While restaurant hunting one recent evening, a wrong turn off Encinitas Boulevard inadvertently led to the Village Cafe Francais, a miniature establishment and a happy destination tucked at the back of a nondescript strip center.
This tiny eatery is, in nearly every sense, one of a kind. The hours are restricted to dinner only, served Tuesday through Saturday, and the number of patrons for any given evening is pretty much limited to 18, which is how many chairs the place has managed to squeeze into its storefront dining room. Table turnover, coveted by most restaurants, is virtually impossible, since the Village Cafe's leisurely approach to dining more or less requires that guests sign on for the evening.
The menu is old-fashioned--almost antique, really--in the sense that it is verbal rather than written. Options are limited to a choice between two appetizers and three entrees, although the meal actually includes seven courses, served for a fixed price of $30 per person, exclusive of tax and tip. The price is not a bargain, but it does not seem too much to pay for the experience of dining on generally well-prepared French cuisine in a setting that verges on a private dining room.
The tables are set with green cloths and red flatware and roses. The color scheme repeats around the small space, with crimson-upholstered chairs and emerald draperies; there are quiet French songs on the tape deck, four attractive oil paintings in pretty gilded frames, five tables, one marble-topped buffet and one waiter.
There was just one wine bucket on an evening when three tables were served, but the right bottle always went to the right table. Since the restaurant has no liquor license, it is necessary to bring one's own wine, if desired. (There is a liquor store in the same shopping center.)
After explaining the fixed menu, the waiter mentions the options--recently a choice between shrimp in Pernod and crab-stuffed mushroom appetizers--and entrees of boned chicken breast in a lemon and dill sauce, filet mignon in black and green peppercorn sauce, and halibut with a spicy, Catalan-style tomato sauce.
Portion sizes vary from course to course, and can be more generous than would be expected in a seven-course meal. The appetizers are small, but not parsimonious; there were four plump specimens in a serving of shrimp in Pernod that was nicely perky with the anise flavor of the liqueur. The crab-stuffed mushrooms, served cold, contained very little crab and were not worth the bother.
These nibbles actually followed the opening shot, plates brimming with a full-bodied but delicately textured cream of spinach soup enriched with tiny cubes of the chicken that had contributed the broth.
Presentation counts for much here, and the salad arrived carefully arranged on a glass plate lined with a flat, purplish leaf of Swiss chard. The greenery included chopped cucumber for texture and a notably sharp and pungent vinaigrette that tottered on the brink of over-acidity.
The fourth course, a spoonful of sorbet, was an allowable affectation that killed time until the arrival of the entrees. The chicken was sleek under its creamy, highly seasoned sauce, and quite delicious; the steak, luxurious under a layer of extravagant oyster mushrooms, had a slightly gamy flavor that may have been provoked by the mingled peppercorns in the brown sauce. The garnishes were excellent, especially the sweetened yam puree studded with the tiniest of baby carrots.
The final courses were a small, ripe pear served with a slice of melting-soft Brie (a fine, appealing combo) and a dessert of excellent marzipan cake stuffed with a thin, flavor-heightening layer of raspberry jam. With this sweet, the restaurant in a way saved the best for last, and handily put the icing on an unusual but very pleasant experience.
THE VILLAGE CAFE FRANCAIS
1524 Encinitas Blvd., Encinitas
Hours: Dinner served Tuesday through Saturday
Cost: Price fixed at $30 per person, exclusive of tax and tip.