Direct from the Heart of France to Ventura, California
A plaque near the front door boasts that the 1910 landmark craftsman style house at 71 Palm was lovingly restored by wife Nanci’s parents, Ernst and Lila Kuhn. Chef Didier met his wife when she was in his cooking class – he was then engrossed in seeing the world and working in Atlanta, Georgia! They moved back to her hometown in Ventura – “we needed a baby-sitter,” he grinned. And Chef was careful to explain that he purchased the house back.
The effort to be family and pet-friendly adds to the charm of 71 Palm. The chef’s awards for his doggie menu on the table prove this. Local artists also display their works on the walls. Dishes are named in honor of family and local guests. For example, Nanci’s Fresh Beet, Goat Cheese, & Arugula Salad w/ toasted pine nuts & mandarin oranges is in honor of wife, Nanci. Chef Didier honors his mother-in-law with Lila’s Chopped Salad w/ dry salami, mozzarella, garbanzo beans, chopped romaine. Prices are very practical and portions are satisfying.
Where would I like to be seated? Inside? Outside? Although Chef Didier enticed me, peek into the second floor room overlooking the ocean, I preferred outside. Perfect choice, beamed the chef, a phrase that greeted every one of my choices, while he oversaw the staff taking care of tables of two, four and six that eventually filled the porch and inside dining room.
The proper way to try the French cuisine popped out at me on the menu: the Provencal Fish Soupwith aioli & garlic croutons, along with the Warm Duck Confit Salad with walnuts & raspberry vinaigrette. For dessert, of course, the Tarte Tatin, was a must. Turns out they are two of the most popular dishes.
This refined yet rustic Provencal Fish Soup was so extraordinary that all I could do the rest of my trip was figure out how to taste it again. Once home I even tried to duplicate it. Chef Didier would have a good laugh.
Here is the history: when fishermen in the south of France returned home from a long day of fishing, they wanted to create a delicious dish without using the most profitable fish of the day’s catch. Thus began this simple, but elegant stew made with a tomato-based broth. Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you because the whole fish is sieved into the dish. After simmering the local fish with aromatics, wine, and tomatoes, every last bit is forced through a food mill—heads, tails, bones, and all—for an incredibly lush soup, tasting of a beautiful union between land and sea. The garlicky aioli and croutons further coaxes out the natural richness of the fish. What makes this form of a bouillabaisse unique is not only the selection of Provençal herbs and spices and the bony local fish in the broth. Turns out that the fish are added one at a time, then brought to a boil; and the broth and fish are served separately and then combined in a soup plate.
Server Tom was a hoot. So professional and polished he could afford to easily joke. When I asked if after his 17 years of service he saw more sophisticated diners at 71 Palm Restaurant, he didn’t skip a beat. ‘Oh, yes,” he answered. “And a lot more allergies, too!”
The Duck Salad again showed how each dish starts from scratch and as many ingredients as possible are local. The rich texture of duck, local of course, perfectly accompany crisp greens and other fresh ingredients. The salad was dressed perfectly so that every leave was coated without excess.
71 Palm’s Tarte Tatin with Caramel Sauce, a la mode, was classic. I asked about the ice cream. Tom checked, and of course it is from local Challenge Creamery. He then shared his own favorite ice cream brand and their best flavors (mine too!) revealing a supermarket sale to me just in case I could stock up.
I sigh and look at the menu. The Provencal dishes are all tempting. This includes the Classic Bouillabaise; Frog Legs with garlic and parsley; Steamed Mussels with white wine and shallots; Hearts of Pam Mimosa, and Homemade Country Pate. There is also a New Zealand Rack of Lamb “Provencal” “From Our Oven” section.
Chef Poirer was raised in the posh Loire Valley, located in the middle of the Loire river in the very middle of France, renowned as “The Cradle (and Garden) of France” because of the abundance of vineyards, fruit orchards, artichoke and asparagus fields lining the river banks, to say nothing of the spectacular castles. Historic? Its towns have been inhabited since the Middle Paleolithic period.
And this is only Chef Didier’s French childhood background! We reminisced about the famous French friends and restaurant work experiences we shared in Los Angeles. This is an entire story. Let’s just say the chef prepared the last meal for regular guest of Ma Maison, Orson Welles, which turned out to be “his usual simple,” says the chef, contrary to urban legend.
So how lucky for us to dine at 71 Palm Restaurant. Chef Poirier brought all his marvelous heritage and experience with him. Take a virtual tour for yourself at www.71palm.com.
Linger in the glow of the meal even longer in a beautiful, meditative garden on the same block (front door store entrance, please) at the San Buenaventura Mission. Tour docents there are eager to tell you the story of the city of San Buenaventura, Home of the Mission by the Sea.