French 75 is becoming seriously French again. It was on its way when Dave Shofner became the chef but now with the collaboration of master chef Pascal Olhats, it has arrived, along with a recession-busting $10 entrée menu called "The Perfect 10." We've never seen the place so busy on a weeknight. Is it the $10 menu or has everyone had his fill of fusion and fallen back in love with French cuisine?
The terrace was closed in the very chilly weather, but the ambiance inside was warm, welcoming and bustling with conviviality. If the buzz from the bar and the sounds of the live jazz are not your cup of tea, ask to be seated in one of the two side rooms for something a bit quieter. The lighting is soft enough to knock a few years off your visage, the leather booths are roomy and comfortable and the wait staff is highly professional and attentive.
We noted with pleasure that a crusty loaf, with a light textured interior, has replaced the boring baguette from our last visit. The olivada has been tweaked to have a creamier texture and a more assertive garlic flavor.
We came to try "The Perfect 10." These are four $10 grilled entrées, each accompanied by a vegetable and a starch. Filet mignon comes with pommes puree (mashed potatoes) and haricots verts (green beans); Atlantic salmon with lentils; rack of lamb with Lyonnaise potatoes; and jumbo shrimp with polenta and sautéed spinach. The four-chop rack of delicious, juicy, medium rare lamb had a nice grill flavor and was brushed with a whisper of port wine reduction. It rested on sliced potatoes that soaked up the meaty juices. A little lightly sautéed arugula provided a peppery complement. Grill flavor was also the dominant seasoning for the four moist, slightly spicy jumbo shrimp. They lounged on top of a polenta cake and were accompanied by some very good garlicky spinach. Color came from a simple sofritto of sautéed onions and peppers in a large dice. The plate was garnished with a teardrop of red pepper puree.
From the regular menu, we ordered the quail appetizer — a whole grilled quail, split in half. It was sweet and juicy and cooked to perfect tenderness. It, too, was accompanied by spinach and polenta cake. Although the seasoning was mild in the polenta and bird, a rich buttery wine reduction sauce imparted flavor to each bite.
The light and chewy potato gnocchi suffered from unctuous overkill. The gnocchi themselves were fried, then sauced with brown butter and finally drizzled with white truffle oil — too much of a good thing. Pieces of wild mushroom and fried shallots, as well as some nicely cooked asparagus, finished the plate. The final fillip was shaved pecorino cheese. For an extra $10, you can have the gnocchi with lobster.
The excellent chocolate soufflé for two is a proper French soufflé and not what so often passes for one — the ubiquitous molten chocolate cake. Light and puffy and made with excellent quality chocolate, the exterior is slightly crusty and the interior is cloudlike. It is served with rich dark chocolate sauce and whipped cream, which if you are so inclined, you can spoon into the center. This dessert is all about luscious deep chocolate, not sugar.
We applaud the choice of French 75 returning to the original concept of an authentically French restaurant in Laguna Beach. Where else can you get a choice of watercress potage, moules frites, seared foie gras or escargots to start? For a main course, coq au vin is very hard to find these days as are fruits de mer crepes or any other kind of crepes for that matter. So grab your beret and your gauloises and head on down to le grand'route de côte sud et mange bien!
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Info: (949) 494-8444, french75.net
Where: 1464 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
When: 4:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Sunday; 4:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Appetizers: $7.75 to $20
Entrées: $17.75 to $36.75 Perfect10: choice of four signature dishes, $10
Desserts: $7 to $13
Bottles: $30 to $1,700
By the glass: $6 to $20
Corkage Fee: $20