The Gossiping Gourmet: A 'Tradition' of French fine dining

In these days of fusions and foam, fire pits and TV sets, it's nice to know that one can still enjoy a classic dining experience with white tablecloths and traditional French cuisine in a quiet atmosphere. Pascal Olhats changed the name of his original Newport Beach eatery to Tradition by Pascal to emphasize his commitment to French fine dining.

Large bouquets of roses adorn each of the three dining areas and single roses decorate the tables. Gentle light from the hanging fixtures suffuses each table and creates a sense of warmth and privacy. Service is attentive and amiable and a quiet conversation is actually possible.

In addition to the regular dinner menu, there are three prix-fixe offerings: one three-course and two four-course menus, ranging from $40 to $65. We ate there during Restaurant Week and had a lovely three-course dinner for only $30, albeit with fewer choices.

Escargots, the classic French appetizer, was given a twist. They are served in a little cast-iron crock, so there are no shells to fight but lots of garlicky butter and an interesting and delicious addition of sliced toasted almonds for texture and raisins for sweetness. The escargots were particularly tender and infused with the sauce, which we were eager to sop up with some nice baguette. Alas, here in a proper French restaurant, the bread was not crusty, warm nor tasty.

Here goes a rant. Why don't restaurants care about the bread anymore when good bread makes such a difference and decent par-baked bread is readily available? However, we ate it anyway. There was no passing up those herby, garlic butter juices.

Next came some wonderful chilled champagne poached oysters served on a liberal bed of wilted spinach and bathed in caviar crème fraîche with dill and chives, an exquisitely nuanced combination of flavors, redolent of the sea. Both dishes were beautifully balanced and simply presented.

Maigret de canard is one our favorites and Pascal's preparation is one of the better ones. It had a very nicely seasoned crust and as requested, was served rare, which makes it a little chewier but far more flavorful. The generous slices of duck breast rested on a port wine reduction with just the perfect hint of sweetness. The accompanying sautéed endive and caramelized red pears were diced together to make a salsa-like garnish rather than a side dish. All the different flavors married well. Side dishes are available for $7 and in this case would have rounded out the entrée.

Less exciting was the bouillabaisse. It was a perfectly nice seafood soup but lacked oomph, depth of flavor or complexity. There seemed to be no undertones of saffron in this light tomato broth. The classic accompaniment is rouille, a spicy, garlicky, mayonnaise, to be stirred in, to taste. Pascal's was neither spicy nor garlicky and served in a meager portion. There was plenty of fish and seafood: shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams and bass as well as a few new potatoes but you just don't want to yum up the mild broth.

Tarte tatin is the Gallic cousin of apple pie and is equally beloved by the French. The differences are that there is no top crust, the chunks of apple are bigger and bathed in caramel butter and it's cooked upside down. Pascal makes the bottom from puff pastry, which is crispy but not as rich as the classic pâte brisée. The nice sour apples were coated with caramel sauce that we found to be too sweet, unlike the delicious caramel drizzle on the plate that was just perfect. The tart is served with a big dollop of whipped cream.

Clafouti is a fruit dessert somewhere between cake and custard. The fruit, in this case blueberry, is baked in a vanilla flavored eggy batter, which rises, somewhat like a soufflé and then falls. Pascal's was outstanding with a lovely texture and crispy edges.

Sunday evenings there is also a family style prix-fixe menu and they are now featuring a $19 lunch menu on weekdays.

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 m_markowitz@cox.net.

Tradition By Pascal

Where: 1000 N. Bristol St., Newport Beach

When: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday;

Dinner: 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Dinner Prices:

Appetizers: $8-$20

Entrées: $24-$32

Prix-Fixe: $40, $50, $65

Desserts: $9.50-$10

Wine:

Bottles: $28-$950;

Half-bottles:$28-$52

By the glass: $10-$15; ($15-$18 for Champagne)

Corkage Fee: $20

Information: (949) 263-9400 ext. 1; pascalnewportbeach.com

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