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Afternoon in Provence

Menu reflects influences of Italy, Mideast and Asia. But Picayo is frankly Franco.

March 27, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — Picayo means "cuisine of the sun," claims Laurent Brazier, chef and co-owner of Laguna's most charming new cafe. But he'll also admit the word is his own invention.

Perhaps you have already sampled Brazier's colorful, Mediterranean-inspired cooking at Cafe Fleuri in Newport Beach's Le Meridien Hotel, where he was the head chef. Brazier's cuisine often riffs on nouvelle French, but what he cooks now is woven with clear influences from Italy, the Middle East and even Asia. Picayo's ambience, however, is pure, distilled Provencal. I half expect to smell lavender here whenever the door is ajar.

Picayo appears to have taken off as a lunch spot. At noon you see quite a few artists, interior designers and power lunchers, and the small parking lot could pass for a sports-car dealership.

It's easy to see the attractions. Green and yellow toile curtains hang by most tables. The mustard-colored walls are adorned with Impressionist watercolors.

The beauty has its flaws, though. A gray slate floor adds to the bohemian feel but makes for a rather noisy room, considering that Picayo seats only 25 people. The panoramic front windows face directly onto Coast Highway, where traffic roars by at Grand Prix speeds. Come to think of it, that's authentically Provencal--the cafes on the Riviera's famous Basse Corniche have the same problem.

There are no appetizers as such on the lunch menu, but one day a zesty, orange-scented lobster bisque was available. Another day we started by sharing quiche Provencal, an eggy quiche laced with tomatoes, zucchini, mushrooms and Spanish olives.

Because pasta is Provencal as well as Italian, you can get four eggplant ravioli blanketed in a delicate rosemary Alfredo sauce. The pasta is nicely al dente and the strong presence of minced artichoke dominates the soft filling. The other pasta here is a workmanlike spinach linguine mixed with basil, sun-dried tomatoes and strips of chicken breast.

From this point on, the lunch menu becomes eclectic, snaking its way through the Mediterranean and eventually landing on the other side of the world. There's a pleasant oregano-scented Greek salad that combines a few pieces of grilled chicken with the usual feta cheese, tomatoes, onions and greens. Good sauteed prawns are served--clever touch--on a bed of tabbouleh (treated more as a salad than usual, with lots of fresh mint and Italian parsley).

Seared ahi Napoleon with sweet onion, caramelized apples and curry dressing is either a real Pacific Rim dish or a particularly odd combination of tastes. (Well, the curry sauce is mild and delicious.) Don't expect puff pastry in this "Napoleon"--the name just refers to the fact that the slices of seared ahi are stacked, as in the famous confection.

Picayo's star turn is grilled lamb chops served at lunch on a smooth, complex roasted eggplant puree with a slice of the potato frittata called tortilla Espan~ola. The chops are so good, in fact, that they are held over for the dinner menu, though with two modifications: The eggplant puree contains some tomato (the menu calls it bayildi Provencal, meaning it's a Frenchified version of a well-known Turkish specialty) and the chops get a Beaujolais thyme sauce.

The dinner menu has a few starters worth noting. The best of them (shrimp-, artichoke heart- and wild-mushroom-filled purse) is stuffed crepes bulging with treasure. The filling has the intense taste of porcini, and the tarragon butter sauce poured over them is the best sauce Brazier makes.

Herbed salmon cakes with Pommery mustard remind me a little too much of the bland cod cakes I grew up buying in New England supermarkets, but the tartare of ahi is a spectacular dish of chopped tuna beautifully contrasted by a salty olive sauce and a creamy avocado mousse.

So many of Picayo's entrees are charcoal grilled that a friend of mine grumbled, "They don't char grill in the south of France." I couldn't disagree. That's why it is important to remember that this is not a French restaurant, despite Provencal decor and the presence of a French-born chef. In the rest of the Mediterranean, grilling is probably more common than any other method of cooking.

That knowledge justifies the menu's pistachio-crusted filet of halibut, charcoal-grilled swordfish and medallions of filet mignon, all prepared on the grill. The halibut is probably the best choice here, a thick slab of flaky, tender fish prepared medium rare. The swordfish is brushed with a spicy seafood demiglace and served on a potato galette. The fork-tender beef comes on herbed mashed potatoes with a raspberry Merlot sauce.

The dessert list is a small selection of carefully crafted French pastries and confections. One day, there was a cappuccino mousse artistically layered with chocolate ganache and wrapped in a zebra-striped pastry. Another, there was a rich bitter chocolate mousse enrobed in more chocolate.

Wines by the glass, such as a '95 Cakebread Cabernet at $5.25, seem like a fair deal. Caymus' fine Mer et Soleil, typical of this small, carefully chosen list, does not--it's $52 a bottle.

Picayo could use a number of small improvements. The kitchen is infuriatingly slow, which can be particularly annoying at lunch. And like many casual restaurants in France itself, Picayo needs a better bread than the lifeless sliced baguette it now serves.

But, hey, you can't argue with that basic idea--the cuisine of the sun.

Picayo is high-end moderate to expensive: starters, $6-$9.25; entrees, $18.50 to $25.

BE THERE

* Picayo, 1155 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (714) 497-5051. Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Wed.-Sun.; dinner 6-10 p.m. Thur.-Sat. Reservations essential. All major cards.

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