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THE GOSSIPING GOURMET: Picayo adds some more pop

There have been some changes at Picayo since we last visited, including a complete remodel.

They’ve transformed the space into three distinct areas. The attractive, enlarged dining patio is bright and colorful. On Wednesdays, they feature live music with local talent.

A new, hip, modern cocktail lounge has low, overstuffed black leather couches and a sleek metal and glass bar, with big windows overlooking the patio.

By contrast, the very cozy dining room is reminiscent of a little country auberge somewhere in Provence. Lots of light-colored wood, a beamed ceiling and corny murals of French landscapes give the room a feeling of authenticity, which was charmingly reinforced when out stepped our quintessentially French waiter, complete with a devastating Gallic accent, to present us with le carte.

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The menu, presided over by Chef Rigeau, is French/Mediterranean and features classic dishes from onion soup to escargots and boeuf Bourguignon to bouillabaisse.

There are actually three menus. The dinner menu is served in the dining room and on the patio. The petite French tasting menu and the petite lounge menu are served in the lounge and on the patio.

The petite French tasting menu has small portions of selected items from the dinner menu, while the petite lounge menu offers classic bar fare including burgers, fish and chips and tacos, as well as something a little different, such as beef or chicken brochettes, seafood pasta or a daily cheese plate. So, you just have to figure out where you want to sit and what you want to eat before you actually take a seat.

Happily ensconced in the pleasant little dining room, we were delighted to find frogs legs on the menu; this classic bistro dish is rarely found outside La Belle France these days. And yes, if you’ve never tried them, they do taste like chicken.

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These little limbs come smothered in a delicious sauce of butter, shallots, garlic and white wine, with a smidgen of cream. When we finished the legs, we sopped up the rest of the sauce with Picayo’s nice crusty olive bread. The frogs’ legs themselves were not as good as in France, but the sauce was as good as any we’ve ever had anywhere.

The very Mediterranean trio of hummus, eggplant puree and ratatouille was accompanied by warm pita bread. We debated which was our favorite.

Terry loved the garlicky eggplant and Elle voted for the very fresh-tasting ratatouille with each vegetable (onions, red bells, eggplant and tomatoes) retaining its character and flavor while melding into a delicious harmony. The hummus was creamy but perhaps a bit too smooth, and it lacked stronger notes of lemon or garlic?.?.?.?pleasant, but not punchy.

Other starters include the “purse" of prawns, artichoke hearts and mushrooms. Filo dough is wrapped around the savory filling and served with a tarragon-merlot sauce. And if it doesn’t offend your sense of the politically correct, foie gras is served here with caramelized beets and red onions in a sherry vinaigrette reduction.

No proper French bistro would be without its cheesy onion soup or escargot with garlic butter, and Picayo doesn’t disappoint.

Our only disappointment of the evening was the mushroom ravioli. It’s normally served in a cream sauce, which we thought might be too rich, but our waiter suggested that he could serve it with mushroom sauce.

That idea appealed to us, but it turned out to be a mistake since it was actually mushroom soup that they had on hand (as our waiter later told us.) It would have been fine as a soup but lacked the depth of flavor needed for a sauce. The more serious problem was that the ravioli was sadly overcooked. The best part of the dish was the accompanying sautéed spinach.

There is something wonderful about Chilean sea bass and now that it’s returned to sustainability and back on the market, we almost never pass it up. Chef Rigeau has a way with sauces.

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He pan-sears this velvety fish and serves it with a lovely lemon caper beurre blanc with a hint of mustard. Potato puree and vegetables come on the side. That evening there were rather large and tasteless baby carrots.

Very traditional French entrées include: a rich beef Bourguignon, coq au vin and bouillabaisse a la Marseille. Lamb chops are served Provencal-style on a bed of Picayo’s wonderful ratatouille, and seared duck breast has a peach demi-glace and caramelized peaches. Their version of steak/frites is filet mignon in a morel, merlot sauce.

The dessert menu is a work in progress, but they serve crème brulée with raspberries and red wine poached pears as well as flourless chocolate truffle cake with berries and chocolate sauce.

The trio of sorbets included apricot chardonnay, blackberry cabernet and chocolate-orange. The apricot sounded better than it tasted and the blackberry was good, but the chocolate-orange was fabulous. It tasted more like gelato than sorbet with its very creamy texture and intense dark chocolate flavor.

One of the nice things about Picayo is that there is a space designed to suit your mood, whatever that may be, with a menu to complement it: snacks, light suppers, complete dinners or just a drink at the bar. They are also planning to serve lunch during the summer months, perhaps as early as June.

If you haven’t been there for a while, we think you’ll be pleased with the design changes and the new menus.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Picayo

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WHERE: 610 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach

WHEN: Happy Hour: Monday to Thursday, 4 to 7 p.m.; Dinner: Monday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to closing.

CONTACT: (949) 497-5051 or www.PicayoRestaurant.com

PRICES:

Appetizers: $9-$22

Entrées: $12-$32

Desserts: $8-$9.50

Lounge: $2.50-$8

Tasting Menu (lounge and patio): $4-$14

WINE:

Bottles: $22-$109

Half Bottles: $16-$38

By the glass: $9-$10

Corkage Fee: $15


ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at themarkos755@yahoo.com.


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