Fine French food meets easy charm at a new Lafayette eatery.
“Bonsoir, Madame,” Eric Lacombe says to a customer reading the chalkboard of nightly specials.
“Bone-swar,” she replies eagerly.
“Table for une,” Lacombe says, holding up his forefinger.
“Doo,” she corrects, holding up two.
“Ah, deux,” he says, leading her to a patio table.
Lacombe, a native of Montpellier in the south of France, is good-natured about the exchange. The manager loves that people try to speak his language, as many do when coming to Lafayette’s Chevalier Restaurant not just for a French meal, but for a French experience.
“They take their first bite, and you can see the look in their eyes,” says Lacombe. “Ah, they are in France.”
Chevalier’s staff are perfect guides for those looking to relive a European memory. They bring their French brand of professionalism to the food and service, and also know how to tap into southern French charm to make customers relax, even laugh. Chef Philippe Chevalier and his staff have worked together for years in local French restaurants, and have the comedic Ratatouille-like rapport to show for it. Here, the animated film about a Parisian kitchen is an anthem. Chevalier has seen it at least four times, the staff refer to it in jokes, and all have taken to calling Jason Banister, the chef’s earnest, curly-haired apprentice, “Linguini.”
Within this cast of characters, I fancied myself the not-so-severe version of Ratatouille critic Anton Ego. I sat contentedly by the window with my glass of Chinon, a surprisingly light Cabernet Franc. I nodded an unguarded approval at the perfectly ripe Black Mission figs stuffed with basil and goat cheese, wrapped in grappa-marinated prosciutto, and accompanied by the Provençal-style arugula salad. My left eyebrow piqued like Ego’s at the mysterious first bite of the chef’s terrine. Too often a greasy, regrettable alternative to foie gras, this pâté of duck leg and pork belly had just the right touch of cognac and port to bring out the rich, pure flavor of the duck.
Chevalier’s delicate hand comes from years of rigorous training in France. In the country’s strict educational system, students must choose a professional track before puberty.
“I was no good at school,” he says now of his 14-year-old self. “So, I had to choose a job.”
Cooking was a natural choice. He was raised in a fishing family on France’s central Atlantic coast. His grandmother worked as a professional cook for a wealthy family, and young Philippe was always tailing her, asking to taste this and help with that. “By the time I was 10, I knew how to make mayonnaise,” he says. “I could open 12 oysters by hand in a minute.”
Chevalier worked his way through France’s culinary system but longed to stand out in the United States. In 2001, when he was working in the French West Indies, a friend invited him to become the chef at now-closed La Salamandre in Danville. After a couple other stints, Chevalier is finally at the helm of his own creation, cooking dinner seven nights a week.
Linguini ably fixes goat cheese salads, fries potatoes for frites, and adds cream to simmering mussels marinières, but some late-night employees entrusted with dessert served room-temperature molten chocolate cake. So, for now, Chevalier won’t trust the preparation of his main meats, sides, or sauces to anyone else.
Chevalier orders beef, pork, and fowl from all over the country. Rich free-range Muscovy hen came in a demi-glace, haloed by caramelized baby turnips, carrots, and pears. Massachusetts scallops au pistou were served with a large dollop of French nostalgia.
Just as Anton Ego was thrust back to his rural French childhood at the first forkful of Remy’s gourmet ratatouille, so the first silky bite of Chevalier’s scallops, served over a fresh fava bean and pesto ragout, sent me back to my junior year abroad. There I sat, in a kitchen in Aix-en-Provence, as my adoptive French grandmother enlightened me with the long history and regional peculiarities that differentiated her basil-and-garlic broth from the eponymous Italian paste.
The Chevalier serving team has come to recognize and nurture these moments. Our server encouraged us to take time between courses, waited for our cue to have the chef start our entrées, and invited us to linger over our cheese plate and desserts until after closing, respecting in true French fashion that our conversation and esprit de bon vivant were as important as the food being served.
at a glance
WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL: Authentic French food, with native French servers and chef providing a genuine experience to match.
THE SPACE: Chevalier is in a small strip mall but tucked away in its own private corner, with a large outdoor patio and a cozy indoor dining room.
WHEN TO GO: Just dinner for now, until Philippe Chevalier can convince the city to let him open for lunch.
WHAT TO ORDER: Duck. Perfectly balanced duck terrine spiked with cognac and port; meaty Muscovy hen, light on the fat, rich on the sauce. Any of the reasonably priced French wines.
BONUS: Specials such as braised rabbit on Tuesdays and fish stew on Fridays.
CONTACT: 960 Moraga Rd., Lafayette, (925) 385-0793, chevalierrestaurant.com.
Hours: Dinner daily.
Price: Appetizers $8–$14, entrées $19–$36.
Alcohol: Full bar. ■