Tall and immaculate in a white chef's outfit, Nic Orban strides purposefully into the cool twilight to exchange pleasantries with the guests, who dine with gusto on his garden terrace.
It is a ritual the soft-spoken 61-year-old Belgian plays out five evenings a week at Le Provencal, the gracious French restaurant he owns in Fillmore.
Yes--Fillmore, the dusty farming town on Highway 126 about 20 miles east of Ventura, a burg you'd sooner expect to dish up chicken-fried steak than Chateaubriand.
From a renovated Spanish adobe on Santa Clara and A streets, Orban--who formerly worked at a three-star Belgian restaurant--serves up traditional French cooking in portions ample enough to satisfy "Les Miserables" Jean Valjean after 17 years on the chain gang. Nouvelle cuisine this is not.
But then, Orban, who was executive chef at Santa Barbara's Olive Mill Bistro for 12 years, isn't exactly Wolfgang Puck. A shy man with a warm smile, he lives above his aptly named Le Provencal restaurant with his wife, Juliette, one of three Belgian sisters who helped him open his upscale French restaurants.
Does It All
At Fillmore's Le Provencale, There are no sous-chefs, maitre d's or kitchen aides: Orban does it all himself, and he likes it that way.
"J'adore mon petit restaurant, " he says in French, the language in which he feels most at home, even after 19 years in the United States. Translation: I love my little restaurant.
From Wednesday through Sunday, the savory odors of garlic and beurre blanc waft through the surrounding streets in this heavily Latino city of 11,000, where the annual per-capita income of $6,054 is the lowest in Ventura County. Here, the dominant culinary motif is either burgers or burritos.
"You really can't compare it to Loop's," said Fillmore's city clerk, Noreen Withers, referring to a local coffee shop chain. "It's probably the nicest restaurant in Fillmore."
A four-page menu in ornate script offers everything from Lobster Cardinale (a Cognac sauce) to Poulet aux Chanterelle s (breast of chicken in a wild chanterelle mushroom sauce). There are Sweetbreads Roosevelt (with tomato, mushroom, leek, parsley, lemon juice and wine sauce) and Entrecote Cafe de Paris (New York steak in garlic butter, mushrooms and herbs). Prices, which include soup or salad, range from $16.50 to $25.50.
What brought Orban to this unlikely spot?
The story starts with Paul Verkhamen, a Belgian who founded the Olive Mill Bistro in 1968 with two other partners and his wife, Virginie. Verkhamen soon brought over his brother-in-law, Orban, who was working at L'Hotel des Bains, a three-star restaurant in Liege, Belgium. Orban was a graduate of the Ecole d'Hotelerie in Hort-Chateau, outside of Liege, his hometown.
Santa Barbara gourmets embraced the Olive Mill. "We were the avant-garde," Verkhamen recalls.
Michael Hutchings, who replaced Orban as chef in 1981 and now has his own restaurant, Michael's Waterside in Montecito, says the Olive Mill was "one of the top two or three restaurants in town for many years."
When Orban retired from the Olive Mill seven years ago, he says, he looked forward to a life of leisure. But after less than two months, the siren call of the kitchen lured Orban back to sear, simmer and saute.
So he and his wife scouted around for restaurant sites. They looked in Thousand Oaks, Camarillo and Ventura but found nothing within their price range.
Then, a Santa Paula real estate agent mentioned that she might have something in Fillmore.
"Where is Fillmore?," Orban remembers asking.
He soon learned.
What Orban found in Fillmore was a modest Mexican restaurant with walls of thick, whitewashed adobe and curved arches for doorways. Festive blue-and-yellow tiles rounded out the Latin motif.
Orban kept these features and built a cobblestone patio to overlook the palm trees and gazebo of the city park across the street. He put in two wood-burning fireplaces, hung white Christmas-type lights on the patio plants and remodeled the kitchen.
Down went the serapes and up went paintings of Paris street life and a homey array of European kitsch, such as Belgian clogs.
Voila! Dos Amigos became Le Provencal.
(Meanwhile, another sister, Sidonie, opened Ojai's L'Auberge restaurant with her husband, Paul Franssen. Auberge means country inn in French.)
Orban, who favors tall chef's hats and starched white aprons, makes regular forays into Santa Barbara and Ventura for fresh seafood. He buys many of his vegetables directly from Fillmore's farmers. On a recent Friday night, specials included salmon in a crayfish sauce and snowy white halibut with a creamy dill sauce.
Each entree comes ringed with an array of fresh vegetables: cauliflower au gratin, lightly steamed carrots in a delicate orange sauce, steamed broccoli, whipped potatoes and crispy snow peas with a decidedly smoky flavor.