First the good news: Pascal Olhats, surely one of O.C.’s great French chefs, is back in splendid form at his newest enterprise, simply named Pascal. The bad news? San Juan Capistrano is a 22-mile drive for his Newport Beach fan club. What seems to be a modest relocation on the map is truly an enthusiastic reinvention. Change is obvious from the start as you arrive at a roomy lot, where parking is faster and easier than at other Olhats venues. A few patio umbrellas funnel visitors into a casual bakery cafe-cum-market that recalls the chef’s bygone epiceries, this time with added sunshine and elbowroom. Market goods include lovely and affordable wines, plus the imported delicacies required in any Francophile’s pantry.
Oversized and gleaming, the deep glass deli case is the shiny object you can’t ignore. Brimming with colorful prepared salads sold by the pound, it’s also where pristine baguette sandwiches await selection for noshing on site or wrapping to take along. Order a sandwich stuffed with house-made pâté, add a salad of shredded carrots infused with lemon and cumin, and it doesn’t matter where you consume it. Any setting feels like heaven with this lunch. Be sure to stay put for the exceptional croque monsieur, though—it’s best enjoyed hot from the kitchen because its topping of browned béchamel doesn’t travel well. It’s the best rendition I’ve eaten locally.
Look for daily specials, say beef bourguignon or roasted chicken with hand-cut fries, posted on a chalkboard near the register. Paper menus list additional daytime bistro classics that lure gal pals who lunch, harried moms with toddlers, and lone road warriors who prefer refueling with premium French nourishment. It’s hard not to ogle the quiches in the deli case. I somehow fall in lust with a large tomato tart while eating a salade niçoise, wondering if I have an upcoming potluck I can use as an excuse to buy the beauty.
If you can drag yourself away from the deli-case gems, you’ll see a 30-seat jewel box of a dining room. Linen-draped tables, arched windows, and a curved wall painted cerulean blue create this unexpected alcove that recalls an intimate spot in the French countryside. Four-course dinners are the treasure here, made even dreamier by an ace French waiter who handles the room with jaunty aplomb. Ordered from the Pascal Experience Menu, prix fixe dinners, better labeled feasts, include multiple choices for every course. Begin on a light note with plump steamed mussels with basil cream sauce atop perfectly toasted levain bread, or go all in with Olhats’ always indulgent charcuterie spread starring pistachio country pâté, pork rillettes, smoked duck breast, duck salami, saucisson, homemade pickled vegetables, and mustard.
Course two offers four options. Here’s your chance to get some produce on the table—if you consider the butter lettuce and frisee in the terrific Lyonnaise salad leafy greens—though most classicists are partial to the dish’s smoked bacon, croutons, and poached farm egg. Sliced organic beets entwined with lemon-tinged chevre are simply delicious, with expressive flavors that define elegance. Cooler temps make soupe á l’oignon a tempting call, though Olhats nudges it into the indulgence zone with a petite glass of port on the side.
Olhats’ devotees are sure to zero in on his signature baked sea bass with thyme crust as well as his smoked, roasted lamb rack with vegetable couscous laced with lamb merguez jus. Both are sophisticated, nuanced compositions that deserve their place in many O.C. diners’ food memories. My enduring crush on duck is further incited by his assiette de canard, sautéed breast and an unctuous leg confit partnered with Perigord potatoes, a classic comfort dish of southwest France.
At this point, some will cry uncle and take dessert home in a doggy bag. Don’t be that diner. Pace yourself so you can enjoy the Macanese custard tart fresh, in its eggy, creamy, flaky glory. Pristine berries add color and contrast to the rich bites. Yes, you can choose a Normandy tart or a flourless chocolate cake, and both are lovely, but not as striking as the Portuguese pastry that has captured the palates of Macau for centuries.
Be prepared for generous portions. At these prices, Olhats could easily cut back. But that’s not the Pascal way. You can order individual courses, apart from the prix fixe meal, but at $65, why would you? Though not required, it’s wise to book dinner in advance, if only to increase the odds they will be ready to make you swoon.
After his 32 years in O.C., it’s wonderful to have Olhats renewed by South County’s growth and energy. Sure, the setting is yet another unassuming shopping center, the fare is utterly French, and Olhats is a constant, smiling presence. What’s new is the canny way he distills his strengths and past successes into a fresh venue that’s approachable and versatile. Lucky you, San Juan Capistrano.
BEST DISHES Croque monsieur, hand-cut fries, pâté sandwich, Lyonnaise salad, tomato tart, onion tart, chilled steamed beets with lemon-goat cheese, onion soup, mussels, charcuterie, braised rabbit (winter only), veal sweetbreads in puff pastry, duck two ways, tarte tatin le foie gras, Macanese custard tart.
PRICE RANGE Lunch, $3.50 to $9.50; dinner, $12 to $35, or $65 for four-course prix fixe ($40 wine pairings are optional)
FYI The dining room’s red tapestry chairs were rescued from The Ritz in 2014, in an auction after it closed.
31451 Rancho Viejo Road, San Juan Capistrano