To be 30 again,” my sister sighs as we eye six guys in sharp business casual attire entering the dining room, most toting a bottle of wine. Usually $25, corkage is free Wednesdays at Newport Beach’s charming Pescadou Bistro.
Yes, we brought wine. French wine. Choosing just the right bottle tickles my inner sommelier, adding a note of risk to a meal that will be anything but chancy. Consistency and stability are hallmarks of a classic French bistro, illustrating how owners Jacques and Olga de Quillien prevail at their nearly hidden antique location on Newport Boulevard. After three decades, they’ve amassed a loyal customer base that adores this off-radar darling. I imagine cagey regulars don’t want to see this spotlight on their sleeper, but Orange County has lost several French bistros over Pescadou’s life span, and it’s high time to show it some love.
Though the menu is loaded with standards such as onion soup, ratatouille, and coq au vin, I suggest paying close attention to the daily three-course special. Along with traditional food and wine menus, your friendly server will park a tabletop blackboard nearby so you can ponder the evening’s offering, handwritten in the squat cursive that screams France. Typically, it includes a choice of salad or seasonal soup, two entree options, and a house-made dessert or ripe cheese.
Soups tend toward smooth vegetable purees: rich potato leek, carrot with a faint kick of spice, asparagus that sings spring, and the superb tomato bisque. I’m hooked on the butter lettuce salad, a large plate of tender greens hiding textbook vinaigrette in the pockets of glossy leaves. Simple but explosively fresh. The well-selected pair of entrees can make choosing tough, but if both don’t tempt, one surely will. Choices toggle between a lighter protein (say, fresh sh or chicken) and a hearty player such as lamb, beef stew, or a dreamy pork chop with apples and butter-rich mashers. Desserts are uneven, so go with a seasonal fruit tart or all in with one of the night’s cheeses. A perfectly aged Brillat Savarin was as decadent as any ice cream. By the next visit, I could barely contain my cheese lust that was eventually rewarded with an oozing wedge of pungent Brebirousse.
Ignore the blackboard and you’ll find plenty of unpretentious indulgence. Generously portioned, the bitter-crisp endive salad—with its beets, pear, blue cheese, and walnuts— delivers a classic interchange of flavors and textures. Snails in their tiny pools of butter, parsley, and garlic are popular here but are too light on garlic and Pernod to stand out. But there is a killer duck confit plate with mighty fine frites and a mini side of that butter lettuce salad. Unfussy and splendid meet again with four styles of mussels, but how can you not choose the saffron cream version? You’ll have to order frites on the side if you want the classic moules frites pairing; speaking of sides, it’s the only place you can find the heavenly ratatouille that tastes of summer in Provence.
Fresh Idaho trout amandine is a smart call if you don’t warm to mussels or the catch of the day. Flaky white flesh teams nicely with the crispy skin and the butter-slicked haricots verts, brightened with a squeeze of lemon. I say it outranks the salmon, only because salmon is ubiquitous. Filet mignon is equally common, but at least here the kitchen complements it with an expert peppercorn sauce. Give me the hanger steak sliced cross-grain any day, dressed with cured shallots and red wine sauce; it’s quintessential bistro cooking that elevates humble ingredients to their best selves. Lamb lovers have it good here, with choices that include marinated New Zealand chops, sausage, or a combination of both. All red meats include fries.
If you’re feeling splurgy, skip the curiously bland bouillabaisse in favor of the luscious, delicate braised rabbit with notes of Dijon mustard and a sauce chunky with carrots, onions, and cream. Few O.C. places offer rabbit, and none of them do a better version than this one.
It’s a cozy room with a dark velvet curtain backing the entry foyer to mute street noise and the commotion of arrivals. It’s a small gesture that adds comfort to a modest space. The vibe is understated but hyper-accommodating. Servers know the menu inside-out, so don’t hesitate to ask questions. They also keep discreet watch over your meal and make adjustments before you even ask. No, they’re not mind readers, but they are deeply familiar with the restaurant’s rhythm, quirks, and capabilities.
With scads of restaurants launching in O.C., and after rushing from opening to opening, it’s a refreshing treat to revisit one of our most beguiling hidden gems. Pescadou proves some pleasures in our capricious world are timeless.
3325 Newport Blvd.
5 BEST DISHES
➜ Endive salad
➜ Duck confit
➜ Trout amandine
➜ Braised rabbit
➜ Hanger steak
PRICE RANGE: Prix fixe, $40; starters, $9 to $26; entrees, $12 to $37; desserts, $8 to $18
FYI: If the tiny lot is full, don’t ignore tow-away signs.