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Imported French Mystique

Pescadou reads--and tastes--like an authentic bistro.

November 19, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pescadou Bistro in Newport Beach isn't just any suburban French restaurant. What sets it apart is a certain je ne sais quoi.

I'm half kidding, but there is an indefinable mystique about this place. I can only describe the feeling as what you'd sense in France at a neighborhood haunt where locals dine with their dogs or a Provencal cafe where old men polish off whole bottles of pastis without removing their berets.

We're not talking Michelin stars, just good French home-style cooking. Pescadou Bistro is casual, uncompromisingly French and just plain fun.

Is it any wonder that half the customers are rattling away in boisterous French, as if at a private French-American club? One evening, the people at the next table burst into song. French song, of course.

The beauty of Pescadou Bistro is that it appears geared to French sensibilities. Chef Daniel Sidhoum-Kennedy cooked a far more Americanized menu when he manned the stoves at the nearby Mistral. I sensed he was holding something back, but not here.

Pescadou Bistro's menu is filled with dishes you don't easily find in our more ambitious French restaurants, such as sardines, tomato salad and lamb with flageolet beans. These are dishes French people eat at home and in bistros. It's refreshing to find them on a menu around here.

You'll probably be greeted at the door by the chef's wife, Jacqueline, who is largely responsible for the restaurant's new look. The room is far brighter today than when it was the Lebanese restaurant Hassan's (coincidentally, Jacqueline herself--lilting French accent and all--is from Beirut). The walls have been sponge-painted shades of beige and orange.

A gallery's worth of colorful pottery adds gaiety, and the dozens of paintings are for sale. The tables, set close together, are covered in oilcloths with a design depicting Provencal olives and fruits.

In this vibrant atmosphere, you get down to the serious business of eating right away. There's always a complimentary amuse-bouche, maybe two. One evening we were served a deliciously grainy, heavily larded rabbit pate and a small dish of eggplant Provencal. On another occasion, we were treated to a dish of Picholine olives and an oval platter of roasted peppers and caramelized onions. Come to this restaurant very hungry.

One of the biggest surprises on the appetizer menu is a bisque made with Louisiana crayfish and Armagnac. It's velvety and patrician, a departure from the restaurant's homey, rustic style.

There is no such haughtiness in the rest of these appetizers. Sardines a l'huile is a dish of briny oil-packed sardines on a bed of butter lettuce. If you're in the mood, it's a wonderfully satisfying hors d'oeuvre. The tomato salad--more correctly, salade de tomates--comes sprinkled with fresh basil and a very correct mustard vinaigrette. Salty country ham the French know as jambon de Bayonne is served in thin slices with a handful of pungent cornichon pickles.

*

The best dish on the entree list is one I recommend splitting as a first course. I refer to moules Setoise, or, mussels in the style of Sete, which is on France's Mediterranean coast. Sidhoum-Kennedy uses plentiful--I lost count at three dozen--impeccable Prince Edward Island mussels. These sweet, plump little Canadian mussels rival any in the world for sheer flavor. He simmers them in a broth of garlic, tomato and white wine and serves them in an enormous porcelain terrine, sauce and all.

Many other entrees here are nearly as appealing. Chicken Lavandou, roasted and served with a salty olive sauce, is delightfully moist and fragrant. The bouillabaisse de Marseille--here with scallops, sea bass, shrimp, clams and no shortage of garlic--is huge and satisfying. It's served in the same kind of white terrine the mussels come in, with a dash of spicy rouille and great croutons made on premises. A nice roast rabbit sprinkled with rosemary and chives, at $14.50, is the most expensive item on the menu.

Still, there are one or two missteps. I liked the idea of leg of lamb with cannellini beans: The lamb was flavorful and the gravy properly reduced, but the dish was a disappointment--the meat was tough, the beans undercooked. And steak frites was an ordinary steak and fries, and the fries could have been crisper.

As in France, Pescadou serves a nightly prix-fixe menu--appetizer, main dish and dessert--and it's a steal at $13.75.

The dessert selection, by the way, is limited but competent. Invariably there's a fine chocolate mousse (which sells out almost every night) or a homey tarte, typically a layer of berries or rhubarb on a buttery crust smeared with vanilla-scented custard. There's also a good creme brulee with a crackling sugar crust and, occasionally, a platter of imported cheeses.

Pescadou is totalement Francais, in other words. Better brush up on "The Marseillaise" before you make that reservation, mon ami.

Pescadou Bistro is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.50 to $6.75. Entrees are $10.50 to $14.50. Desserts are $3.50.

BE THERE

Pescadou Bistro, 3325 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach. (949) 675-6990. 5-11 p.m. nightly. All major cards.

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