Pascal Olhats looks like an awfully happy man.
But of course. Each of the three years since he opened Pascal, business has increased at the Newport Beach restaurant. His cooking has gotten almost unanimous accolades from local foodies (for instance, a lofty 28 rating in the current "Zagat Guide," the highest given any Orange County restaurant). He even has a new baby daughter.
If you haven't met this red-headed Gallic charmer, it's high time you did. The food at Pascal is better than ever, thanks to the assistance of a young American chef named Todd Clore (who worked with Roy Yamaguchi at the highly regarded but ill-fated Los Angeles restaurant 385 North). And now his wife is back supervising the dining room, giving him a freer hand with his guests.
When we last visited, Olhats was serving what he calls la cuisine reelle , a light, natural, herb-infused twist on classic French. Basically, he still does. But his cooking has become more classical over the years, more self-assured and refined.
Beyond that, he hasn't changed the restaurant much. He's upgraded the glassware and the wine list (from 50 to 120 selections) and hung a few watercolors; that's about it. With its farmhouse decor--floral print tablecloths, latticed windows and hand-painted white brick walls, typical of Olhats' native Normandy--the place is still more nonchalant than elegant.
Although Olhats is a Norman, he is clearly partial to the cooking of southern France. Dinner begins here, as it always has, with with rounds of toasted baguette bread accompanied by two Provencal spreads, tapenade (an olive pate) and anchoiade (a smooth, silken anchovy butter).
Olhats has the Provencal taste for herbs, which he grows in quantity in his own yard. He also has an ace in the hole--frequent deliveries from a farm producer in San Diego County. The result is that eating an appetizer or a salad here is the next best thing to walking in the French countryside, the scent of chive, parsley, thyme, rosemary and dill wafting upwards.
Gravlax sounds very northern European, the cured salmon served with puffy buckwheat crepes topped with a dollop of sour cream and American caviar, but even this dish is redolent of those southern French herbs. It is buttery without butter, delicate and fresh, and as good a gravlax as you'll taste.
His soupe de poisson is a light, almost broth-like reduction of fish stock and herbs, made with monkfish and mussels. The mussels themselves aren't the ponderous green New Zealand type, but small black ones from Prince Edward Island.
You can also eat these good mussels by themselves in the shell. Olhats serves a giant bowlful in light wine broth with a touch of cream and a dash of saffron. It's a dish so good that I order it over and over.
But there are lots of other good starters. Duck confit salad with a warm vinaigrette is one, with plenty of bibb lettuce and one of the crispest duck legs I've ever eaten. Belgian endive with Roquefort and pine nuts is another, a plateful of chopped endive mingling beautifully with heady crumbled cheese and buttery grilled nuts.
It isn't until you get to entrees that you realize the original concept of Pascal has been betrayed. Olhats planned his restaurant as a bistro--a casual, country-style place to enjoy down-to-earth French cooking. But despite the trend toward just that sort of dining in the bigger cities, the majority of restaurant-goers in this area still expect to eat haute when they eat out. And like any businessman, Olhats has to satisfy his customers.
That's why, after a light, aromatic Provencal appetizer, you can find yourself eating a dish such as filet mignon en venaison here. It's medallions of beef in a rich wine sauce with pureed chestnuts, for heaven's sake.
Rabbit a la moutarde comes in a sumptuous mustard sauce that seems nearly as rich as pure cream.
It also explains why in the Provencal lamb with garlic flan--a wonderful conceit of lamb topped with thick pesto--a rich meat glaze glistens beneath the lamb slices. "The customers love it," says Olhats.
Personally, I don't. I would without the distracting meat glaze, or maybe if the lamb were roasted in a wood oven.
Oh, it's good cooking all right, but I'm going with the high-fashion set on this one. Hold that sauce!
So in its place I'll take the free-range chicken with Nicoise olives and little cloves of roasted garlic, still in the skin, that ooze a natural puree when mashed. Or maybe sea bass au thym , a terrific chunk of roasted fish with a grainy topping of herbs and virgin olive oil.
I'll even splurge on sweetbreads, heavy in themselves but lightened by a fragrant mushroom persillade.
And I'll try to skip desserts altogether, even though they tend to be refreshing and on the light side.
There's a poached pear with chocolate sauce that makes almost no impression at all, a custardy lemon tart about 8 inches high, a hazelnut butter cream cake that looks like a marjolaine without the chocolate, the redoubtable creme brulee and my personal favorite, a wonderful homemade praline ice cream.
Pascal is moderate to expensive. Appetizers are $4.50 to $10.50. Entrees are $17 to $21.95. Cheeses and desserts are $5 to $7.
1000 Bristol St., Newport Beach.
Lunch 11:30 a.m. through 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 6 through 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
All major cards accepted.