Sitting in Pescadou Bistro and gazing out of the window at Newport Boulevard and City Hall doesn't really transport you to France, but as soon as you taste the food, memories of a delicious meal in a charming bistro in some small Gallic village immediately come to mind.
The interior of this pleasant, comfortable room has mustardy stucco walls accented with copper pots, arches dividing the two dining areas, banquettes lining the room and crisp white linens. Much to our delight, it is a room with good acoustics, making for easy conversation, which also evokes France: long dinners, lots of wine and lots of talk.
Chef Jacques de Quillien and his wife, Olga, took over the restaurant from her brother in 2002, and he has created a menu that includes an array of traditional French regional dishes.
The prix-fixe menu is a classic bistro standard. Here, it's called the "blackboard menu," and you can choose a two-course dinner for $24 with soup or salad and the chef's special or fish of the day, or a three-course dinner with the addition of a selection from three desserts or cheese.
Mussels and fries are featured in small or large portions in four different preparations. We chose the small portion in the Provençal style as an appetizer to share. Our large, plump and tender mussels were steeped in white wine, garlic, tomato, herbs and Pernod. The broth was light, well balanced and full of flavor. Bits of chopped tomato added a fresh finish to the delicious sauce. We soaked up all the juices with the warm but, sadly, insipid baguette.
We ordered the duck confit salad expecting the usual shreds of meat on greens, but were delighted with a classic whole confited duck leg and thigh with crackling skin, salty tender flesh and real depth of flavor. This is the way it is served in France, and it brought back waves of nostalgic pleasure. It sat atop some very lightly dressed salad greens garnished with cherry tomatoes, raspberries and large slices of pear. The sweet fruit made the perfect foil for the salty duck.
We were tempted to order the bouillabaisse: a lobster, vegetable, saffron, fennel broth rife with rockfish, monkfish, shrimp, calamari and mussels, but the duck breast also seemed appealing. We decided to leave the choice up to our young and personable waiter, Morgan, who recommended the duck breast.
When we asked him if the chef could cook it rare, which most American chefs are reluctant to do these days, he said he knew that it could be done because the chef is his father. (He said he's helping out on his summer break and pointed out his mother and older brother at a table across the room.) Pescadou is a family affair.
Our perfect duck entrée arrived exactly as requested, rare with a lovely, slightly peppery, very flavorful rub. The meat was juicy and tender, and the accompanying sauce was light with just a touch of cream and the perk of green peppercorns. It was by far the best duck breast we've had in recent memory ... again, truly French rather than "California style." It was served with perfectly cooked haricots verts and delicious sautéed mushrooms, which had been graciously substituted for mashed potatoes.
The tarte tatin (French apple pie) was baked in an individual portion. The puff pastry round was crispy and the mound of caramelized apples on the top, although a little mushy in texture, had a lovely flavor. The tart had been rebaked for serving but not quite long enough, as the interior was cold.
Less successful was the plum clafouti (plums topped with a sort of pudding cake). The texture was a bit too dense, more like bread pudding, and there was very little fruit to be found.
Pescadou is in every way French — the chef, the menu, the food (except for the bread) and an atmosphere that encourages a leisurely evening of dining and conversation.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
Where: 3325 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach
When: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Appetizers: $7 to $21
Entrées: $18 to $29
Desserts: $6 to $8
Bottles: $21 to $79
Half-bottles: $29 to $35
By the glass: $6 to $10
Corkage Fee: $15, no corkage Wednesdays
Information: (949) 675-6990 or http://www.pescadoubistro.com