When it comes to authentic French fare, Orange County hasa modest selection of laudable cafés and bistros. But until recently, if you had a hankering for a genuine, laid-back brasserie—a large, bustling scene with a huge menu of casual classics served all day—you were out of luck. No wonder Francophiles swooned mid-2008 at the predicted arrival of David Myers’ Comme Ça—a repeat of West Hollywood’s white-hot restaurant with a red-hot chef.
Comme Ça is more than a year late now, with no opening in sight, leaving room for Pascal Olhats to swoop in and save the day with his lively brasserie. The restaurant handily reclaims Fashion Island’s former French 75 location, another casualty of Culinary Adventures’ ongoing reorganization. What results is a refreshed operation that feels more focused and, dare I say, more French.
The rambling room was conceived in 2005 as the sexy Café Rouge, by concept maven David Wilhelm, and as such oozes with Gallic design touches that feel appropriate now that the conversion to Brasserie Pascal is complete. The vintage octagonal floor tiles, the art deco light sconces, the mirror-linedbar, and waiters in long black aprons “speak” French much the same way crisp white linens and hefty knives say steakhouse.
Apart from some minor structural changes that open up the setting, Olhats wisely saves his biggest changes for the menu. Gone are the inconsistent, cliché dishes that never quite won over fans of savvy French cuisine. Now the menu is sweeping and informal, covering that grand range typical of a brasserie—from oysters to onglets, soups to soufflés, crepes to croques, steak frites to steak tartare. The menu is packed with all the classics and then some, most served all day.
Tradition demands French onion soup be commendable. So I launch my first lunch with soupe à l’oignon, thinking if the kitchen fails here, going forward will be rough. I was a fool to worry. The steaming crock bubbles over with pale Gruyère, browned in spots. One dip of the spoon releases dark amber broth, aromatic with white wine and caramelized onions. A thick slice of properly dried bread hides within to soak up the soup without disintegrating. The dish is wholly satisfying and far better than one night’s watercress soup, a thin potage promoted as vegetarian and dairy-free. Just a bit of butter or cream would add the resonance and body this soup needs. Yet again, I’m reminded why I could never be a vegan.
The sad green soup is quickly forgotten once the fragrant pot of steamed mussels arrives. Tiny but sweet, the tender orange gems are an appetizing sight, their blue-black shells awash in a balanced blend of butter, herbs, and sauvignon blanc. The white wine broth is one of four variations; next time I’ll try the saffron and chorizo version for $1.50 more. Shellfish options are many, both hot and cold, from chilled bulots (sea snails) with aioli, to oysters baked with spinach and Champagne cream—a lineup rarely seen around here. Of course there’s a grand assortment of iced oysters, shrimp, crab legs, bulots, and poached salmon with rich rémoulade. It’s an impressive spread for group sharing; a more modest version is an affordable splurge for two.
Steak tartare justifies its $21 price. The large portion of hand-chopped filet mignon demands sharing, and a theatrical tableside preparation that allows diners to weigh in on each seasoning (onions, capers, parsley, mustard, Tabasco, cracked pepper, and more) as the server mixes the dish. Though I realize many eschew the traditional raw egg ingredient, it adds a lot of flavor and texture and I wish it were at least offered. It’s also odd that salt is not on our cheerful waitress’s well-stocked prep tray, but we simply add it to taste from the shaker on the table.
True-blue French dishes are reliably delicious here, exhibiting a faithfulness hard to find outside a Gallic kitchen. Quiche Lorraine smacks of fresh eggs, cheese, morsels of savory ham—supported by a crisp butter crust. Spinach crepes may sound like ho-hum comfort food, but here they’re expertly rendered—nicely boosted by nutmeg and buerre blanc sauce and wrapped in a hot-off-the-iron crepe as fine as you’ll eat at a Paris creperie. Coq au vin, a daily special, is a quintessential rendition—dark-meat chicken, pearl onions, and chunky bacon braised to a mahogany hue in a liquid of red wine and herbs. Buttered egg noodles scattered with parsley are the time-honored complement, and these tender-but-toothy ribbons reveal why. If you’re an egg aficionado, don’t miss the Salade Frisée Lyonnaise tossed at the table. It’s a deceptively simple mix of curly greens, poached egg, and warm bacon lardons—indulgent, but we get to call it salad.
For brawnier entrées, look to the steaks and home-style plats du jour: boeuf bourguignone, veal blanquette, or ragout d’agneau (lamb with vegetables). Onglet aux échalotes is a flatiron cut, extremely flavorful (order it medium-rare) and jazzed up with sizzled shallots, haricots verts, and respectable fries. For an additional $7 each, the côte de bœuf is a sensible extravagance for two that embellishes a marbled rib-eye with glorious béarnaise and truffle sauces. Cast all cholesterol counts to the wind with the sautéed duck foie gras, skillfully prepped, cooked, and flattered by sweet, reduced-grape flavors in a Muscat sauce.
For dessert, head straight to the chocolate soufflé. Not too sweet and not too dry, it comes with a petite pitcher of warm Guittard chocolate sauce and pot of heavy whipped cream. The wait staff often doesn’t ask, so you’ll have to remember to order this treat ahead because it requires at least 25 minutes in the oven.
I wish the wine list were bigger, broader, and more familiar to the mostly young staff. By-the-glass choices are too few, so it’s no wonder the bar cranks out oceans of Champagne cocktails, especially during happy hour. That’s when those flutes of bubbly (and well drinks) are only $5—a steal for uptown Fashion Island. Appetizer deals also pack in the happy hour set, and a slew of $10, $15, and $20 special menus draws a steady crowd of older couples and younger shoppers as stores close and the night rolls on. I find the abundance of flexible small, special menus almost exhausting to navigate, but the staff is mostly gracious and patient with questions—perhaps because they hear them constantly?
Orange County has long needed a legitimate, spirited brasserie with satisfying French fare that’s ably cooked and fairly priced. It’s almost poignant that Olhats—the chef who introduced the county to modern French cuisine decades ago—should be the new flag bearer for old-school French dining today.
Vive la France, indeed.
Quiche Lorraine, onion soup, frisée salad, mussels, steak tartare, flatiron steak, chocolate soufflé.
Can vary, but usually capable though not slick.
Famished shoppers, happy hour bargain hunters, mature couples, date-nighters.
Near the bar for privacy, banquettes in the room’s center for people-watching.
An uninspiring wine list makes the $15 corkage inviting.
327 Newport Center Drive
Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi
Published February 2010