A Course in French


by Dana Staves
photography by Keith Lanpher

     While Hampton Roads has no shortage of authentic Vietnamese, Thai and Mexican restaurants, foodies must look a little farther afield to satisfy their desire for French cuisine. But just outside the seven cities sits a small gem of a French restaurant, Le Yaca, hidden away two miles from Colonial Williamsburg.

     Le Yaca is not quite part of a chain; it’s more like the youngest of triplets. The first Le Yaca was opened in 1965 in a country village in the French Alps. The proprietor, Daniele Bourderau, and her husband, Gerard Gormier, opened the small restaurant for guests of a nearby up-and-coming ski resort. They served their guests in one of the barns on the family property. The second Le Yaca opened in Saint-Tropez in 1968, and the final one opened here in 1980.

    In this third Le Yaca, one of the first sights to greet guests is a large open stone hearth, complete with a low flame and copper pots. It’s here that cooks prepare special dishes like quail and prawns over the flames; guests can watch. The richness of the decor – reds, stark whites, and wood finishes – blend to foreshadow the sumptuousness in store.

     The restaurant consists of a large front room and several smaller dining rooms off a hallway. Servers in long black bistro aprons serve their guests with a quiet propriety that puts diners immediately at ease. Still, Le Yaca is fine dining without the fussiness of formality and finishing-school etiquette. Furniture is slightly mismatched, and servers fetch wine glasses from tall, slim china cabinets in the small dining rooms, providing a sense of hominess. Diners wear anything from jeans to formal dress, and when they arrive, a hostess is ready to take their coats.

     No dinner at a French restaurant is complete without a tour through the wine list. What better opportunity to drink Champagne? There is a particular sense of felicity in the glass, the bubbles rising ever upward in a sweet celebration of the meal. On our visit, the Brut Prestige was a bubbly glass of zing, both tart and sweet. Another good option is the rounder, sweeter Pinot Blanc, an oaky wine served slightly chilled.

     Once drinks are ordered, diners find themselves faced with a detailed menu of French foods, from escargots to steak to lobster to prawns to chicken and everything in between. The menu is dynamic, changing with the seasons and modifying dishes, changing out an ingredient here or there to offer the freshest cuisine. For help in choosing a good sampling of menu items, Le Yaca offers a three-course dinner menu for $35 per person, beginning with soup or a salad, then moving to a large main course, and finishing off with a dessert.

     One of the first-course options, the salade verte (house salad), is a mixture of romaine, spinach and mixed greens, with red seedless grapes, shaved Parmesan and a Dijon mustard vinaigrette, topped by fresh ground pepper. The salad was fresh and light, a perfect beginning to quite a heavy meal. The contrasting tastes of the peppery Dijon vinaigrette, the sweet red grapes and the salty Parmesan made for a balanced array of spice, sweet and salt. The practice of putting grapes in salads is probably becoming a bit passé, but it’s less predictable than cranberries (or the dreaded Craisin). Grapes are sweet and firm, and when they share fork space with shaved Parmesan, the sweet and salty marriage is one you can’t help but celebrate.

     Some restaurants are stingy with their recipes. Le Yaca, it seemed, would be in this camp, since the server politely shied away from detailing the ingredients in the vinaigrette. Not so. He sent another server to the table, one who had more experience with actually making the vinaigrette. This server told the entire story, from the mixing of mustard and vinegar to the long whisking time that gives it its thickness. He leaned in closer to share his own secret:  fresh lemon juice. The restaurant doesn’t use it, he said, but when he makes the vinaigrette at home, he adds a good squeeze.

     The second course features heartier main entrees like the Panaché de la Mer (pan-seared sea bass with a Diver sea scallop, and half a lobster tail, with a Champagne saffron sauce). The sea bass was substantial in size and rested in the thick, buttery sauce. The fish was lightly seasoned, perfectly cooked, and delightfully flaky, perfect for dredging through the sauce one delicious bite at a time. The scallop was tender and buttery, served with a fresh saffron stalk – a thrill to find – and, this time, fruity preserves on top. The saffron was vaguely starchy, earthy and sweet. The half-lobster tail was small, tightly curled and salty, the flavor most reminiscent of the sea on this plate.

     Another excellent option for the second course was the Terre et Mer (Earth and Sea – or Surf and Turf), a pepper-crusted beef tenderloin, deglazed with Cognac and demi-glace, and a pan-seared homemade jumbo lump crab cake, all served with a beurre blanc sauce. The tenderloin was juicy and perfectly cooked to order. But take note: “Pepper-crusted” it was. The tenderloin was evenly coated in fresh cracked pepper that still contained coarse pieces of peppercorn. Though the pepper wasn’t as detectable on the front end of each bite, it loudly announced itself after swallowing. To temper the peppery kick, the demi-glace was salty, hearty and a bit thick.

     Alongside the “terre” of this course is the “mer.” The jumbo lump crab cake is France meets the Chesapeake Bay. Crab cakes are a staple of the mid-Atlantic, but this was no mid-Atlantic crab cake. This crab cake was lightly seasoned (none of the familiar zing of Old Bay Seasoning), so the flavor of crab really came through. Made of tender lumps of meat with very little filler, it was broiled and served over luscious mashed potatoes, making the “mer” component of this dish a soft, cozy experience, especially when compared with the spicier, heartier encounter with the tenderloin. This dish was light meets heavy, ocean meets earth, fork meets mouth.

     The final course is dessert. For a nontraditional choice, go with

     Le Gâteau au Citron avec Coulis de Framboises, a delicate combination of almond cake and light lemon mousse with fresh berries and a raspberry coulis, a thick sauce made from pureed raspberries. The almond cake hid in a soft pillow of mousse, providing a nutty, not-too-sweet base to the sweet, lemony delight. The mousse was rich, creamy, oh-so-airy, and topped with chopped pineapple and whole blueberries. The coulis was tart and fresh. Do yourself a favor: Dredge a bite of the gateau and mousse through the sauce for a complex, lovely flavor combination that makes you pucker just a little before settling into the sweet, creamy aftertaste of the mousse.

     For a more traditional option, the Crème Brulée à la Vanille was outstanding. Though crème brulée is popular, and accessible enough that most people have encountered it at least once, after a meal full of such rich and sometimes unpredictable flavor combinations, the sweet comfort of a crème brulée was welcome. The crispy top called to mind the taste of freshly roasted marshmallows. The filling itself was smooth, creamy, with a heavy taste of vanilla; in fact, there was a layer of tiny vanilla seeds along the bottom of the dish.

     For fans of French food, or even diners who are new to the cuisine,

     Le Yaca is worth trying. With ample portion sizes, traditional flavors and a comfortably classy atmosphere, this is fine dining with its sleeves rolled up. The food is hearty, buttery and served by friendly, knowledgeable servers. Le Yaca also serves lunch and brunch; it is a great special treat to round out a day spent at Colonial Williamsburg:  Have a taste of history, and then have a taste of France.

|  Village Shops at Kingsmill, Route 60, Williamsburg. 757.220.3616.  |



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