Pascal Cayet’s laughter echoes off the porcelain plates and red-bricked interior walls of his restaurant; as the waiters briskly move from table to table during the weekday lunch, they seem not to notice that the restaurant’s owner is in stitches. He is talking about steak in his thick French accent, and has just realized a statement that, in retrospect, does seem a little comically redundant.
“I go to a steak house here in Dallas and you know, it’s just steak. It’s good, but I like to have sauce,” he says, before breaking into a smile. “But of course I love sauce – I am French!”
The friendly laughter that ensues fits right in at Lavendou, where Cayet has been serving food from his native France in an atmosphere that omits any hint of snobbishness and instead evokes a sense of welcome, refined relaxation. Lavendou, which Cayet opened in 1996, is the result of his effort to bring a bit of Southern France to Dallas – even the name is reminscent of a town along the French Riviera (Le Lavandou). The decor, the dishes, the linens and the food – especially the food – are intended to bring a style of French dining that encourages friendly conversation and wine-warmed cheeks. It is an idea Cayet developed during the 1980′s and early 90′s when he noticed more and more Americans traveling to France, and instead of constantly talking about Paris, they were singing the praises of Provence. It was then that he decided to bring a bit of Provence to them.
“I wanted to start a restaurant that would reflect a more relaxing way of life, like the life in Provence,” he says. “It’s unique with the colors and the Provencial fabrics. And the food. Provencial food is lighter food and it is a variety of food – fresh seafood and lamb are very popular in the south of France. Olives, olive oil, and of course, herbs de Provence; it’s typical of French food but with a Provencial flair.”
Cayet’s first restaurant was the late Chez Gerard on McKinney Avenue, a French bistro that he opened in 1984 and sold in 2006. While the feel and atmosphere are more representative of the south of France at Lavendou, the expectations of the food are nonetheless at the standard that he set at his first restaurant, and French classics are still unapologetically represented. Frogs legs and escargot have a permanent home on the menu, with each possibly having different types of iterations depending on the specials menu.
“We do get creative, but my menu is very traditional French,” he says. “I don’t deviate too much from that, because it’s what people expect when the come here. Escargot, frog legs – a lot of people are eager to try those. But we do specials all the time, so we can try some other things as well.”
And for the less adventurous, the steak au poivre a cracked-pepper-crusted steak with a cognac cream sauce - is a persistent hit among customers. Those heavier options are balanced by a variety of options that might be a little more diet friendly – salads, grilled salmon, tilapia or tuna, grilled vegetables and other options give the light diner a chance to walk out filled and refreshed. Dessert souffles are also a hit at Lavendou, though Cayet does recommend ordering them when ordering the entree. Ultimately, there are meant to be choices fit for all.
“Not everything has cream sauce – far from it. In fact, that’s one of the things about being Provencial, is that there are a lot of light and fresh dishes, too,” Cayet says. “We have a lot of people come in for the first time, our menu is quite big, so there’s always something that people are going to recognize and feel comfortable ordering.”
Comfort is a state always aided by wine, and as could probably be expected, Lavendou’s wine list is weighted in favor of Cayet’s native country. But that doesn’t make it the only source for wine options. Californian and Italian wines are both on the list, as well – it’s ultimately a list defined by what Cayet deems most ideally paired with his food – it’s probably appropriate that French wines would go well with French food.
The wines fit the food and the atmosphere – the interior’s reflection of Provencial life is supplemented by the food – but Cayet’s personality, like his laugh, fills the restaurant as he travels from table to table greeting guests both returning and new with equal enthusiasm. And whether it’s the frog legs or the steak or even a souffle, you can bet he’s going to ask you how you like it.
Remember to mention the sauce.
by Rich Vana