Sunday, September 2, 2007

Pascal Epicerie

This Orange County gem sits quietly in an unassuming strip mall hugging the 73. The restaurant is so well hidden I'll bet my SLR that even locals don't know it exists. Quite a modest location for someone with Chef Pascal Olhats' credentials. I won't bore you with his history, but let's just say chefs like him are typically found in more upscale areas.

Actually, I think I will bore you. Chef Olhats' accomplishments just cannot be overlooked:
- Chef owner of Pascal Restaurant, Épicerie Pascal & Café Jardin in Newport Beach since 1988.
- Attended Hotel School in Brussels, Belgium after apprenticeship in Rouen, Normandy.
- Worked for Master Chef Paul Bocuse in Lyon.
- Spent three years in St. Tropez at Club 55.
- Was a Chef at Hotel Le Meridian , Newport Beach & Restaurant Chanteclair , Irvine.
- Was Chef of the Year in 1991.
- Is the President of the French Chef's Association.
- Recipient of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
- Pascal Restaurant received the 2006 Restaurant Hall of Fame National Award.

Pascal is small and very intimate with its soft lighting, luxurious seats, and fresh flowers. The ambience is so relaxed and romantic I'd bring my wife here for our anniversary. But, I'm getting ahead of myself there. I arrived for dinner on a Thursday night and was greeted by George Fortier, the Maitre d'. Seating was prompt and the service gracious. An amuse bouche of brioche and an onion spread glided to me from the kitchen as George inquired whether I would like sparkling or imported water. The tap is fine, thank you.

My server smoothly recited the evening's specials and was more than happy to help me decipher the French menu in his cute French accent. I settled for foie gras torchon, a cold meat plate, bouillabaise provencale, and braised rabbit. Regrettably, Chef Olhats signature dish Seabass au Thyme was unavailable. Pascal had run out of sea bass during lunch.

As I tucked away the last piece of brioche, warm artisan bread was brought to my table with a small tub of creamy salted butter. I've tasted all the available butter in our supermarkets, and none of those come close to this tub. The only way I know how to describe it is in Chinese, but its loose equivalent in English is "aromatic".

The first dish to arrive was Foie Gras Torchon served with a Fig & Pear Chutney, Pickled Baby Vegetables, and Brioche:

Spectacular pairing. The sweet tartness of the chutney goes very well with the thick creamy foie gras. Acid from the pickled vegetables helps to balance the dish. It gives your tongue a break from foie gras' heaviness. Still, the taste of smoky foie gras haunts me! I will never forget this dish. As Elmomonster eloquently explains, "The pleasure of eating foie gras is sanguineous and carnal. It's like pornography for the palate, and you feel naughty for loving it."

The next course was Assiette De Charcuterie:

Various cold cuts are served in this dish typically made to be shared with the table. Starting counter-clockwise from the foreground: Duck Prosciutto, two types of Pate, Baby Pickles, sauteed onions, and Saucisson.

This dish arrived with perfectly toasted slices of French bread. The Prosciutto was aged very nicely. Each bite tasted like concentrated duck! Pate was great. I especially enjoyed the paler variant hidden under the pink one. Pale one was smoother and had liver in it. The pink one was meatier and slightly chunkier. The Saucisson was pretty interesting and reminded me of Chinese sausage except it was not as sweet and was spiced.

After a brief break, a pipping hot Bouillabaise Provencale arrived:

This is a soup of Steamed Bass & Seafood in a Spicy Saffron & Tomato Broth. What kind of seafood? Clams, Mussels, Scallops, Shrimp, and Squid. Super. Fresh. These ingredients tasted a helluva lot better than what we buy at the grocery store.

The soup was rich and flavorful. Duh. It was basically a seafood broth. If you've had bisque, the soup is kind of like that. The bass was perfectly cooked, very tender. Mussels were a tad on the small side, but they made up for it in freshness and flavor. The scallops were fuggin' huge, and like the bass, perfectly cooked. It's quite easy to over or under-cook the fish in dishes like this. Well, for amateurs at least.

George suggested I dip bread into the soup. That was fine and all, but my starters all involved bread. Plus I don't need the carbs.

This course came with a 5" ceramic bucket for me to set aside the shells. Classy.

I've been dying to try rabbit for years and here was my chance--Braised Rabbit with Wild Mushrooms and Roasted Potatoes:

As you can see, I was a little rushed taking this picture. When my rabbit arrived, I just could not wait to dig in. Chef Olhats used wine when he braised the rabbit. The result? Uber rich broth and a very gamey rabbit. My sponsor for the dish (left) agreed after judging the flavor, that the braised rabbit was possibly wild and not farm raised. There was at least half a rabbit in my personal pot. I could hardly finish! Meat fell lazily off the bones as I dug around them. Texture hardly varied as I moved from white to dark meat. Each section was lean yet still juicy and supple. If you have cooked cornish hen in a broth before (and controlled the temp/time), the texture of the rabbit is pretty similar to the dark meat. The taste however, is completely different.

Many people say rabbit tastes like chicken. Hmph. Tastes like chicken my ass. Rabbit has its own distinctive flavor. Not as gamey as venison, but just a little.

You haven't tried roasted potatoes till you've had these potatoes. The butter they use is very thick and flavorful. The salt used was top notch and helped the side tremendously. These are the best I've ever had.

The dark empty void that is my stomach screamed for dessert. Should I have the Lavender Creme Brulee? Or the Twice-Baked Cheesecake Souffle served with berries and Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream?:

This dessert is served in a wide, pipping hot bowl about 1.5" deep. You definitely want to share this one. Berries included blueberries, two strawberries, two raspberries, and a blackberry. The berries I have at home are a bit larger and a tad sweeter, but then again I don't buy in bulk like these guys do. Hand picked all the way! The ice cream blows Ben & Jerry's away, makes Coldstone look silly, and could put Baskin Robbins out of business. Yes. It's that good. This is the first time I've had ice cream this aromatic. I could actually taste real vanilla! The syrup was a bit overkill, but then again, I'm not your average sugar-loving American. Now the souffle....oh the souffle....Light, delicate, warm!, & creamy. The golden brown surface gave in gently to reveal a moist interior. Perfect control of the oven temp. As for the taste, imagine a cheesecake that's a bit easier on the cheese. As for the texture, well...its a souffle. A very well done one at that. Bravo!

My aunt makes a mean Japanese version, but Chef Olhats gives her a run for her money.

Sadly, this could have been a great picture, but you know what? I couldn't wait to dig in. Ice cream doesn't wait for you when its getting hot n bothered.

I can't wait to return here after I've completed my Orange County restaurant rotation. I find it odd that customers have found the service at Pascal haughty. During my visit, I did not detect a single note of snobbishness or arrogance in the wait staff. Everyone was attentive, helped me overcome the language barrier on the menu, and the Maitre d' even stopped by my table to chat a bit. Oh and the food..I don't think folks eat much better than this in Heaven. Flawless execution of French Provencale cuisine coupled with a very professional wait staff more than satisfied my inner glutton.


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