Gourmet Bistro's Right on the Money When Striking It Rich

Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

The long and winding road, da da . . . . The whistle-stop career of Lap Trung Huynh, chef/owner of the new Le Gourmet Bistro is kind of like a Paul McCartney song.

Lap is from Vietnam, but he trained in France under super-toques Paul Bocuse and Michel Guerard. Since then Lap has owned a string of restaurants--La Tour in Palo Alto, Beau Sejour in San Francisco and Au Chambertin in Santa Monica--en route to this latest effort, a humble cafe tucked into an Irvine mini-mall called Food Park. Life is a journey, n'est-ce pas?

A name such as Food Park is bound to evoke images of franchises and salad bars. A name such as Le Gourmet Bistro, I'm afraid, sounds equally inauspicious.

Not to worry. Lap cooks in the mold of his French mentors, the rich peasant cooking of Bocuse combined with the radical lightness of Guerard. His menu abounds with dishes starred to indicate "cuisine minceur": low-cholesterol, low-sodium, low-calorie dishes inspired by Guerard's spa cooking.

But when it's rich you want, it's rich you get. One of my dinner partners, on polishing off a buttery dish called "sea bass with lobster mousse en croute 'Paul Bocuse,' " simply said, "Wow! This is the best dish I've had all year."

Humility is actually the first thing you notice about Le Gourmet Bistro. The clapboard walls are a modest beige, and a ridge of tropical plants runs along their perimeter like the foreground of a painting by Rousseau. Furnishings are pretty much bare-bones--wooden chairs and coffee-shop tables--but white linen and Fuji mums add subtle notes of elegance. The only real embellishment is a huge photo of Bocuse himself looming overhead on an adjacent wall, an oddly placed eminence grise in a white chef's hat. That and maybe the candle on your table, which the tuxedoed waiter lights as you take your seat.

Open this menu and you can see that this humility extends to prices. For all of $9.75 you can have the restaurant's bistro menu, which gives you a salad or one of Lap's silky soups (forest mushroom or pureed asparagus, for example) and a choice of entree. These are imaginative and delicious entrees, too: osso buco with fettuccine, red snapper in two sauces and chicken breast with lime-ginger sauce, to name just three. At this price, the restaurant is practically giving them away.

Paradoxically, Lap's best dish--an appetizer with the gaudy name "truffle soup elysee 'Paul Bocuse style' "--costs more (at $10.50) than many of these entrees. You have no clue how delicious this soup is going to be when it arrives at your table, obscured as it is by a silly pastry hat. And you don't know that it has been totally misrepresented--the "truffles" turn out to be matsutake, those rarest of Japanese mushrooms. But the soup is a masterpiece--a light, clean broth shot through with delicate flavors and finely textured with Napa cabbage, julienne foie gras and the mushrooms.

Sea bass with lobster mousse en croute also proves worthy of the illustrious Bocuse name. Lap poaches his fish in a classic stock flavored with bouquet garni , then blankets it in a light, airy mixture of lobster meat, cream and egg white before wrapping it all up in pastry shaped like (what else?) a whole fish and baking it to a golden brown. It's just terrific, and awfully labor-intensive for only $14.50.

Bouillabaisse "Troisgros," another dish adapted from the elite fraternite of superstar chefs, is easily the most interesting version I've had in quite some time. Lobster chunks, sea bass, scallops and snapper are simmered in a light, saffron-infused broth and served with a made-on-the-premises aioli, a mayonnaise made with egg yolks, olive oil and maybe a whole head of garlic. Crab toast, though, is what really makes this dish a wonder. Imagine strips of grilled bread, brushed with garlic and olive oil, baked with light crab mousse on top. It's like going to heaven.

But little problems inherent in the place may bring you back to Earth before you are ready. For one thing, food takes a long time coming out of this kitchen, because it is obvious that the chef has little help.

For another, dishes are often misrepresented. Tournedos with goose liver and truffle sauce comes without the goose liver, and the waiter may try to tell you (as ours did) that the liver has been "mixed into the sauce." Lamb with eggplant in a good parsley and garlic reduction turns up without eggplant. Crispy duck with sweet potato, an irresistible sounding combination, is served in an insipid raspberry sauce, with no sweet potato whatsoever.

It is easy to see what is going on here. There's no doubting Lap's gifts, but hiring a top assistant and stocking all the high-quality ingredients he wants would probably constitute a financial burden, especially when business is slow. And it has been slow. On each of my three visits, my guests and I had the restaurant virtually to ourselves, and that just doesn't seem fair.

Perhaps the location is to blame. The restaurant is sequestered on the east side of the San Diego Freeway, reasonably close to Von Karman Avenue's live-wire Restaurant Row but far enough away to be nearly invisible. More likely it is the mystique of French cuisine, which has taken a undeserved beating in these low-cholesterol, low-budget times.

But eating some of these spa dishes, such as the baked salmon with wild mushrooms, the chicken breast with spinach and goat cheese, and a couple of the light desserts (frothy souffles, an ethereal hot apple tart), I couldn't help but wonder why this restaurant is not full very night. In essence, this is light, wonderfully prepared, inexpensive food--exactly the prescription most diners are looking for.

And I'd sure hate to see Irvine end up as just one more stop on that long and winding road of what ought to be a rewarding career.

Le Gourmet Bistro is moderately priced, an excellent value. Appetizers are $2 to $10.50. Entrees are $7.95 to $16.75. Desserts are $3 to $5.


* 17917 MacArthur Blvd., Irvine.

* (714) 851-9694.

* Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; for dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.

* MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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