Main Course: Populaire Modern Bistro

O.C. heavyweights shine brightly at newest South Coast Plaza spot.
The ratatouille is a bestseller and one of chef Nick Weber’s favorites. Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Many of us simply shrug when a designer boutique opens at South Coast Plaza—but the buzz is immediate whenever the center expands its dining portfolio. So far, 2022 has been a great year for star rookies, and Populaire Modern Bistro is advancing the trend.

Open in June, Populaire was a surprise arrival given its sleepy location and miraculously short gestation—a mere three months between signing the lease and completion of a dazzling makeover of the vacated Lawry’s Carvery. The 90-seat bistro is a dream collaboration between veteran chefs Nick Weber and Ross Pangilinan—longtime friends since their 2004 meeting in the kitchen of departed Pinot Provence. Fans of Pangilinan know him from Terrace by Mix Mix, his acclaimed top-floor venue in the Home Wing.

Diners check in at a reception stand that faces the gleaming, barrel-ceiling kitchen, lending a genial start to things—you can’t be ignored here. Shades of Prussian blue woodwork frame oversize floral murals and link the dining room and patio seating. The effect is elevated and lighthearted at once.

Unlike barbecue, dumplings, or tacos, the fare isn’t easily categorized, meaning ingenuity and autonomy are on the table. Is it French or Asian or American? Why yes, it is. Until you order the sublime Spanish octopus. The concise all-day menu serves as a base for apropos add-ons such as a weekly prix fixe lunch or Sunday brunch specials. Add seasonal tweaks that sweep in Mother Nature’s best work, and you have a dense but dynamic selection.

A trio of hors d’oeuvres are shareable nibbles. Escargot ebelskivers are a clever ploy to beguile the snail-fearful: four just-griddled orbs of puffy escargot batter on a puddle of buttermilk emulsion swirled with parsley. The flavors say France, but the format says fun. Impeccably fried chicken thighs get cool contrast from tangy lebneh, but the generous dollop of delicate osetra caviar, which explains the $40 price, is clobbered in this mashup. Better are the pair of crunchy duck confit spliffs—a riff on Viêt chá giò, complete with rau ram, fish sauce, and cucumber for wrapping in lettuce leaves.

Bright murals and blue walls make the space elegant and lighthearted at the same time. Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Stellar small plates include the sushi-grade fluke cured in tart lime and dressed with coconut milk, radish, and mint. Do not miss Weber’s heady ratatouille, a slow-cooked alliance of summer squashes, tomato, and aromatics spiked with bold gochujang. Topped with grated white cheddar and a runny egg yolk for stirring in, it eats like a rustic meal when piled on its freshly grilled crostini. Chawanmushi—a savory egg custard boosted by saffron dashi, crab, and uni—is a lesson in umami, delicate yet powerful. Baby gem lettuce salad is also light but substantial, with seasonal fruit (peaches on my visit), artisan cheese, nuts, and rosé vinaigrette.

Prime bavette steak and baby gem lettuce salad with seasonal fruit at Populaire. Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Gem lettuce reappears in Ladies Who Lunch—a lively chopped salad entree that plays up roasted chicken, crisp snap peas, Persian cucumbers, and ripe avocado, all flattered by herby buttermilk dressing. Black plums, brown butter, and complex black garlic molasses are unexpected foils for the carefully rendered duck breast. Look for autumnal fruit to replace the plums by now. A handsome tomahawk steak is the celebratory call, sliced to share and dolled up with roasted mushrooms and buttery whipped potatoes. Prime bavette is two fat slices of a 10-ounce steak cooked to a dashing medium-rare, then plated with sauce au poivre and seasonal vegetables. I couldn’t pass up the amusingly named Royale With Cheese. This glorious burger easily outshines its “Pulp Fiction” namesake, with a juicy patty of ground short rib on a potato bun. In between is a boffo layering of raclette cheese, pickled onions, and secret cornichon sauce.

Paris Brest, arguably the best in town, is one of three from-scratch desserts. Midweek lunch has a changing prix fixe menu of three courses designed by Weber, and it’s a sleeper find. Sunday brunch is a supplement of mostly eggy dishes. Croque madame oozing Comté cheese is my top pick—I’m told it’s crossing over to the main menu.

Service is affable and obliging. General manager Alyssa McDiarmid is a familiar presence to O.C. diners, orchestrating the front of the house for The Cannery, Louie’s by the Bay, and Marché Moderne. She also curates the wily wine list here.

Keep your eyes on precocious Populaire. I predict more unexpected magic from this gifted crew and can’t wait to taste what’s next. 


South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St.
Costa Mesa
714-760-4555

5 BEST DISHES

  • Ratatouille
  • Crab chawanmushi
  • Royale With Cheese
  • Duck breast
  • Croque madame

PRICE RANGE

Starters/small plates, $12 to $40 Entrees, $20 to $140
Brunch dishes, $18 to $36

FYI

This is the team behind Verdant, the restaurant at the new home for the Orange County Museum of Art.

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