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| SETTINGS: Stops on a Tasting Tour of Orange County

Surf and Sustenance

French bistro in Newport has great food and a lot of memories.

Fourchette, 103 Palm St., Newport Beach. (949) 673-3263.


Last winter, I lived alone in a house on Balboa Peninsula. The house is owned by Eleanor and Millard "Mac" McLain. I went to college with their son, Hardy, many years ago. Over the years, we've stayed in touch, so when it became necessary for me to take a "writing sabbatical," as I called it, I contacted him and asked if I might use his parents' beach house.

Eleanor and Mac live in San Marino and don't often get to the Balboa house in the winter. It's used mainly as a gathering place for their family in the summer. Hardy, who lives in London now, comes with his young brood (for the last few years, his son, Cameron, a boisterous, athletic British lad who is smitten by sports, has been the only junior lifeguard in Newport with a stiff upper lip and an English schoolboy accent, but was prevented from finishing the program this year because he couldn't fly across the Atlantic in the middle of winter to take a swim test. Shame, really).

And McLains' daughters, Ann and Gail, also come every summer for a week or two with their children, so on any given week in July or August, you're liable to find six or eight McLains, young and old, spilling in and out of the house. The garage is piled high with 12 or 15 bikes of all sizes, plastic tubs full of salty rubber fins and snorkels, stacks of worn beach chairs and bamboo mats, and boxes of plastic pails and shovels.

Eleanor, a small woman of remarkable intellectual curiosity, supervises the kitchen, making heaping breakfast plates and lunches in shifts throughout the day, while Mac runs grandkids to surf lessons and kayak appointments or down to the beach to spear corvina or body surf. It is a house of happy pandemonium in the summer. A joyful place.

But in the winter, when I lived there, it was quiet and dark and a bit chilly. I lived in the blue room upstairs. During this self-imposed sabbatical, I lost all interest in cooking. It seemed more trouble than it was worth. Instead, if it wasn't raining or miserably cold, I'd take one of the bikes from the McLains' garage and ride from the end of the peninsula to the little commercial district around Main Street, where I would have some oatmeal and coffee at Britta's or half a rotisserie chicken at Chi-Chi's or maybe some sushi at the little cafe next to the eyewear shop with the giant pair of orange-tinted sunglasses glaring at the boarded-up Balboa Theater across the street.

And then there was Fourchette. The restaurant business can be tough on the peninsula during any time of the year, but it is particularly brutal during the winter when not only do the tourists flee but so do many of the local residents, like the McLains.

Fourchette is a French bistro. It is owned by Denis Sidhoum, a proud, savvy, Algerian-born Frenchman who has worked at some big-name restaurants such as L'Orangerie and Le Dome. He was also once Jack Nicholson's personal chef and there's a picture of Denis and Jack outside Fourchette.

But what Sidhoum always wanted to do was open up a little neighborhood bistro. Someplace unpretentious. Someplace warm and inviting where the locals could go not just on a Friday or Saturday night, but midweek when they were just too tired to cook or some evening when all you wanted was a bowl of soup and a glass of wine. In France, such places are as plentiful as McDonald's. Here, they are rare.

There were never very many people inside Fourchette, but I was always glad to see its lights burning and get a friendly wave from Denis in his chef's whites with the distinctive red and blue French stripes.

I'd almost forgotten about the place until last Saturday afternoon when, after calling several hot spots and being told they either had no reservations or they couldn't seat us until 9:30 or 10 o'clock, I called Denis and asked him if he could get us in on such short notice. "It's no problem," he said.

So, for the first time in more than nine months, our entire family went to a restaurant and dined together. It was a rare evening. We were celebrating a number of small watershed events, the most significant being my son's imminent departure for college.

It was late in the day, though not quite sunset, and the breeze blowing in off the ocean filled the small bistro, with its mustard-yellow walls and moss-green ceiling, with beach smells: briny and smoky and something sweet, like coconut oil.

It was a perfect summer night, a moment you wanted to capture and bottle up, like a firefly, because of all the inherent magic contained in being together with family on one of the last days of summer. And perhaps because of the mood we were in, everything at Fourchette seemed perfect.

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