of the components.
Torn between three different foie gras dishes, steak au poivre with frites, duck confit or coq au vin, I chose the latter without regret.
Served in a steel pot, it featured the classic bone-in chicken leg and thigh in a wine-heavy stew of thick-cut bacon, carrots, potatoes, onions and herbs. Coq au vin is a soulful, rustic dish that offers no gourmet surprises.
But when carefully constructed by a true French chef like Viale, the meat emerges exceptionally moist and the vegetables maintain their earthy flavors without any one ingredient overpowering the other. This hit all the high points.
So did the soufflé du jour we had for dessert, which was helium-light and escaped the common pitfall of turning into scrambled eggs. Here, the inside had the texture of mousse, and with just the right measures of sugar and vanilla.
On this evening it was infused with passion fruit puree and served with a side of berry sauce. Best to order the soufflé midway through your entrée since it takes about 20 minutes to prepare.
With a full bar in place, craft cocktails, whiskeys, tequilas, global wines and local and European beer comprise the drink list.
In addition, brunch is served from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and happy hour featuring reduced prices on food and drinks is offered 4:30 to 7 p.m. Sunday through Friday, and until 6 p.m. on Saturdays.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.