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A bistro by the bay

September 04, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

It was hard to picture: a purported ocean view from a restaurant on the far side of PCH. But there it was: over a wall and just beyond the parking lot, the blue Pacific. Though the long bar and the tables lined up in the window look cozy, the best tables at Mirabeau, a French bistro in Monarch Bay, are the ones on the outdoor patio. The air smells of the sea, and on colder nights, they might light a fire in the outdoor fireplace. If not, the heat lamps take the chill off.

On paper, this restaurant just south of Laguna Beach sounded promising. It's owned by a pair of chefs with interesting credentials. David Pratt was executive sous chef at Picasso in Las Vegas, and he cooked at Masa's in San Francisco. Katie Averill was pastry chef at Bix and head baker at Rose Pistola, both in San Francisco. The two met when they helped open Todd English's Olives in Washington.

I immediately liked the look of the bistro menu with its steak frites and plats du jour: Thursday's blanquette de veau or Sunday's chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. Wines come in carafes or bottles.

Quelle chance, I thought, to find something like this at the beach.

The first bite is always important, and Mirabeau comes through with flying colors.

The waiter presents the table with a warm baguette slipped into a bag, good butter, and two little crocks.

The first is a delicious puree of chickpeas heady with garlic; the other is a pot of rillettes, a homemade confit of duck and pork, to spread on the bread. All the signs indicate we're in good hands.

Salt cod beignets, golf-ball-sized morsels of deep-fried salt cod, are unusual and tasty, but setting them on top of the fries may not have been such a good idea: The frites have gone limp.

Mussels steamed in white wine with lemon and parsley come in a handsome cast iron pot but, unfortunately, don't taste fresh enough. A frisee salad has a bit too much going on. Something -- Roquefort, pear, bacon or poached egg -- has to go. Tomato tart made with Chino Farms tomatoes and caramelized onions lays it on with both pesto and oil-cured olives, but it works.

Most of the main courses are under $20, which is a good thing.

The classic bistro cut, onglet, or hanger steak, isn't nearly as flavorful as the ones I've had elsewhere. And while I loved the idea of Moroccan lamb osso buco served with spiced couscous with merguez (a spicy Moroccan sausage) and white grapes, the dish wasn't as exciting as the description.

It seems odd to be serving cassoulet in the middle of summer, but they do. It's closer to the traditional ideal than many of the more assembled cassoulets I've had in L.A., but still, the flavors of the duck and sausage haven't melded into the beans.

In classic bistro fashion, Mirabeau offers a plat du jour. This night it's coq au vin. The sauce is very dark, which means it's been made with a lot of red wine, but so reduced that it's more a glaze than a sauce, and its flavor hasn't sunk deep into the chicken.

Though Mirabeau is nearly 9 months old, it feels as if the kitchen hasn't quite worked out all the kinks. It could be I hit it on an off night, but I would have expected more from a pair of such qualified chefs.

Still, the ocean air, the friendly service, and that wonderful bread and rillettes are enough to make me want to come back sometime and give Mirabeau another chance.

*

Mirabeau

Where: 17 Monarch Bay Plaza, Monarch Beach

When: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner, 5:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday; brunch, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday; Closed Monday. Wine and beer. Lot parking.

Cost: Dinner appetizers, $7.50 to $20; main dishes, $16.50 to $25.50; desserts, $7 to $9.50

Info: (949) 234-1679; www.mirabeaubistro.com

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