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

Take a Break at Cafe Jardin

by the Daily Pilot

The Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar has long been one of Newport Beach’s better-kept secrets.Founded in 1966 by Arnold Haskell as an educational and cultural center, the tranquil grounds now cover an entire city block.

Housed within the walled gardens are an exotic collection of rare cacti, plants and other vegetation. A tropical greenhouse re-creates a lush island setting with koi ponds and fragrant tropical plants. A restaurant in such a special setting should evoke the mood and atmosphere of its surroundings, and Café Jardin accomplishes just that.

It is the brainchild of Orange County restaurateur Pascal Olhats, whose signature restaurant, Pascal, has long been considered one of the area’s best.

As with his most recent effort, Café Pascal at South Coast Plaza, he has a flair for taking his surroundings into account to create a restaurant that is in perfect harmony with the area around it.

Café Jardin is in the heart of Sherman Gardens, facing well-manicured flower beds. The restaurant is in a large adobe-style structure and can accommodate up to 250 people.

It’s a popular spot for special events, and I’ve seen many a wedding party enterting the area. The restaurant is open for lunch only during the week, and when the weather alows – which is most of the time – many of the tables are set up outdoors on a patio that lines one side of the gardens. It’s a calm, relaxing setting, where a ringing cell phone is as out of place as well-behaved fans at an XFL game.

The menu that Olhats and chef Peter Corel have created mirros the light, fresh setting. A well-chosen selection of salads and light entrees provide a perfect respite after a casual walk through the gardens or a refreshing break from a busy workday.

For starters, try the light-as-air salmon terrine ($7.50), a creamy mousse that’s rolled with fresh herbs and served with a dab of dill-flavored sour cream all meld well together, and the crisp toast provides a texture contrast to the light but rich mousse.

Equally intriguing is the seared polenta with portabella mushrooms ($5.95). This simple-sounding dish combines an earthy saute of mushrooms as the perfect flavor complement to small squares of cornmeal polenta that have been seared over the open grill, giving them a subtle charred accent.

The soup du jour ($4.95) is always light and refreshing, such as the watercress soup I recently had that tasted as fresh as the garden in which it was served, with just a hint of cream to add body.

Entree salads include a warm spinach salad ($9.50) garnished with prosciutto and fresh mushrooms, or grilled chicken tenderloins served over a bed of butter lettuce ($11.50).

The chicken salad is served with a creamy pesto dressing that has just the right hint of garlic and basil to enhance but not overpower the delicate greens and flavorful chicken.

A heartier choice is the potato and bean salad ($10.95). The creamy beans and potatoes are studded with chunks of savory chicken sausage and crisp bacon, creating a satisfying and filling selection.

Entrees include a crusty foccacia bread ($9.95) that is served open-faced and spread with a pungent vegetable ratatouille sprinkled with tangy feta cheese and diced green olives. The combination challenges the taste buds with a variety of flavors and, for an extra $2, succulent slices of lamb tenderloin can be added to the dish.

Any visitor at Café Pascal at South Coast Plaza knows that Olhats knows crêpes, and here they show up in a light entree that pairs the airy pancakes with a creamy seafood filling ($11.50) loaded with shrimp, salmon, lobster and scallops.

The sauce is heavily flavored with dill, too heavy in my opinion; the spice overpowers the delicate fish rather than enhances it.

In addition to iced tea, bottled water and soft drinks, Café Jardin offers a small but well-chosen selection of wines by the glass to accompany your meal or to sip while enjoying the relaxing garden setting.

Desserts bear the decidedly French flair one would expect from one of Olhats’ restaurants. Crepes ($6.50) make an appearance again, here stuffed with sweetened cream cheese or one of the several ice creams homemade on the premises. Ice cream flavors include caramel, pecan, espresso and Tahitian vanilla and can be ordered without the crepes for $4.85.

Not to miss is the chocolate hazelnut torte ($5.95), one of the best flourless chocolate cakes I’ve tasted. The thin cake has a moist but airy consistency that belies its richness. The intense chocolate is perfectly balanced by the pool of raspberry syrup that completes the dish.

Café Jardin is an oasis that offers light cuisine in a relaxing garden setting. It’s the perfect getaway from the demands of the daily work grind or to take a special friend for a leisurely lunch. Enjoy a fine meal, and be sure to take the time to wander the gardens and appreciate nature at its finest.

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