The Village Cafe Francais is the sort of restaurant that critics consider a "find"--a tiny, chef-owned place at which the patrons reign supreme and the kitchen is motivated by a genuine desire to excel.
The chef in question is one Angela Hake, a woman whose food service philosophy would be regarded as blasphemy by the management of almost any restaurant chain. Hake's bottom line is customer satisfaction, although she does not entirely disregard the profit motive; she will gladly cook for as many as 18 guests an evening, and will, if pressed, agree to lay out her seven course spreads for as many as 22.
This figure is the maximum that the Village Cafe can hold at one seating, and except for New Year's Eve, Hake never agrees to cook for more than one seating. Guests who arrive without reservations (and Hake says that such folk rarely darken her doorstep) may well be turned away, because supplies are purchased in quantities sized to suit the anticipated number of diners.
Hake opened her pint-sized Encinitas cafe in 1983 after spending 11 years as a caterer in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Her son ruled the range until he returned to Mexico in February, whereupon Hake assumed the duties of chef de cuisine (indeed, she is not only the chief cook, but the only one), and proceeded to dish up a series of beguiling dinners.
The dining room perhaps equals the measurements of the average apartment living room, and when full (which it was not upon the occasion of a recent visit), it must seem quite snug. The modesty of the appointments corresponds with the restaurant's size; beyond the candles and carnations that decorate each table, the only item that at all catches the eye is the small blackboard that hangs near the kitchen door.
Neatly chalked upon this blackboard are the names of the day's two appetizers and three entrees--the selection almost never exceeds this single-digit sum of dishes. Yet when the guest has taken his pair of choices from this modest list, he has ordered only two-sevenths of his meal; the rest will depend upon the directions in which Hake's whims have led her, and upon whatever may have been fresh or appealing in the market that day.
The blackboard recently listed snails bourguignonne and country-style pate as appetizers, followed by entrees of filet of beef with chanterelle mushrooms, Cornish hen in apricot sauce, and Alaskan halibut genevoise. (The term genevoise, which refers to the cooking style of the city of Geneva, Switzerland, generally implies a red wine sauce; Hake must have been more enamored of the name than the sauce, because she prepared something quite different. Her cooking by and large reflects her tastes, and although the general approach pays homage to French traditions, the finished dishes live up to Hake's statement that "I kind of make up stuff." Fortunately, most of what she makes up is quite appealing.)
The menu changes every week or so, but always follows this same general format, since it always includes a filet and a fish, and the fowl, if not Cornish hen, most likely will be duck in any of a number of fruit sauces. Guests sometimes telephone with requests, and if Hake can find a recipe and the necessary ingredients, she usually will agree to prepare the requested dish.
A pair of guests had no difficulty in sampling most of this menu. The meal started with a remarkably interesting soup, a hot avocado puree that proved, once and for all, that San Diego County cooks can use this lush local fruit for something other than guacamole. Based on an excellent chicken stock, the soup contained tiny bits of meat and hinted, in its texture, at the presence of a small amount of cream. The real brilliance of this soup lay, however, in the few grains of black caviar that had been swirled into it--when bitten, these produced salty explosions that added an ineffable accent to the basic avocado flavor.
The appetizers arrived next, and these, frankly, were the low point of the meal. Hake altered the traditional escargot bourguignonne recipe by holding back on the garlic (usually added with abandon) while introducing tarragon, a classy herb that seemed most unwilling to mate with the snails. The house pate, while pleasantly textured and served still faintly warm, seemed entirely too timid in its flavoring; it could have used a pinch or two more of quatres epices, the homemade spice blends with which the French season pates and similar dishes.
These small disappointments were effaced by the arrival of the salad, a classic tumble of greenery dressed with a mustard vinaigrette; crumbles of blue cheese added luxury, and sunflower seeds supplied crunch. A sorbet (or sherbet, as we say in English) followed, just a spoonful of raspberry ice intended, as the tired saying has it, to "cleanse the palate." Sorbets, at least sweet ones like this, rarely seem to accomplish such a feat of physiological housekeeping, but there are those who find great glamour in including them in a multi-course meal, and it is in any case a harmless pastime.
The removal of the sorbet glasses signaled the imminent arrival of the entrees, which indeed were accorded a hearty welcome. Hake arranged the plates beautifully, and surrounded each entree with a picture-perfect grouping of asparagus spears, pungent red cabbage mixed with sauteed apple cubes, and a steamed red potato crowned with minced herbs and cracked pepper.
The halibut genevoise, despite (or perhaps because of) its departure from the classic recipe, proved an elegant presentation of well-poached fish. The sauce, based on white wine and a bit of cream, had a grassy tinge that derived from chopped capers and dill. These two flavorings, both strong and puckery, rarely are combined, but they gave this dish a fine and distinctive flavor.
The filet of beef, as nicely cooked and as juicily tender as one could desire, suffered somewhat from Hake's desire to be different. It was not bad, but the chanterelles advertised as chief flavoring agent were quite overwhelmed by a smoke screen of unanticipated green peppercorns. These costly mushrooms have the most delicate flavor, and to use them in tandem with green peppercorns (which on their own do quite well with steak) is a waste of time and money.
A small wedge of Brie and a few grapes followed the entrees, and the final course fortunately--since little room remained--consisted merely of strawberries set atop a bed of cream whipped with orange liqueur. Both courses were well received.
Hake charges $25 per person for these seven-course feasts; this is her invariable rate. Adding tax and tip brings the tab for two to $60 or so. Wine is at the discretion of the guests, who must bring their own if they wish to imbibe.
This place obviously will not suit diners who expect a restaurant meal to be a big evening out on the town. But to those who enjoy lazing through course after course of thoughtfully prepared food, it should prove quite pleasant.
VILLAGE CAFE FRANCAIS
1524 Encinitas Blvd., Encinitas
Guests seated 6 to 8:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
Closed Sunday and Monday.
Credit cards accepted.