Black Sheep Bistro has just gotten better and better in the eight years Rick Boufford has operated it--and so has its eclectic wine cellar. When I'm feeling nostalgic for the Mediterranean, there's no Orange County restaurant I'd rather visit.
Boufford is passionate about the region and frequently visits it, as shown by nearly 100 picturesque shots of French, Spanish and Italian markets, restaurants and hotels that hang on Black Sheep Bistro's pink brick walls. The front page of his menu is a map of the Mediterranean coast from Barcelona to Rome. Inside, a page apiece is devoted to Catalan, Tuscan and Provencal specialties, plus a few from neighboring areas.
None of this would mean much if Boufford weren't an accomplished chef, of course, but he is. At its best, his cooking is rustic and intense, and as close to what you'd actually get in Europe as anyone else is doing around here.
The European treatment begins as soon as you're seated in the quiet, cozy dining room. Diana Boufford, the restaurant's mai^tre d' and manager, brings out a basket of hot home-baked breads, followed by a tiny dish of delicious brine-cured olives, green and black. They're bathed in a marinade of thyme, oregano and minced garlic. You'll probably wish that the dish were bigger.
But getting enough to eat shouldn't pose a problem here. The menu offers several southern European options for working up an appetite. There is a textbook Italian bruschetta on perfectly toasted bread, and a creation called amanida Catalana, which adds crushed olives, chopped onions and a few salad greens to the bruschetta's heady mix of tomatoes, garlic and fruity olive oil.
Good ingredients mean everything in Mediterranean cookery; the chef buys his tender, plump black mussels from a farm in Carlsbad. He prepares them in three styles. I had the French version (a la Provencale), in which the mussels are poached in a sumptuous broth loaded with parsley, garlic and olive oil. You could also get mussels Italian style, with tomato, garlic and capers, or as mejillones con azafran, in a Spanish broth based on onions, capers and saffron.
Boufford also serves a wonderful plate of Spanish-style sausages from La Espagnola, a Lomita sausage maker. The sausage selection includes, among others, a spicy chorizo and a rich, garlicky French salami (saucisson de Viche), which is especially delicious on grilled bread.
Some key Mediterranean ingredients are easier to make than to buy, though, such as confit de canard, a rich, flavorful southwestern French specialty of duck meat preserved in its own fat. Boufford makes his own and serves it in a variety of ways. One is a la campagnarde, where crisply cooked duck leg comes in a sauce of mushrooms, onions and tomatoes. A more unusual way is in a Catalan sauce called romesco, made from almonds, peppers, garlic and olive oil. (Boufford will omit the almonds for those allergic to nuts.)
The chef also makes most of the classic Mediterranean main dishes. You can call ahead for specialties such as grand aioli, cassoulet, paella Valenciana, venison or bouillabaisse. (Or, as the menu says, "Anything else, challenge me.")
But you needn't. You'll probably be quite satisfied with his perfectly stirred risotto alla funghi, an iron skillet filled with arborio rice gently cooked with porcini mushrooms, onions, garlic and butter. Italy surfaces again in a very Italian dish of pan-seared lamb chops crusted with fresh rosemary (costoletta d'agnello).
A Catalan inspiration is cordero all-i-pebre, thin slices of blood-rare lamb in a fiery sauce of olive oil, peppers, parsley and the Mediterranean's ever-present garlic. Another French dish worth noting is the perfectly tender lamb kidneys (rognons d'agneau). Black Sheep Bistro is the only O.C. restaurant serving this dish.
Unless you really know wine, it's best to ask the chef for help in choosing from his list. With tapas and bruschetta, for instance, he suggested a bright, fruity white wine from Bergerac, Cha^teau Le Reyssac; it was a steal at $16. And with the duck dishes, he recommended a light and pleasant Bandol, the '94 Le Galantin, just $20.
If you have a fat wallet, you could easily spend a king's ransom on this wine list. You might put together a tasting of 1990 wines from the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, among the most expensive in the world. Those five bottles will set you back a smooth $3,600.
After the main meal, Diana Boufford will wheel one of O.C.'s best cheese boards to your table. It is stocked with raw-milk French treasures such as real Alsatian Munster, marc-flavored Epoisses from Burgundy, a pungent goat cheese called St. Loup and a ripe, runny Reblochon from the Savoy. The best non-French cheese is Italy's Taleggio.
The restaurant's best desserts are pure hedonism. Standouts include ga^teau de chocolat, a light, flourless chocolate cake in a pool of rich chocolate sauce, and crema Catalana, a regal custard perfumed with anise and topped with a crackling burnt-sugar crust.
Let the Bouffords do the legwork and take the pictures. The next time I'm in the mood for tapas, risotto or a good cassoulet, I'm just going to hang out at Black Sheep Bistro.
Black Sheep Bistro is expensive. Appetizers are $6 to $12. Pastas are $14 to $20. Main courses are $14 to $26. There is also a small market attached to the restaurant, featuring imported cheeses, specialty items and Boufford's homemade confits.
Black Sheep Bistro, 303 El Camino Real, Tustin. (714) 544-6060. Tuesday though Saturday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. All major cards.