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A Taste for Romance

Brea's La Vie en Rose ranks high in cuisine, quality and 'kissability.'

March 23, 2000|TOM VASICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Among the many honors received by La Vie en Rose over the years, one tells you all you need to know: It's included in a 1994 book on the best places in Orange County to kiss. In a county with plenty of stunning ocean vistas, it shows how romantic this Brea restaurant is: so much so that people would want to share a kiss in front of strangers eating dinner.

Designed to look like a French country inn, La Vie en Rose, named after a famous Edith Piaf song, is certainly charming. A stone fireplace greets you in the lobby with flickering flames that warm away the evening chill. The understated dining rooms feature cozy tapestry-covered booths for two. Classical music plays softly in the background. It seems that every couple in the North County has come here for one special occasion or another.

What makes the place so romantic is the sensual elegance of fine French dining. In the casually hip world of trendy dining that dominates Orange County, the stylish formality of a French restaurant may seem an anachronism, but it's the same timeless French emphasis on service, food and relaxing environs that make La Vie en Rose an enduringly popular locale for celebrating important moments of your life.

Such a luxurious experience has its price--an evening for two here easily tops $100--but, then, the best things in life that aren't free don't come cheap.

La Vie en Rose takes what you might call a pan-regional approach to what it calls country French dining. Some of the heartier dishes come from Normandy in the north; many of the fowl and seafood choices are native to Provence and Gascony, from where La Vie owner Louis Laulhere hails.

Although the menu offers a nice balance among surf, turf and fowl, the seafood selections stand out, with wonderful appetizer and entree choices. The most popular appetizer is lobster ravioli in a Maine lobster cream sauce. This one's perfect for lobster lovers; the ravioli are stuffed with the meaty shellfish, and the cream sauce could easily pass for a bisque.

The menu does list an unbelievably rich and full-flavored lobster bisque, served beneath a fleuron of puff pastry. Other seafood appetizers worth investigating include tender mussels steamed in cider and smoked salmon with asparagus in a puff pastry. There's also a salmon tartare, accompanied by a funky cucumber-lime relish.

The seafood entree I most recommend is saumon poche a l'oseille, a poached slab of salmon served in a very light sorrel beurre blanc sauce. The fish is iridescent pink and so tender it's almost spongy. Eating salmon this way reminds you how much of its flavor is lost when it's grilled, and the subtle assistance of the creamy sauce only accents the fine flavor.

Another noteworthy seafood entree: tender scallops--cloaked by a lime beurre blanc--which offer the added flavor of rosemary. Along with the grilled mahi mahi, baked halibut and sauteed shrimp in lobster sauce that are listed on the regular menu, the daily specials add more inventive seafood choices to the mix. At one meal, I tried the light, flaky North Atlantic whitefish called hake, which was served with a distinctive topping of ground pecans and herbs. The flavor combination worked perfectly.

If you don't feel much like a seafarer, the terra firma menu choices won't disappoint either. I loved the thick, chewy pistachio-accented country-style pa^te that came in hearty slices. And the rack of lamb is among the best I've eaten in a long time. Although I felt cheated by a smallish portion of five chops, the high-quality cuts of tender lamb carried no gamy flavor and were enhanced by a slightly salty Madeira-thyme jus.

There's an extensive selection of wines to accompany these meals, featuring a balance of American and French selections. There are many good choices in the mid-price range. My table thoroughly enjoyed a fine French Chardonnay, the 1996 Meursault ($50) from the small producer Pierre Bouzereau-Emonine.

La Vie's wine stewards willingly offer advice and in some cases even provide taste samples to help you with your choice. Red wines are automatically decanted into carafes.

La Vie's desserts are a must. You can't go wrong with the fluffy chocolate bomb that is the souffle (augmented with a devilishly thick dark chocolate sauce), but choosing that denies you the charms of the deadly dessert tray. Cheesecake lovers will delight in the New York-style (which for some reason is sans crust), although I love the selection of tarts.

After finishing dessert and lounging over full-bodied cups of coffee during one recent evening, my guests and I noticed that three hours had passed. It hadn't seemed that long at all. La Vie en Rose gave us a perfectly orchestrated, professional restaurant experience, proving once again that there remains a great difference between eating out and dining well. It almost made me want to kiss someone.

Dinner appetizers run $7.75 to $39.50 (caviar). Dinner entrees: $19.75 to $31. The prix-fixe "Menu Gastronomique" is $38.50.

A Creole/Cajun Celebration, which features a prix-fixe menu with choices including crawfish etouffee, chicken and andouille gumbo and beef rib and crawfish jambalaya, runs through this Saturday. It's $39.50 and includes live entertainment Friday and Saturday nights.

BE THERE

La Vie en Rose, 240 S. State College Blvd., Brea. (714) 529-8333. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, Dinner 5:30-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

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