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French Twist

The tastiest dishes at David Wilhelm's new Laguna Beach restaurant are what could be called urban rustic.

April 30, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

David Wilhelm is Orange County's biggest producer--producer of restaurants, that is. He has created Kachina, Diva and Chimayo Grill, and now French 75, Laguna Beach's swankiest new dining establishment.

Everyone I've brought to French 75 has been suitably impressed by the decor. The drab suite of rooms that used to be Ron's of Laguna and later Shame on the Moon has been transformed into a series of intimate dining rooms appointed with fin-de-siecle artwork, frosted glass Art Deco light fixtures and lavish flower displays in tall vases.

The booths are huge and plush, the table surfaces covered with real linen (well, a linen-cotton blend, which still beats most restaurants). The front bar has an impish ceiling mural depicting monkeys drinking champagne. There's a working fireplace in the back dining room, making it a fine setting for a romantic tryst. Altogether, French 75 manages to be posh and fun at the same time.

On Friday nights, a casually familiar crowd starts to gather when the restaurant opens at 5, to banter, drink Kir Royales (champagne and cassis) and nibble snacks from a sophisticated bar menu. By 9, they've settled into serious dining.

The bar food alone would bring me back. A light, frothy cheese and chive souffle. Warm cheese puffs filled with pungent Cambazola cheese. Even an acceptable croque-monsieur, that French version of a grilled ham and Swiss sandwich (on slices of bread dipped in bechamel sauce, rather than ordinary toast).

But French 75 also acquits itself reasonably well as a grown-up restaurant. Chef Thomas Tran, a longtime Wilhelm associate, created several original dishes for the restaurant's menu, a blend of French modern and traditional bistro favorites. There are creative dishes like the imaginative langoustine and crayfish cappuccino, and simple dishes too, such as chicken with Dijon mustard sauce and that bistro stalwart steak frites.

It should be mentioned that Tran has by now departed to launch another Wilhelm project, Savannah Chop House (just opened in the former Yankee Tavern in Laguna Niguel). Now the kitchen is in the hands of his sous-chefs, and by my estimate they're doing a capable job.

*

The best dishes here are what you might call urban rustic. Salade Frisee comes with a warm poached egg, duck cracklings and seared apples--all good, comforting ingredients. Another solid conception is Provencal pomme frites, a giant bowl of crisply fried potatoes mixed with sea salt and an assertive blend of Provencal herbs. I like my fries without sauce, but these come with two fine dipping sauces--a creamy Roquefort and a strong horseradish mustard.

A few other appetizers are also worth their salt. Shrimp sauteed with cognac, chives, shallots and Dijon mustard sauce is as rich and seductive as the description sounds. Smoked salmon and potato gaufrette Napoleon, meanwhile, is an architecturally splendid mini-tower layered with butter-smooth smoked fish.

Not everything works quite so well. The smoked Muscovy duck and potato ravioli in a duck nage with crispy fried sage and white truffle oil had little duck meat in the bland filling. The black mussels steamed in Muscadet wine, shallots, garlic and cream were overwhelmed by the garlic, and the flavor of the mussels didn't come through.

With the entrees, the more urban rustic, the better. The best of them is usually the daily special ("this evening's rustic, country French soul food dish"). I've tried two, and both dishes, ladled from Le Creuset stewpots, were the stars of the respective evenings.

One was an exquisitely light blanquette de veau, stewed veal in a light cream sauce with spring vegetables. Another was an eccentric take on choucrou^te garnie: sauerkraut cooked with duck leg confit, braised pork shoulder and andouille sausage.

The restaurant takes a good deal of license with the "Marseilles-style" bouillabaisse. A true bouillabaisse is all fish (sometimes lobster is allowed), but what we have here is mussels, clams and shrimp, sometimes some whitefish; it would be better described as a French-style shellfish stew. Whatever. You eat it with grilled Parmesan garlic toast and a nice rouille pepper sauce, and it isn't half bad.

If you crave meat, the best strategy is to order a filet mignon topped with "Out of Fashion Bearnaise sauce." That's what I did, and my steak was nearly perfect. On the other hand, the roast duckling with caramelized tangerine sauce and duck roasted potatoes became cloying after a few bites, and the braised rabbit in cognac, mustard and rosemary sauce was tough, like nearly every rabbit dish served in this country.

*

Good desserts are something Wilhelm restaurants always seem to have. Allow 20 minutes for the adequately light Callebaut chocolate souffle or for the rich, crusty warm apple praline tart, served with a nice cinnamon ice cream.

If you're not up to the wait, there's an eggy raspberry creme bru^lee with a crackling sugar crust, or a large bowl of strawberries, which goes superbly with that bottle of expensive champagne the management is hoping you will order. If you're making a production out of things, that is.

French 75 is expensive. Appetizers are $6-$60 (for beluga caviar). Entrees are $15-$26. Desserts are $6-$8.

BE THERE

French 75, 1464 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (714) 494-8444. 5-11 p.m. daily. All major cards.

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