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Pinot Branches Out to Orange County

November 22, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Orange County could just as well be the wilds of Borneo for all the attention L.A.'s top restaurateurs have given it--until now. Joachim Splichal, who owns Patina and five other restaurants in the Los Angeles area, has duly noted that Orange County has to eat, too. And why not at one of his places?

Pinot Provence in Costa Mesa is the sixth in a series of casual French-California restaurants that began in 1992 with Pinot Bistro in Studio City and include Cafe Pinot in downtown L.A., Pinot Hollywood, the Pinot Restaurant and Martini Bar in Pasadena and Pinot Blanc in Napa Valley. The bistro-style format, complete with plats du jour and usually a lighter spa menu, is similar at all the Pinots, but each has its own quirky identity.

Pinot Provence's is, not surprisingly, Provence: the place, the lifestyle, the books (Peter Mayles' bestsellers have gone a long way toward turning Provence into the Tuscany of France). And, of course, the vibrant cuisine of southern France as reinterpreted for Southern California.

In creating this elegant stage-set of a Provenal chateau, Splichal and his wife and partner, Christine, have done OC proud. He and designer Cheryl Brantner did some serious antique hunting in France, hauling back what looks like the contents of a small Provenal village--weathered doors, heavy wood beams, graceful armoires, farm tables with a patina of age, a massive fireplace and enough limestone blocks to frame a doorway.

Up front are two terrace rooms suitable for either aperitifs or dining. A lovely antique garden statue points the way to a small inviting bar lit by table lamps made of vintage silver coffeepots with fabric shades in Provenal stripes and checks. Heavy old chandeliers strung from the high ceiling, extravagant bouquets of flowers and side chairs covered in French provincial prints warm up the main dining room. Banquettes are striped in yellow and white and strewn with so many plump cushions, there's hardly room to squeeze in. Waiters, however, quickly offer to take away the excess pillows. (Or, for that matter, find a place for your shopping bags. The restaurant is just across from South Coast Plaza and already a magnet for the lunch-and-shop crowd.)

Splichal knows his audience, so the menu offers a "taste" of Provence in a handful of appetizers and main courses, along with "not so Provenal" options, too. His chef is one of Orange County's talents, French-born Florent Marneau. He was chef de cuisine at Aubergine in Newport Beach, but you'd never know it from eating his food at Pinot Provence. His cooking here reflects the Pinot formula, albeit with more grace and style than some of the other Splichal restaurants.

While perusing the menu, order some of the flavored olives. I'm fond of the light green picholines steeped in lemon oil and lemon zest and perfumed with a little fresh lavender, and the tiny purple-black Nicoises flavored with coriander, anchovy and garlic.

You could also start with oysters. Instead of an exhaustive list, the menu offers just the two or three varieties that are best at the moment. Forget the vinegar and shallots that accompany them. All these beauties need is a drop of lemon--or nothing at all.

Splichal's signature salad of crunchy ivory endive, leggy watercress and crumbled Roquefort with candied pecans is always good, too. And I love the brandade fritters, golden puffs of deep-fried salt cod and potatoes. Braised artichoke ragout in a broth laced with peppercorns, olives, tomatoes and lots of herbs (sometimes too many) is also hard to resist. And foie gras fans should enjoy the seared duck liver set on a slice of grilled pear and a raft of warm brioche that's soaked up all the juices.

Goat cheese and thyme gnocchi is another tempting--and light--dish, strewn with Englishpeas, pea sprouts and flavorful tomatoes. Melon "tartar," a diced melon molded into a cylinder wrapped with Bayonne ham, with splashes of Port reduction playing against fresh grilled fig and the mint in the melon, is a witty idea that works just as well in the mouth as it does on the plate. Less successful are the insipid tomato tart, a monotonous onion soup with Parmesan shavings and a tart of seared scallops crowned with fried leeks.

Main courses are more chancy. Of course, the rotisserie chicken, redolent of lemon and herbs and served with terrific pommes frites, is everything a bistro dish should be: simple and delicious. Risotto with shellfish, made with a potent seafood stock, is better than most. But it's a bit heavy-handed for my palate.

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