The Review: Pinot Provence in Costa Mesa

The New Zealand lamb rack at Pinot Provence.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Restaurant Critic

When Pinot Provence opened in 1998, Joachim Splichal was one of the first big-name L.A. chefs, if not the first, to venture into Orange County.

The restaurant is still there, just across from South Coast Plaza and around the corner from South Coast Repertory. But Pinot Provence has suffered in the intervening years. Whereas it once had high ambitions and served truly Provençal food, more recently Splichal has seemed content to position his sixth restaurant as a standard bistro with a standard menu.

Now, though, Pinot Provence has a new chef. She’s Laurent “Lulu” De Rouen, who grew up in Manhattan Beach, the daughter of a New Orleans-raised Frenchman.

Strong execution

There’s still nothing too forward-looking or exotic on the menu, just basic French cooking with the addition of some contemporary and North African accents.

But De Rouen is doing a great job executing it; while the food itself may seem limited in ambition and lacking a personal stamp, almost every dish I’ve had under her tenure has had a bright polish.

The décor seems a bit more subdued as well. I remember the restaurant as a glitzy O.C. take on Provence, albeit created from French antiques, with even the limestone fireplace and stone doorway hauled back from Provence.

Now, the place is beginning to look lived-in, as if it really were a bistro in Provence. The lithe stone statue of a woman at the entrance to the dining room looks as if she’s been greeting diners for decades. The ironwork chandeliers have developed even more of a patina.

And the outdoor terrace (tented in canvas), with its old stone fountain, decorative bird cages and iron garden chairs outfitted with cushions, looks like something you’d find in l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, an antiques village in Provence.

Once inside, you’d never dream that the Westin South Coast Plaza is next door and that glass office towers are just down the street, and the 405 freeway only blocks away. We’re out here on the terrace sipping Champagne or pretty pink kir. I hear a murmur of French from the bar.

The shame is that the place is fairly empty on weeknights, picking up steam pretty much only on weekends. Doesn’t anyone know about the changes yet? And where are all the hotel guests?

For starters

Oysters at Patina Group restaurants are almost always a good bet, pristine and chilled and relatively well-priced compared to elsewhere. Order them on the half shell with fine-spun mignonette -- Champagne vinegar and shallots.

Of course, a French restaurant usually means foie gras, and that’s true here as well. But instead of the usual sweet sauce served with the seared lobe, De Rouen lightens the whole dish by pairing the liver with poached yellow peaches in a white peach purée, and serving it with buttery brioche toast. Perfect.

Her onion soup isn’t as heavy-handed as many versions; the broth is light, not overburdened with caramelized onions, wearing a thin blanket of Gruyère.

But for me, the revelation is her escargots, served not in the shell, but in a small rectangular porcelain gratin dish, each plump, tasty snail tucked in a depression in the dish, enrobed in a fragrant garlic-parsley sauce with toasted brioche breadcrumbs sprinkled on top.

I also very much enjoy her frog legs, four or five of them lined up on the plate, served in a harissa butter that fires up the synapses, with a smear of pale green basil emulsion underneath. The taste? Very similar to game hen.

Moules frites come in a huge white bowl topped with a lid that looks like a beret in porcelain. Juicy and light with just a touch of cream and lemon, the mussels are sweet and delicious. But the heap of fries that come with them are so wan-looking, I’m thinking someone forgot to fry them for the second time.

Salads don’t fare as well. In fact, could they be more boring? Farmers market beets with goat cheese, Caesar, organic greens and then Belgian endive with watercress, blue cheese and candied pecans.

Skip them all in favor of the prosciutto with burrata and haricots verts.

More standouts

If you love lamb, order the New Zealand rack of lamb marinated in chermoula, a North African spice mixture that includes paprika, cumin and lemon. De Rouen serves two meaty chops on a divided plate.

One tender chop comes with a graceful fresh mint sauce; the other with a spunky harissa emulsion. Thickly sliced duck breast avoids cliché with a blackberry sauce with a jolt of vinegar in it.

She cooks everybody’s favorite boneless beef short ribs so that the beef retains its texture. Right now, she’s serving them with potato purée whipped with Morbier cheese, sautéed wild mushrooms and the braising juices. Ask the kitchen to hold the truffle oil, though (and they actually remember, fancy that).

If your tastes run to the classic and simple, order the Angus beef filet, a truly fine piece of meat with a deep, beefy flavor. It’s served with a heap of fries and some sunburst squash. For $10 less, the grilled flank steak is every bit as satisfying, flanked by potato purée, watercress salad and an emerald chimichurri sauce.

Other entrees, especially the tomato-basil soup, halibut and rotisserie chicken are not so special.

Attention to wine

Splichal cares about wine and it shows in the lists for his restaurants. This one has an entire page of half bottles, perfect if you’re just two and want to have a white and a red. They’re not exactly an inexpensive option, though, since most are more than $50.

The full wine list is excellent, offering multiple vintages for some wines and a broad swath of mostly California and French wines, including alternatives to Chardonnay or Cabernet.

The one outstanding dessert is the Valrhona chocolate bread pudding, the soft chunks of bread permeated with deep, dark chocolate. Apple tart seems a bit lazy: It’s simply apples in caramel sauce spooned between two pieces of puff pastry, assembled rather than cooked together.

Unfortunately, the gelato -- made in the Patina Group central kitchen, according to our waiter -- has a refrigerator taste. Wherever these ice creams are made, they warrant a big fat C.

Though Pinot Provence doesn’t outshine Marché Moderne across the street, De Rouen shows her stuff with a well-executed bistro menu. I just wish she had the chance to show more of her own cooking and sensibility here in a job that seems more like a place holder than anything else.

But then, when you’re merely an officer in the army, you go where the general tells you to go.