After a False Start, Pascal Is Finally on the Way to Greatness

Times Orange County restaurant critic Max Jacobson often returns to restaurants he has found lacking to see whether things have improved. This is one in an occasional series of "Second Helpings."

Superstar restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton (notorious for wearing disguises to avoid being recognized during her tenure with the New York Times) visits Orange County restaurants in this month's issue of Conde Nast's Traveler, handing out stars, and several rather pointed opinions, in the process.

Her recent visit to Newport Beach's Pascal, however, must have been radically different from mine. Sheraton liked the restaurant, awarding it two stars in the process--along with Antoine at Le Meridien. (Sheraton awarded Gustav Anders four stars, Kachina three.)

But I must confess I think she missed the mark when she wrote, "If Pascal is not as spectacularly good as locals claim, it is because . . . many dishes need salt and other seasonings, as though (chef-owner Pascal) Olhats has adjusted to a faint-palated clientele."

Now that may have been somewhat true in the past, but it is certainly not the case at present. Sheraton might have been referring to the fact that Pascal's cooking receives almost unanimous accolades from local foodies--including a lofty "28" in the food category of the Zagat Guide. I myself once quibbled with that assessment. I don't now.

Because as Olhats himself will tell you, "my cuisine has evolved along with my customers," due, in no small part, to his own firm hand. Today, this restaurant is approaching greatness. It's never been better.

This kitchen brigade, now numbering 10 (it was four when the restaurant first opened), recently acquired the services of young Finnish chef Ari Nieminen, a protege of Park River Cafe's David Burke (of New York City). Nieminen is fond of such dishes as veal with sweetbread strudel and confit of lemon, and he is helping Olhats design the restaurant's menu, which is full of terrific new dishes. These are sophisticated yet simple creations, flavorful, light and provoking. I can't stop thinking about them.

Take a dish such as pot au feu Normande, inspired by Pascal's native Normandy. It looks unassuming, a porcelain dish filled with a gentle nage (broth) of carrot and turnip. But this nage is brimming with sheer heaven: plump, grilled squab, islands of bone marrow and poached foie gras. It's a dish to rival anything in France, and one I won't forget for a long time.

Lake Superior whitefish and jumbo scallops with roasted tomato with basil, white wine and olive oil, and ethereal salmon and tuna tartare with caper, anchovy and long crouton, a dish that would make any sushi chef redden with jealousy, are also new to Pascal's menu.

Augment those with such desserts as strawberry rhubarb soup with thick cream, cherry clafoutis (a custardy baked pastry) with fresh mango and papaya and a few of their new chocolate creations and, well, it all adds up to perfection.

Ms. Sheraton, I'm a fan, but come back and try Pascal again, please. I'm willing to bet you change your rating.

Pascal, 1000 Bristol St., Newport Beach. (714) 752-0107. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday for dinner, 6 to 9:30 p.m. All major cards accepted.

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