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Duck Heads Classy Menu

Picayo, Keeping a Low Profile in Laguna Beach, Has a 'New French' Flair; Seafood's Strong, Too

November 02, 2000|TOM VASICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Per capita, Laguna Beach has more quality restaurants than any other Orange County city. So when my foodie friends there say Picayo is Laguna's best restaurant, I pay attention.

Chances are, you've driven by Picayo dozens of times without noticing it. It's inconspicuously located in a quiet stretch of Coast Highway in residential north Laguna, next to a real estate office.

This obscure location might be a problem for many restaurants, but not for Picayo. The term "boutique restaurant" seems to have been invented for this place--it's a small, charming bungalow seating 25 with a small menu that highlights the talent and whims of its chef. And given Laguna's profusion of foodies, Picayo doesn't suffer for customers.

Picayo's chef is French-born Laurent Brazier, whose father, Maurice, is himself a revered chef in France; he's been named a chevalier du merit national, recognizing lifelong dedication to the art of French cooking. While Maurice Brazier defines old-school French, Laurent cooks what he calls "new French," meaning traditional French recipes with Mediterranean touches such as Spanish and Moroccan.

The Spanish influence is felt throughout this restaurant. The paintings feature Spanish landscapes and architecture, and the music consists of various adaptations of flamenco, giving Picayo a festive atmosphere. The restaurant's name refers to a Spanish mountain range.

Because this is a boutique restaurant, the menu changes often, and Brazier has been known to make special orders to cater to his guests' whims. But it's clear that Brazier likes duck. Each meal starts with a tasty little pre-appetizer of smoked pepper duck, a small, chewy slice with a deep, rich peppery flavor. The fresh bread selection includes a delicious dark olive rosemary bread and an onion rosemary bread.

During my recent visits to Picayo, the menu featured six appetizers and six entrees. Among the appetizers, the soup and salad choices were fairly familiar: a rich, creamy lobster bisque perked up with orange zest and a mixed green salad with asparagus and smoked salmon.

The remaining starters demonstrated Brazier's creative flair. Seared peppered ahi tuna is served on an interesting combination of caramelized apples, sweet onions and curry dressing. Sure, it sounds odd, but somehow it works.

The same holds for the pastry "purse" filled with shrimp, artichoke heart and mushroom and topped with tarragon sauce. The key here is the light tarragon sauce, which could easily have been heavier and covered the flavors of the shrimp and artichoke.

And continuing in the duck theme, there's a warm confit of duck with braised turnips and a port demiglace.

Then there's one of my favorite dishes in any Orange County restaurant: sauteed foie gras on a bed of spinach with a sherry vinegar sauce. The rich, earthy flavor of the liver is tempered by the slight sweetness of the spinach, and the touch of vinegar brings it all into perspective. The restaurant suggests a glass of sweet Sauvignon Blanc with this dish, much as a rich Sauternes may accompany foie gras in France.

Like the appetizers, the entrees showcase Brazier's creativity. And, yes, there's more duck. This time, it's a sauteed breast of Muscovy duck, thinly sliced and covered with a green peppercorn sauce. It's one of the most successful green peppercorn sauces I've had.

The char-grilled lamb chops are notable for the potato and green-pea puree dotting the center of the dish. It's an interesting green paste, though I found it wholly unsuitable for the lamb chops (which come medium, rather than medium-rare, as Americans have become used to having them) and the saffron-lamb sauce covering them. Of all the dishes I've tried at Picayo, this one comes the closest to misfiring.

This couldn't be said about Brazier's seafood dishes. Like every other serious restaurant in Orange County, Picayo serves Chilean sea bass. However, Brazier chooses to saute it--at most places it's grilled--and set it on a bed of finely chopped eggplant surrounded by a snappy black olive vinaigrette. This isn't your ordinary Chilean sea bass, and much the better for it.

The halibut, topped with a pistachio crust, also is interesting. The crust, combined with the flavor of the mushroom duxelles on which the fish rests, makes for an interesting effect; it's rounded out by a Merlot demiglace. Somewhere in this gustatory onslaught is the halibut, a bit overwhelmed by more aggressive ingredients.

Possibly the finest seafood dish is the napoleon of scallops, prawns and salmon with braised leek, a thin potato cake called a galette and a black truffle sauce. This dish best exemplifies Brazier's approach; the individual flavors are bold and dynamic without drowning out each other.

Dessert is a must at Picayo. There's a good cheese sampler plate and a supremely velvety creme bru^lee, but the chocolate lover in me would be remiss if I didn't mention the flourless chocolate cake. It doesn't look like a cake at all, but it's one of the most devilishly chocolaty concoctions you will ever try.

Picayo is a reasonably expensive restaurant, with starters ranging from $6 to $14.50 and entrees from $19.50 to $25. The small wine list features a strong selection of California boutique wines (any surprise there?) and a few solid French choices. Most of these wine selections range from $40 to $60 a bottle.

BE THERE

Picayo, 1155 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (949) 497-5051. Tuesday-Friday, 6-10 p.m.; 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. seatings Saturday.

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