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RESTAURANTS : A Surprisingly Good Bistro Where Care Is Never Put on the Back Burner

Voila Bistro and Grill is a surprising restaurant, and not only because it’s so accommodating (chef Rochelle Robinson recently obliged a customer’s last-minute request for a cheese souffle, something she usually requires at least two-days’ notice to make).

Pacific Coast Highway just isn’t the place one expects to find a bistro . . . much less a pretty good one.

The restaurant belongs to Yves Briee, of Le Biarritz in Newport Beach, and he’s about as authentic a Frenchman as you’ll find in these parts. His new restaurant is a combination of Paris casual and Huntington Beach chic; walls and tablecloths are colored a soft pastel rose, and little Deco-style lamps are mounted on the walls over every booth.

The food at Voila is rarely brilliant but, rather, basically hearty fare cooked with obvious care.

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One dish that is brilliant is the French onion soup, one of the most mishandled dishes in the country French repertoire. Here the onions are braised to sweetness and cooked in a superb, rich stock; a light, bubbly cheese crust and frizzled onions add delightful contrast and pungency.

Salads are less inspired. The house Caesar I tasted was a bit limp, despite a tasty dressing. The same went for a dinner salad: The creamed herb dressing could not have been better, but the red leaf and bibb lettuces had almost no crispness.

I didn’t care much for an appetizer called California mini-pizzas, though properly done, the dish would have fit in at any bistro. You get six mini-pizzas to an order with toppings like olive, green pepper and onion. On the plate they looked appetizing, but the pizzas had little snap to them; it was almost as if they had been frozen.

Pate maison , on the other hand, was wonderful, even though the waiter admitted that the restaurant gets it from an outside supplier. The one I tasted--a grainy, country-style pate--was flavorful, richly textured and the perfect match for the good house rolls baked daily by Briee’s wife at her own catering company.

For me, the raison d’etre of this restaurant is a dish called duck a la Voila--simply the best duck I’ve had in Orange County. The duck is smoked on the premises, then braised until it’s fall-off-the-bone delicious. The skin is a dark, cherrywood red with a rich demi-glace burnished into it. With the duck come garlic-roasted potatoes.

Other main dishes pale in comparison. Lamb loin Zinfandel is the best of the rest--an average cut of lamb cooked in a good, eccentric sauce flavored with pear and mint. Fish tends to be overcooked, so be sure to tell the kitchen how you like it. Grilled salmon comes in a light champagne lemon-lime butter. Sea bass is topped with an herb butter sauce. Pritikin-style red snapper has either a pineapple-cilantro sauce or a tomato-caper sauce.

Now we come to that cheese souffle. As expected, it was a very good one: airy, buttery and firm. The chef prepared it with two kinds of cheese, as best as I could tell a mild Cheddar, and a Monterey Jack for extra body. A friend of mine--the customer who requested it--was very pleased. And the chef has a fan for life.

I’d recommend a souffle for dessert, as well. For that only 20 minutes’ notice is required. The house specialty is fresh raspberry souffle, but that’s a seasonal dish you’ll have to wait a couple more weeks for. Until then, content yourself with a full-flavored chocolate souffle, served with a runny chocolate sauce on the side. There’s also that old warhorse of a souffle, Grand Marnier, crusted with slightly caramelized sugar. Among the non-puffing desserts, the chocolate mousse cake is terrific. Now if Robinson would only consider cassoulet . . . .

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Voila Bistro and Grill is moderately priced. Lunch is $4.25 to $8.95. Dinners are $10.95 to $16.95. There is a good, reasonably priced wine list.

VOILA BISTRO AND GRILL

* 16871 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach

* (714) 841-1166

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* Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday 4:30 to 9 p.m.

* Major credit cards accepted.


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