The goofy, bright-eyed porker on the sign outside the Wild Boar Cafe is a sort of totemic party animal, more or less Spuds McKenzie with tusks, except that he looks as if he's having more fun than the poor hobbling mutt in those Budweiser commercials. Inside there's something that might possibly be a real wild boar's head mounted on a wall, with joke glasses stuck on its long-suffering face.
No doubt about it, the Wild Boar Cafe is a party place, a bistro where live rock comes on stage about 9:30 (not counting the endless ritual of tuning up) and people drink and even apparently go out and dance on the little roofed patio. However, it's a party joint that wants to be known as a restaurant too, and in truth it does serve more ambitious food than a mere party place needs to.
The regular menu is a familiar French-Continental sort left over from when this was a place called Marcel's, serving veal Marsala, duck with raspberry sauce, chicken breast in sherry sauce and the like. A peculiarity is the number of dishes called "provencale" for no discernible reason.
That is the past, though. The new order is indicated on a periodically changing menu mounted on a little wooden standard placed on your table. Here about half the items are French or French-Continental (and better on the whole than Marcel's legacy) and the other half say "Cajun" or "blackened." It's an uneasy coexistence of the mild and luxurious with the peppery and folksy, veal in bland tarragon sauce next to fiery blackened shark.
The appetizers are quite good on the whole, as one would hope in a musical hangout. The pate au cognac, for instance, is remarkably good, faintly sweet and decidedly flavored with black pepper. If these are the old Marcel recipes, appetizers must have been Marcel's strong suit. Scampi provencale is described on the menu as a thing of garlic butter, but what you get is an excellent dish of prawns sauteed in tomatoes, onions and red pepper that might aptly be labeled Brazilian.
Curiously, the Cajun shrimp are similar but scarcely any hotter. They're interesting with their bitter, smoky flavor but not really as attractive as the provencale model (and nearly a buck and a half more expensive). There are also fully two kinds of escargots here, the usual Burgundian style (pardon me: "provencale") cooked in garlic butter and served in huge shells that can scarcely be navigated with the snail tongs and a delicious old-fashioned snails bordelaise in a puff pastry shell with a rich meat sauce ("light red wine sauce," according to the menu).
In the entree department, I would take the new stuff over Marcel's any time. The ones from the old list I have tried have been excessively Continental: veal in bland tarragon cream, chicken breast in slightly more interesting green pepper cream, pork tenderloin (very tender and good) in mustard cream.
But it's in the new menu that you find things like excellent lamb shanks marengo--good big shanks, braised in a rich white wine with a curious, rather Near Eastern, whiff of cinnamon. Or beef bourguignon in a very meaty red wine sauce with carrots and mushrooms. One of the big sellers, my waitress said, is pasta a la francaise , and I believe her. It's spaghetti (of all neglected pastas) with chicken breast in a sauce of cream and meat juices with a judicious flavoring of mustard.
Among the blackened items, I've tried only the steak (I tend to believe that if you have tasted one blackened item you've tasted them all). It was definitely hot and spicy and was covered by a surprising tomato and onion sauce. A good idea, I think; blackened things can be harsh with no sauce.
Among the specials, the only things that weren't exciting were a shark in Chardonnay sauce, though maybe I just couldn't find the sauce, and a curiously bland salmon with dill sauce. The wine list on the changing menu is oddly chosen and does not coincide with the one on the printed menu. Did Marcel take his wine with him when he left?
The desserts, I regret to report, are below the quality of the rest of the menu. The chocolate mousse tasted more like chocolate pudding. The creme caramel was good in parts--it didn't have a consistent texture all the way through. For the rest there was only a choice of ordinary cheesecake or raspberries with Grand Marnier.
At dinner, soups and appetizers are $4.75 to $6.95 and entrees $8.95 to $14.75. The Wild Boar is open for lunch as well, with appetizers in the same price range, salads $4.75 to $6.75 and entrees $4.75 to $11.75. Desserts are $3.25 to $3.75 for all meals.
WILD BOAR CAFE 130 East 17th St., Costa Mesa
Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, for lunch Tuesday through Friday. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.