Photo by Tenaya HillsOf all the women who have crossed my life as a pseudo-Casanova, Araceli was the most enticing. We never experienced any romantic tension—I destroyed any chance of that back in 10th grade after I compared her emotional qualities to those of a brick wall. But I nevertheless platonically pined after her Ginzu-sharp wit, catechism-teacher intellect and Annie Hall goofiness. Despite attending separate universities and orbiting in wildly disparate social galaxies, we maintained an avid friendship, trading e-mails as if we were penis-enlargement spammers, yakking on the phone when time permitted, and confiding to each other the secrets of our souls.
Then she ruined it by snagging a boyfriend. The guy is a true gentleman—they met while teaching catechism together at Anaheim's St. Anthony Claret Church—and I'll be in the front pew at their wedding come summer. But Araceli's happiness signaled the withering of our camaraderie, an inevitable death that we both nevertheless mourned.
We rarely speak nowadays. Araceli is preparing for a move to the Inland Empire, where she already puts her biology B.A. to use in Corona's high schools. But I managed to snooker her into a sojourn to L'Hirondelle recently with promises of an elegant French/Belgian dinner and rancorous debate in the shadow of Mission San Juan Capistrano.
L'Hirondelle is a San Juan Capistrano institution, used as proof by residents that their city offers more than Fr. Serra this and swallows that (although the restaurant's name is French for "the swallow"—guess one can't fly too far from the nest). Owners Walter and Raymonde Gaspar are fixtures on the San Juan Capistrano civic circuit, frequently hosting charity events at their 22-year-old restaurant or catering mission happenings across the street.
Outside, L'Hirondelle looks like any other building in downtown San Juan Capistrano, sporting a Mission-lite architectural style with a charming outdoor patio featuring flowers and an always-gurgling Moorish fountain. Inside, however, the mood is that of a snug, dimly lit French cottage. Pastoral paintings of Raymonde's native Belgian countryside adorn the walls along with other assorted French and Belgian curios. The bold yellow-and-red Walloon rooster flag hangs proudly near the restaurant's entrance, with the gold-and-blue Flemish lion to its right; the Belgian flag mitigates the middle. I mentioned the fierce Walloon-Flanders rivalry to Araceli and she simply rolled her eyes. "You're too political—still," she snapped. Let the memories begin.
As if commanded by a higher arbitrator, our polite waitress arrived with the menus and nipped the incipient argument. We promptly ordered, I the lapin à la liégeoise (rabbit), she the chicken Marie Antoinette. First, though, came the starting dishes—a crisp house salad for Araceli, a powerfully pungent French onion soup with a rather large, delicious loaf sunk squarely in the middle for me.
The easygoing service allowed Araceli and me to steal more time. She consoled me anew about yet another unrequited love. I asked about her marriage plans—everything is going well—and shared that there would be no reception at mine. "That's nice," Araceli countered. "But don't you have to find a woman first before planning a wedding?"
Thanks a lot, Brick Wall.
Then our plates arrived. Araceli declared her chicken Marie Antoinette —boneless chicken baked with cheese and mushrooms in a sherry sauce—splendid. When I asked her to expand on "splendid," she continued: "The mashed potatoes are the creamiest I've ever had." Such eloquence! No wonder she teaches kids how to dissect frogs.
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My rabbit, meanwhile, was perfect, tasting like a duskier, moister turkey. A plum wine sauce lent a bittersweet taste, with juicy plum skins mixed in. I'd figured the lapin would be a small entrée, but the serving must've included an entire Thumper—there was easily enough to make a Bambifan wail.
Araceli and I sensed that this dinner would probably be one of our last together, so we stretched the evening by trying dessert. Her chocolate mousse was a bit too rich to truly enjoy, so we shared my crepe du jour, which floated above a fragrant orange syrup that meshed well with the scoop of French vanilla ice cream inside the light crepe. We split the bill, and drove back up the 5 to our Anaheim lives and our diverging roads less traveled.
L'hirondelle, 31631 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 661-0425. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $45, food only. All major credit cards accepted.