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Balboa's Cozy basilic Goes Light on Its Feats


Basilic is an intimate Balboa Island restaurant--so intimate they don't even capitalize its name--which would probably win a loyal following based solely on its atmosphere.

You enter through a weathered Dutch door into a tiny sanctuary softly lighted by candles and petite bronze hanging lamps. Completely enclosed in light-colored woods, the dining room is rimmed by tapestry-upholstered banquettes and fronted by a leaded-glass window. Eight tables, cloaked in thick, snowy linens, are the extent of the seating capacity, so reservations are usually necessary.

All in all, basilic has the cozy feel of an Alpine chalet. The ambience is further enhanced by the service, which bears the suggestion of Old World formality without the stiffness. The lone maitre d'/waiter, clad in tuxedo pants and shirt, genially patrols the floor with champagne bottle in hand, and anyone proffering champagne is--by my lights, anyway--genial.

A lot of Swiss cuisine (of which there's hardly any around the area) tilts toward the German side of the family, then splits the difference between French and Italian. Here the emphasis is on the French, with Italian and German accents. For the most part, chef-owner Bernard Althaus maintains a light touch, cleaving to tradition and keeping the flavors simple and uncluttered.

The hors d'oeuvres set the tone. I'm thinking of the "Traditional Swiss Raclette." Althaus lets well-enough alone: A perfect square of melted cheese from the Canton du Valais clings to a clean plate garnished with a few fingerling potatoes and baby carrots for dabbing. The cheese has a subtle, smoky taste, and the potatoes and vegetables are blanched to an al dente texture.

I've also had a similarly unadorned plate of Swiss cured meats, a basic assemblage of bundnerfleisch, prosciutto and saucisson sec, all of fine quality. My favorite starter, though, was the marinated raw Atlantic salmon. It was tossed in a tangy fennel vinaigrette and served on a bed of baby greens with sour cream. I also liked the garlic shrimp risotto. Its tomato sauce carried a nice note of fresh basil, the herb from which the restaurant takes its name.

If there's a difference between Swiss onion soup and its French cousin, I can't detect it. Basilic's version is a good one, anyway. The beef stock is mild, and its topping of bread and melted cheese isn't excessive.

Similarly, the salads are models of restrained elegance, especially the frisee with blue goat cheese, which comes tossed in a sweetish walnut vinaigrette that works nicely with the bitter note of the frisee and the sharpness of the cheese. The warm duck foie gras salad with apples and sherry vinaigrette is fine as a salad, though it probably won't be anybody's peak foie gras experience.

When it comes time for the entrees, basilic particularly excels with meat. For my money, the centerpiece would be the rack of lamb. Four tender, succulent chops crusted with grainy mustard and rosemary come arranged vertically around a mound of mashed potatoes. They are about as good as lamb gets.

But I have to say I was rather disappointed with the coq au vin. The chunks of chicken were overdone and overwhelmed by the rather tarry (and tart) reduction of red Burgundy. I preferred the veal tenderloin sauteed Zurich style, tender slices of veal in a strong mushroom and brandy sauce sharply spiked with oregano. It's a hearty dish, and though the sauce is assertive, it hits the brakes well before it runs over the meat.

Another notable dish was a special the same night I had the veal. It was a seared filet mignon slathered with blue cheese and then given another quick turn under the broiler.

The seafood dishes hold their own. The saffron seafood stew is, to say the least, intense, and your enjoyment of it will depend largely on how you feel about saffron. The medley of seafood--whitefish, shrimp and scallops--floats in a pungent, full-bodied broth, but to my taste the heavy dose of saffron blotted out most other impressions. The seafood pasta, by contrast, suffered from blandness; for some reason its tomato basil sauce, similar to the one that galvanized the shrimp risotto, refused to dance with the seafood and the pasta. On top of that, it was slightly oversalted.

For dessert, there's a fine creme brulee and a selection of sorbets your taste buds will try to persuade you were made fresh on the premises, even though they weren't.

Basilic is moderately expensive. Appetizers run $6.50 to $8.50, salads $5.50 to $14 and entrees $16.50 to $24.50.

Basilic, 217 Marine Ave., Balboa Island. (949) 673-0570. Open 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

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