It’s been a long time since a folksy, value-priced French bistro opened in these parts. And though it was sad to bid au revoir to Cafe Francais, Le Biarritz, and LaFayette, the April birth of west Anaheim’s Bistro Bleu is a blessing for Francophiles who yearn for another addition to a lean family of options. Chef-owner David Kesler is the hero in this story.
In a shopping center with a ragged bodega and no-frills Zumba studio in an unglamorous part of town, he and wife Pamela saw blue skies in the weary ruins of a defunct pizza joint. Kesler, a veteran of Pascal, Aubergine (both now closed), and The Cellar, knows his French fare. The menu reads like a PBS season of vintage Julia Child: coq au vin, escargot, lobster bisque, duck liver terrine, steak au poivre, and chocolate souffle. While his indie peers are chopping kale, spooning sambal, and butchering pigs, Kesler works the traditional bistro dishes with faithful glee.
Starters include Kir Royale and parfait de foie de volailles (duck liver pate), a fitting duo for embracing the bistro’s je ne sais quoi. Dainty pickled onions and cornichons garnish the chestnut-brown slab of satiny spread that tastes of liver made elegant with mushrooms, butter, and a kiss of cognac. Smeared on toast ovals and nibbled in concert with creme de cassis-dosed bubbly, it’s an opener that takes you far from Anaheim. Snails in most local places typically are drowning in pools of butter, garlic, and parsley. Not here. The tender gastropods come a la Provençal, soaking in a bath of tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic, white wine, and a touch of creme fraiche. The zesty melange is a wee salty, but I gladly polish off the entire crock, soaking up the last juices with bread.
La bisque de homard is a buttery, opulent lobster bisque laced with cream, brandy, and the telltale depth of long-simmered shells. Gratinée à l’oignon is predictable, in a good way. Full-flavored and loaded with ribbons of soft onion, the hot broth arrives with a bobbing island of bread and thick, melted Gruyere. Both soups are so enjoyable, it’s easy to bypass the salads, though l’épinard—warm spinach tossed in bacon vinaigrette—satisfies with all the classic elements, down to its scattering of mushrooms, red onion, and chopped hard-boiled egg.
Midday winners served only at lunchtime include a righteous croque madame, France’s iconic hot ham-and-cheese sandwich baked with sourdough, smooth bechamel sauce, and crowned with a golden fried egg. Chewy and gooey and oh so yummy, this knife-and-fork sandwich can disarm the most prudent dieter. Crepe du pecheur is another bechamel wonder: mixed fresh seafood and cheese filling an herby crepe, oven-bubbled beneath a light cloak of sauce. A trio of prix fixe menus—each with three courses—runs $16 to $20, all killer deals.
The dinner menu rolls out sweet prices as well. Granted, the kitchen isn’t packing top-tier ingredients, but as in France, this humble bistro makes the most of modest goods.
The happy results include le carré d’agneau: juicy roasted New Zealand lamb chops, pungent with fresh rosemary and sauced with red wine reduction, served over potato puree. Hanger steak, the go-to budget cut, appears here as steak frites alongside crispy fries that are brawnier in size and heft than their matchstick cousins. Coq au vin does the French classic proud. It’s a small thrill to see a plump leg and meaty thigh—no breast belongs in this classic—mahogany brown from gentle braising in red wine, with bacon, carrots, mushrooms, and pearl onions. Buttered pasta, in this case linguine, completes the sublime peasant dish.
Aside from shellfish, seafood typically is a daily special. One night it’s Pacific swordfish, a lot of it, smothered in a fine shitake and oyster mushroom sauce that doesn’t stint on cream. Twice-baked potato is the rib-sticking side.
Don’t skip dessert. The Belgian chocolate souffle is wonderful and sure to make you a better person and the world a better place. It’s finished tableside with a dose of chocolate syrup and a cloud of whipped cream studded with chocolate bits. For the poor souls who cannot abide another souffle, there’s a textbook creme brulee. No flavor infusions of green tea or mocha, just a judicious measure of vanilla to set off the silken custard under its torched sugar lid.
Tidy and unfussy, the 60-seat space has only simple tables and chairs. Canning jars hold the table’s silverware, and the napkins are paper. But French blue walls, vintage photos under the glass tabletops, and the hand-painted foyer mural of Paris add a fair share of charm.
Service is welcoming and earnest, if a bit green at times. Patrons are as disparate as the neighborhood, but there are more each time I visit. The gleaming new Range Rover looks comically out of place in the parking lot, but it’s clear the driver is here for the dining. I see this as a harbinger of hope.
Bistro Bleu proves that a newcomer doesn’t have to be innovative or wildly daring to be special. Cooking French food from the heart in a humble venue is hardly groundbreaking, but it’s happening here and now, and it feels oddly fresh and new.
Coq au vin (wine-braised chicken), escargots, lobster bisque, onion soup, duck liver terrine, Pacific swordfish in mushroom sauce, croque madame, mixed seafood crepe, chocolate souffle.
Lunch, $5 to $20; dinner, $6 to $24; Sunday brunch, $5 to $11.75.
Before year’s end, Kesler hopes to add tableside classics such as Dover sole and chateaubriand.
918 S. Magnolia Ave. Anaheim, 714-826-3590 bistrobleudining.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue.