Rediscovery: French 75 Bistro & Champagne Bar

After years of struggle and sporadic kitchen coups, French 75 has a new chef, a new menu, and finally is settled enough to warrant solid scrutiny. Given its romantic, prewar Paris setting, the timing couldn’t be better for lovebirds seeking an appealing Valentine’s Day destination.

I avoid dinner out on any holiday, so I’m staying home with a bottle of red. But in the spirit of suggesting options for couples that avidly celebrate Feb. 14, I nominate French 75 in Laguna Beach.

Lavishly retooled in the late 1990s as a vintage hide-away, the picturesque 1920s white cottage with tidy boxwood hedges hasn’t lost its appeal. Inside, it’s still teeming with touches that idealize France: burnished leather seating, ornate iron scrollwork, soft amber lighting, even a fanciful ceiling mural of cherubs and monkeys frolicking with bottles of Champagne above the snug bar.

But alluring digs can’t disguise unsteady cuisine, and for years, chefs came and went so quickly, the cooking and menu were far from formidable, even in good times. Now—as of today, anyway—Pascal Olhats, the pioneer of French cuisine in O.C., holds sway. As consulting chef, he oversees executive chef Greg Moro, his protégé and an alum of Olhat’s flagship, Tradition by Pascal, in Newport Beach. Even GM Pascal Gimenez is a native of France, further boosting the impression of a tenacious French occupation. Olhats has been involved for a year or more, but the new chef and GM are the bigger news. Kicking off with a Champagne cocktail makes good sense here given the place is named for one, and because this remains one of the few O.C. bars that specialize in retro concoctions. Plus, there’s something inherently festive about sipping the golden bubbles of a Parisian Blonde dosed with cognac and Grand Marnier.

Plump escargot arrive sizzling and smoky from bacon and pinot noir-tinged butter. Swapping out the usual parsley for bacon and wine gives the dish an uncommonly brawny edge. Earthy flavors again make magic in an utterly traditional shredded-duck confit salad—warm sherry dressing, candied walnuts, and bitter, fresh mesclun temper the rich duck meat. Gazpacho terrine is a delectable shocker, a quivering dome of gelatinized celery, tomato, onions, and bell peppers with beads of balsamic vinegar like flavor grenades amid the bright vegetables. Is this soup or salad? Does it matter? Vichyssoise leaves no doubt. It’s the beloved chilled potato soup Francophiles expect, this time with fried leeks and yeasty cracker puffs for crunch. Overmarinated ahi is not so French and a not-so-beguiling jumble of loud flavors—soy, ginger, sesame, and vinegar—that ripe avocado can’t tame.

Entrées hold to time-honored plates. Perfectly cooked to a rosy hue, New Zealand rack of lamb crusted with rosemary and Dijon is supersatisfying cuddled up to a gratin of cream-rich potatoes. Wild salmon is a luscious, swarthy cut laid over risotto heavy with wild mushrooms and sauced with a fennel beurre blanc. Tender, saucy coq au vin is country fare at its slow-cooked best. It outshines the humdrum beef stroganoff with clumsy pappardelle noodles that are chewy from too much time under a heat lamp. Hazelnut mahi mahi plays well against a puree of Jerusalem artichoke and a superior kale sauté, but a pool of cabernet reduction is one note too many.

Plan ahead 20 minutes for the harlequin soufflé pour deux, a swirl of dark Guittard chocolate and vanilla bean batters baked to a fluffy cloud and gilded with crème anglaise. Yes, it’s grand and verges on overkill, but it’s probably what the lady wants. Me, I’ll have Moro’s ganache-filled vanilla ice cream rolled in cinnamon-graham crumbs before deep frying. Then a nightcap while soaking up some classic live jazz in the bar.

French 75 is aiming true, and scoring more hits these days. It can’t take on the culinary haute monde, but it ably woos diners who crave chilled bubbly, cozy quarters, comforting Gallic fare, and a sentimental side of romance.

Best Bites
Gazpacho terrine, duck confit salad, escargot, rack of lamb, wild salmon, coq au vin, harlequin soufflé, fried ice cream, Champagne cocktails. 

Best Seats
Lounge tables Nos. 23 and 24, for soaking up live music and the cozy bar vibe; No. 40, curtained behind the bar for lovey-dovey privacy; or upstairs in the salon overlooking the deck. 

Nightly from 4:30 to 6:30: half-price Champagne cocktails and wine by the glass; $6 well drinks. 

Did You Know?
The French 75 cocktail (circa 1915) is named for the French 75mm field gun—also known to pack a big kick. 

Sweetheart Alert
A special menu for Valentine’s Day features pink-hued dishes such as beef-beet sliders, and fresh catch with raspberry beurre blanc. 

1464 S. Coast Highway
Laguna Beach
Two-and-a-Half Stars

Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.

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