Are you old enough to remember when French cuisine came to the United States and set the standard for fine dining? Home cooks across America were loyally watching Julia Child and rushing to buy her cookbooks, while a plethora of French eateries from bistros and brasseries to elegant restaurants opened across the country.
Today, it's just another of the multitude of ethnic and fusion dining options we have in Orange County. But sometimes I find myself longing for a little French bistro with a quiet atmosphere and good old-fashioned food. Basilic Restaurant, on Balboa Island, is just such a place, serving classic Swiss/French cuisine since 1997 prepared by chef Bernard Althaus.
Stepping into this cozy little bistro, you are almost transported to another time. There is an Old World feel about it, with banquettes lining both sides of the narrow room, dark knotty pine ceiling and walls, overhead fans, white linens, miniature oil lamps and two red roses in a vase on each table.
An amuse bouche of soft herbal cheese on a slice of toasted baguette arrives as you ponder the menu, followed by a basket of bread and butter. My dining companion and I shared the charcuterie plate for one, which consisted of thin slices of salty prosciutto, spicy chorizo sausage, a slab of mild pate and several slices of rich duck prosciutto.
On the side were two little crocks, one with cornichons, olives and pickled onions and one with spicy mustard. There was also a little mound of Tete de Moine cheese, which is a Swiss cheese that is scraped with a knife to produce thin shavings. We had never tasted cheese like it before. It was flaky.
It was a nice start to the meal, except that the bread — shaped like a baguette but without the nice crust and with the texture of white bread (in a French restaurant?) — was surprisingly uninteresting. Zut alors!
We also shared the classic Swiss appetizer, raclette. Rather than serving it with the traditional tableside toaster, it was served, already melted, on a plate. Four slices of wonderful cow's milk cheese came with more cornichons and onions and two small boiled potatoes. The idea is to dip the accoutrements into the cheese or eat them on the side, which we did, because the cheese was so good by itself.
My entrée was the only real deviation from tradition. A beautiful, thick piece of black cod was cloaked in sesame seeds and thin slices of shitake mushrooms. The succulent fish was perfectly cooked and served on a bed of very flavorful red rice, resting in a luscious, slightly spicy, Sichuan beurre blanc sauce.
My dinner guest had coq au vin with pieces of very tender chicken, long-braised with garlic, bacon, onions and red wine and presented on top of wide flat egg noodles that soaked up the delicious sauce. Good, crunchy vegetables came alongside: carrots, baby zucchini and green beans.
Desserts include crème brulee, of course, and a tart tatin. Basilic's tatin is not quite the classic version, which is a melange of caramelized, cooked apples on a tart pastry crust that is cooked upside down with the pastry on top and then flipped over before serving.
Always a bit tricky, that flipping part, so here, the bottom puff pastry is baked and then piled with apples tossed in a rich caramel sauce. Some Tahitian vanilla ice cream, fresh berries and whipped cream completed this sweet treat.
I have only one gripe about the food at Basilic, and that is the so-called baguettes. The restaurant has served the same soft white bread version forever, and one of the things I love best in France is a good crusty baguette.
Aside from that bit of nitpicking, Basilic is a charming little place with a nice atmosphere, very good food and a quiet ambiance. Bon appetit!
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where: 217 Marine Ave., Balboa Island
When: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
Appetizers: $6 to $14.50
Entrées: $19 to $35
Three-course tasting menu: $59
Desserts: $8 to $12
Bottles: $35 to $324
Half bottles $25 to $69
By the glass: $9 to $13
Corkage fee: $25
Information: (949) 673-0570 or basilicrestaurant.com