Before I ever began to write about food, it would have taken a serious natural disaster to keep me away from a good restaurant, however far away. When my San Francisco friends balked at the idea of driving an hour and a half to the wine country for dinner, I would happily proceed anyway. Traveling in Europe, I am capable of getting up at first light and driving all morning to have lunch at some fabled spot. I remember the mad dash to Marc Meneau's remarkable restaurant L'Esperance in Burgundy. It took so long we had to change in the car from driving clothes into attire more suitable for an elegant dinner. As we sped down the road, my fellow traveler cautioned, with anguish in his voice, "Slow down! I don't want to die before I get to my first three-star restaurant."
The Michelin Guide, the French tire company's red-jacketed guidebook to officially sanctioned restaurants in France and other countries (viewed always with a French sensibility), is based on the concept of awarding stars to establishments deemed worthy of a side trip. And those who religiously follow this granddaddy of all restaurant guides are capable of planning entire journeys around such delicious detours.
But the effort involved getting to a distant restaurant sets expectations higher. The same meal at the restaurant around the corner might seem more satisfying--or at least less disappointing. When the idea came up recently to drive to Newport Beach for a meal at Pascal, the distance didn't seem daunting. After all, what's an hour and a half in the car if there's a good French meal at the end of the road?
Despite its shopping-mall setting, Pascal manages to look and feel like a restaurant in a provincial French town. It's actually prettier than most, with a trompe l'oeil bouquet brightening one wall, traditional Provencal-print tablecloths and masses of long-stemmed roses in white, pink and coral. The servers wear tuxedo shirts, black bow ties and long white aprons tied high. And just as in most restaurants in France where couples work as a team, Myriam Olhats runs the front of the house while her husband, Pascal, takes charge of the kitchen.
Madame Olhats takes her duties seriously, greeting clients graciously and keeping a careful watch on the waiters' pace. She also oversees the wine service with professionalism. Entrees are handwritten on paper slips tucked into the menu, but finding classics such as panier de crudit e s (basket of raw vegetables) or free-range chicken with olives is a little like looking for the tiny red-haired fellow in the "Where's Waldo?" children's books. The typeface is so small. On a first visit, we started with a decent foie gras salad, another delicious salad of endive leaves, Roquefort and pine nuts, and the soupe de poissons , a Provencal-style fish soup served with a saffron rouille. The soup was too restrained to be exciting. My rabbit was a large fellow, without much taste and just a bit dry, napped with a creamy mustard sauce and served with a swirl of chewy, herb-flecked noodles. Large nuggets of custardy sweetbreads came in a caramel-colored reduction--so far, so good--but loin of lamb gratineed with a dab of goat cheese on top was an awful idea to begin with, unappealing in texture and taste.
Our experience another evening was just as mixed. A creamy green dressing masked the taste of the tuna tartare. A nice, buttery brioche held sweetbreads cut so small and crispy they no longer resembled, or tasted like, sweetbreads. Sea bass with thyme, one of Olhat's signature dishes, is really Chilean sea bass (not the same thing at all) set in a pool of dull Champagne beurre blanc with a tomato concassee underneath for color and a green bread-crumb topping that tastes overbearingly of thyme. All in all, a clumsily executed dish. The rack of lamb was tender enough but pallid in taste. The duck breast in cassis sauce suffered from the same problem: The meat just doesn't have that much inherent flavor. And the mushroom risotto managed to be both mushy and undercooked.
In France, it would be unthinkable for a restaurant not to offer a cheese course, and Olhats doesn't disappoint. He could do much better, though. With the exception of the Roquefort, the cheeses were underripe and, for the most part, poor examples of their type.
Desserts at Pascal are mostly competent, if uninspired. I love the play of warm and cool in the ivory cheesecake souffle served with a scoop of white-chocolate ice cream, but the combination of those two flavors is as dubious as that of goat cheese and lamb.
At Pascal, some elements of a good French restaurant are in place, notably the well-trained staff and the gracious ambience. The trouble lies in the quality of the ingredients and in the kitchen's execution of Provencal dishes. Flavors are more cautious than full-throttle vibrant. The overall effect of the food is flat. The fact that Olhats is from Normandy may have something to do with it. He's a Northerner trying to evoke the sun-drenched flavors of southern France. His palate was formed on a cuisine of fresh-churned butter and luscious cream, not the Provencal olive oil and garlic of his later career. I'd be curious to see what would happen if this chef turned back the clock and started using cream and butter with abandon. It might improve things considerably. At this point, it may be worth a short drive, but certainly not 90 minutes.
Pascal, Plaza Newport, 1000 N. Bristol St., Newport Beach; (714) 752 - 0107. Lunch served Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday. Major credit cards accepted. Wine and beer. Dinner for two, food only, $58-$78. Four-course Menu Provencal, $37.50 per person.