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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
| SETTINGS: Stops on a Tasting Tour of Orange County

A Slight Detour

Before taking off for the lands of the chiles and buffets, some French food sounds good.

The Pleasant Peasant, 4251 Martingale Way, Newport Beach. (949) 955-2755.

September 08, 2000|DAVID LANSING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I have done a foolish thing. I have agreed to write a book called, broadly enough, "The American Desert." In order to do this, I need to actually go to the desert. So I get in my car every few weeks and drive thousands of miles to witness such oddities as an opera in Death Valley and the night blooming of certain rare cactuses near Tucson.

Tomorrow I'm driving to Las Cruces, N.M., which my editor--who is Italian--confesses is a bit of a hell hole, to whoop it up with the locals at a chile festival.

I call my editor in New York. "Fabrizio," I whine, "I can't believe you're making me do this."

"It will be fun," he lies. "There is a little parade on Saturday. They dress the babies up as habaneros and pull them in wagons down the street. Very colorful. You will love it."

My photographer, Catherine, who is from San Francisco, is already there. She called me this afternoon and left a message on my machine. "I'm bored out of my mind. I have to get out of here. I'm going to spend tomorrow getting lost in the dunes of White Sands. I might not come back."

I call her and tell her I'm not coming. "Yes, you are," she says emphatically. "Get in your car and drive. I'm expecting you here in time for the chile parade."

All right, fine, I tell her. But before I drive across the Colorado Desert to write about children dressed up as chiles, I'm going to a real restaurant. "I'm going to be like a camel," I say. "I'm going to gorge so I don't have to eat again for three days."

"Fine," Catherine says. "Stuff yourself with truffles. Then get your butt to Las Cruces."

As it turns out, Karen, my neighbor, is also about to embark on a voyage to a strange land. She is heading for Missouri, where, she tells me, her relatives have already made a reservation for the entire family to go to KFC. "They're not like the ones here," she says. "In Hannibal, the Colonel's restaurant has a buffet. Actually, I think all the restaurants in Hannibal have buffets."

According to Karen, buffets are to Missouri what coffeehouses are to Seattle. There's one on every corner. Listen, I tell her, you're going to be eating unidentifiable breaded things covered in brown gravy for the next few days and I'm going someplace where the most popular restaurant in town is called B&E Burritos. Let's have one last real meal.

Karen picks the restaurant. She chooses a French place she's heard about but never visited, but when she calls to make a reservation, she gets a recording saying they are closed for the month. "What do they think this is, Paris?" she says.

Her second choice is the Pleasant Peasant, a restaurant hidden in one of the business parks around John Wayne Airport. I haven't been there for years. What I mainly remember about it is that it's impossible to find, and sure enough, I drive around in circles a couple of times before spotting it. "And you're driving to New Mexico tomorrow?" Karen says. "Good luck."

Karen has done her homework on the place. "That's Lisa," she whispers as a pretty woman grabs a couple of menus.

"Who's Lisa?"

"She and her husband own the place."

"But how do you know it's her?"

Karen shrugs. "She looks French."

As we follow Lisa through the dining room, which looks as if Martha Stewart had been here first to do a rustic farmhouse make-over on the place, Karen eyes the plates of the other diners. "Those sand dabs look good," she says, raising an eyebrow and nudging me with her elbow.

"No sand dabs in Hannibal," I whisper.

"Or Las Cruces," she says.

Our waitress comes by and tells us the soup of the day is a creamless cream of vegetable soup. "How do you make a creamless cream of vegetable soup?" I ask her.

"Oh, that's Laurent's specialty," she says somewhat enigmatically.

After the waitress leaves, Karen tells me Laurent Ferre is the chef and Lisa's husband. "He cooked with Alain Chapel in Lyon," she says, and then, as if to prove her point, stabs her finger at one of the entree items--lamb shank Alain Chapel. "The lamb is great," she says.

"Have you had it?"

"No."

"Then how do you know?"

She gives me the shrug again, ignoring me.

Karen decides to try the creamless cream soup. I order the gazpacho. "So what, exactly, are you going to do in Hannibal?" I ask her.

Karen pauses. Looks up as if she'd written the answer on the wall behind me earlier in the day. "Oh, there's lots to do there," she says.

"Like what?"

"Well," she says uncertainly, "there's all that Mark Twain stuff." She takes a bite of soup. "And the buffets." Then she asks me what, exactly, I'm going to do in New Mexico.

"There's the Miss Chile contest," I tell her.

"That'll be fun," she says sarcastically.

"And then the rest of the time, from what I understand, people walk around watching the farmers roasting their chiles in these big giant metal baskets over propane burners."

"Great!" she says.

"And they sell fresh chiles in 40-pound burlap bags."

"Oh, get me two!" she exclaims and then, after taking a sip of wine, says, "No, three!"

My sand dabs come. They are heaped one atop the other and taste smooth and lemony. Karen's lamb is fork-tender and way too much for her. Neither of us can finish the generous portions.

"Would you like to take that with you?" Lisa asks us. Karen and I look at each other. What would be the point in taking lamb shank to Missouri or sand dabs to New Mexico?

"Sure," we both say.

In the morning, before leaving on my road trip, I pack a cooler full of bottled water, yogurt, apples and two nectarines. Oh, and the sand dabs. I wonder, as I head out to the desert, if Karen ate the lamb shanks on the plane. Or saved them for Hannibal.

Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

David Lansing's column is published on Fridays in Orange County Calendar. His e-mail address is occalendar@latimes.com.

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