Pinot Provence

The New Zealand lamb rack at Pinot Provence. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

When Pinot Provence opened in 1998, Joachim Splichal was one of the first big-name L.A. chefs, if not the first, to venture into Orange County.

The restaurant is still there, just across from South Coast Plaza and around the corner from South Coast Repertory. But Pinot Provence has suffered in the intervening years. Whereas it once had high ambitions and served truly Provençal food, more recently Splichal has seemed content to position his sixth restaurant as a standard bistro with a standard menu.

Now, though, Pinot Provence has a new chef. She's Laurent "Lulu" De Rouen, who grew up in Manhattan Beach, the daughter of a New Orleans-raised Frenchman.

Strong execution

There's still nothing too forward-looking or exotic on the menu, just basic French cooking with the addition of some contemporary and North African accents.

But De Rouen is doing a great job executing it; while the food itself may seem limited in ambition and lacking a personal stamp, almost every dish I've had under her tenure has had a bright polish.

The décor seems a bit more subdued as well. I remember the restaurant as a glitzy O.C. take on Provence, albeit created from French antiques, with even the limestone fireplace and stone doorway hauled back from Provence.

Now, the place is beginning to look lived-in, as if it really were a bistro in Provence. The lithe stone statue of a woman at the entrance to the dining room looks as if she's been greeting diners for decades. The ironwork chandeliers have developed even more of a patina.

And the outdoor terrace (tented in canvas), with its old stone fountain, decorative bird cages and iron garden chairs outfitted with cushions, looks like something you'd find in l'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, an antiques village in Provence.

Once inside, you'd never dream that the Westin South Coast Plaza is next door and that glass office towers are just down the street, and the 405 freeway only blocks away. We're out here on the terrace sipping Champagne or pretty pink kir. I hear a murmur of French from the bar.

The shame is that the place is fairly empty on weeknights, picking up steam pretty much only on weekends. Doesn't anyone know about the changes yet? And where are all the hotel guests?

For starters

Oysters at Patina Group restaurants are almost always a good bet, pristine and chilled and relatively well-priced compared to elsewhere. Order them on the half shell with fine-spun mignonette -- Champagne vinegar and shallots.

Of course, a French restaurant usually means foie gras, and that's true here as well. But instead of the usual sweet sauce served with the seared lobe, De Rouen lightens the whole dish by pairing the liver with poached yellow peaches in a white peach purée, and serving it with buttery brioche toast. Perfect.

Her onion soup isn't as heavy-handed as many versions; the broth is light, not overburdened with caramelized onions, wearing a thin blanket of Gruyère.

But for me, the revelation is her escargots, served not in the shell, but in a small rectangular porcelain gratin dish, each plump, tasty snail tucked in a depression in the dish, enrobed in a fragrant garlic-parsley sauce with toasted brioche breadcrumbs sprinkled on top.

I also very much enjoy her frog legs, four or five of them lined up on the plate, served in a harissa butter that fires up the synapses, with a smear of pale green basil emulsion underneath. The taste? Very similar to game hen.

Moules frites come in a huge white bowl topped with a lid that looks like a beret in porcelain. Juicy and light with just a touch of cream and lemon, the mussels are sweet and delicious. But the heap of fries that come with them are so wan-looking, I'm thinking someone forgot to fry them for the second time.

Salads don't fare as well. In fact, could they be more boring? Farmers market beets with goat cheese, Caesar, organic greens and then Belgian endive with watercress, blue cheese and candied pecans.