31451 Rancho Viejo Road, Suite 103, San Juan Capistrano, CA      949-488-0031

It’s a Tradition

ORANGE COAST MAGAZINE
November 2008 Issue

It’s a Tradition
The pretense is gone in O.C.’s premier French restaurant, but the food still sings.
by GRETCHEN KURZ

Restaurants age faster than we do. They come and go with unnerving frequency. It’s a tough business and diners are fickle.

So when I heard that Pascal Olhats’ eponymous bistro hit the Big Two-O, I was amazed. Twenty. Really? I’m not sure where those two decades went, but it’s a milestone worth noting—with mass quantities of his French fare, naturel-lement. After all, it was Olhats who first taught us that French food was more than Coquilles St. Jacques and profiteroles. A lot has changed since 1988 when he opened his charming rose-filled store-front in a bland strip mall near the southern edge of John Wane Airport. Olhats’ small following during his years below the radar in the kitchens of Paula’s and Antoine (both long gone) quickly grew as word spread he was going solo. Rave reviews and big scores brought diners from outside of Orange County. He became one of our first star chefs.

A certain synchronicity propelled his success. His enlightened French cooking was on a parallel trajectory with the growing sophistication of his diners. We were discovering olive oil, Wolfgang Puck, and Williams-Sonoma. And we were about to flock to Provence like migrating fowl. There’s no doubt the tawny-haired native of Normandy was entering the county’s dining fray at propitious time.

In its early days, Pascal Restaurant was audaciously French, including a few supercilious waiters who doled out withering ripostes in that Parisian way that makes even a university chancellor feel like a hayseed. But that pretense is gone.

Relaxing the mood is only one of many changes Olhats has made. In 1996, he added his next-door Epicerie, a treasure of a French deli stocked with essentials such as fresh baguettes, imported raw-milk cheeses, pate sandwiches, proper macaroons, minerally Chablis, and much more. Of all his brand extensions, including Café Jardin and The Creperie at Sherman Gardens, the Épicerie has remained a worthy player—feeding the cravings of picnickers and commuters who want his food in a flash. (A second is coming soon in Santa Ana’s Hutton Center).

In a peculiar move, Olhats changed the name of his flagship restaurant to Tradition by Pascal. It was to allow for a wide swath of future “by Pascal” concepts. But in the three years since, I’ve yet to hear anyone call it anything but Pascal, though the new name brought a welcome update to the split-level dining room that trades ersatz French-country trappings for a more modern motif.

One of the best—and probably wisest—moves Olhats made in recent years was to broaden and loosen his menu. What used to feel highly edited and sometimes rigid now seems exuberant with selections and alternatives. It’s as if he’s showing off a big bag of tricks—which is considerable for a chef born in Normandy, schooled in Brussels, and trained in Lyon. His signature dishes are still on the dinner menu ($22 to $32). Regulars won’t let him remove items now listed as “traditional entrées,” including Baked Sea Bass with Thyme Crust, Bouillabaisse Provençal, and Braised Rabbit with Wild Mushrooms.
A separate list flaunts his newer, more seasonal cooking ($24 to $32), the place to find autumnal fare, such as tender grilled pork tenderloin with rich apple compote, yam gratin, and feisty apple cider gastrique. Or pan-roasted quail stuffed with black truffle sausage laced with a fine Cognac sauce—sautéed Brussels sprouts supplying welcome relief from all that richness. Dover Sole gets its proper due as well. The delicate fish is deftly poached, then paired with a velvety sauce Narmande studded with shrimp and sweet mussels, accompanied by silky, steamed leeks. This section also boasts a rotating entrée in the style of “my-mother-Therese” home cooking inspired by his childhood. Expect French comfort fare such as Beef Bourguignonne, Cassoulet, and Veal Blanquette.

Dishes that seemed new 20 years ago still sing. The bouillabaisse always hits the spot—the seafood is never rubbery, and I love being able to detect saffron in the spicy broth. Coq au Vin is a reminder that all those traditional layering steps really do make for nonstop flavor.
Olhats’ pan sauces shine. They’re reliably bright, balanced, integrated. Call it retro, but the green peppercorn brandy sauce is reason alone to order the grilled Prime Top Sirloin. Olhats shared his old-school expertise with an impressive array of local chefs early in their careers: Bernard Althaus (Basilic), Tim Goodell (A Restaurant), Florent Marneau (Marché Moderne), and David Kesler (The Cellar), to name a few. Culinary schools pump out grads every season, but there’s no denying the benefits of toiling in a kitchen helmed by a classically trained French chef.

In keeping with his peers, Olhats offers a nightly tasting menu of five courses for $75. Add the corresponding flight of wines and the total is $125. That’s a pretty fair deal for top-drawer food and his interesting, well-chosen (mostly French) wines. It’s generous that he offers a single course from the menu, if you don’t care to have the entire lineup. On Sundays, a prix fixe of three courses (with several choices) is only $40—and corkage is free on your first bottle.

The cheese course has always been a source of delight at Pascal, and, if anything, it ahs improved with the years. I imagine the wide array of cheeses at the adjacent Épicerie has helped on that score.

Of the regularly offered desserts, the two best are the twice-baked cheesecake soufflé, and the fruit soup of the season. The cheesecake isn’t so much a cylindrical soufflé, as a shallow bowl of creamy, tangy-sweet lightness. It’s perfect unadorned, but they’ll gussy it up with a fruit drizzle if you wish. A center orb of sorbet (basil on my last visit) anchors a moat of fruit soup—bright, perfect slices of citrus and stone fruit bobbing in an elixir made with sweet wine that only gets more luscious as the sorbet melts. It’s not always on the menu, but when it is, Olhats somehow makes it vibrant even when aromatic ripe fruit is scant.

Whether he intended it or not, the sheer act of surviving and thriving 20 years has earned Pascal Olhats a position of gastronomic honor in Orange County. When it comes to fine French fare, he’s our vieux garcon. That was obvious in New York City, where Olhats was asked to cook the Bastille Day dinner last July at the James Beard House.

Had Pascal never taken that leap in 1988, the local dining landscape might look and taste quite different today.

GRETCHEN KURZ is an Orange Coast contributing editor. She also serves as Zagat Survey’s Orange County editor.

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 31451 Rancho Viejo Road, Suite 103, San Juan Capistrano, CA      949-488-0031