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The Gossiping Gourmet: French 75 goes back to its retro roots

Restaurants everywhere are undergoing changes to accommodate the Great Recession. We certainly see that happening here in Laguna.

For a brief time, French 75 was called “75" and was moving toward contemporary California-style cuisine; but with the departure of chef Mitch Gillan and the re-takeover by Culinary Adventures, the restaurant is back to serving rich, classic French food, including the addition of entrée crèpes and, for the budget conscious, four small-plate versions of their entrées plus a three-course prix fixe menu for $30.

On Mondays, the dinner menu is 50% off. Here, Taco Tuesday means crèpe specials, and Wine Wednesday has half off on selected bottles, served with a complimentary cheese plate. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, they have a reverse happy hour from 9:30 p.m. until closing.

Chef Dave Shofner, a veteran of Culinary Adventures, has taken the helm. Gone is the divine bread from the Jacques bakery, replaced with ordinary baguette, and the accompanying olive tapenade has lost some of its punch.

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We have always been fans of the shrimp cassoulet, now called Cognac Dijon shrimp, but it is virtually the same dish, only served in a bowl with more shrimp and more sauce. We were so surprised by the portion that we started to count the shrimp. Eleven good-sized shrimp were swimming in a sea of creamy sauce. The shrimp were fresh and plump, while the richness of the sauce was tempered with Cognac, tiny chunks of tomato, chives and a hint of black pepper. This would easily have made a nice entrée with a salad.

The shrimp were not as tasty in the fruits de mer crèpes, which also included a few scallops, a tiny bit of lobster and sautéed spinach. The lobster cream sauce was very flavorful. We ordered the small-plate version, but once again the portion was quite generous. The crèpe itself was a bit doughy and heavy and lacked the nice eggy, buttery taste and crispiness of a good one. Other entrée crepes are: short rib Stroganoff, chicken with mushrooms and spinach in sherry cream sauce or the vegetarian with mushrooms leeks, spinach and potatoes in herb butter.

More authentic bistro starters include: French onion soup, escargots, moules frites and chilled oysters. Some less traditional entrées include potato gnocchi with butternut squash in sage brown butter, short ribs and an Asian-style study of shellfish with mirin glaze and red rice; but you can also get a filet, a rib eye or a rack of lamb.

The entrée we chose from the pre-fixe menu was Tasmanian sea trout, a salmon-like fish from the South Pacific. It was nicely cooked with a crispy skin but it had a strong salmon flavor. It was served with a rich sunchoke puree that lacked the characteristic nutty flavor of this underused vegetable. The blood orange vinaigrette, the highlight of the dish, made a tasty dressing for the mico-arugula garnish.

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The coq au vin can also be ordered as a small plate. Many moons ago, we were introduced to this dish by Julia Child. Her resurgence via the recent film “Julie and Julia" warmed the hearts of her old disciples and stimulated the interest of a new generation. This retro classic, a chicken and wine stew, was a party piece at every beginning home-chef’s dinner parties back in the late ‘60s.

This version had the expected pearl onions but lacked the requisite chunky mushrooms (there was only one thin slice) and bacon flavor. The sauce was more like gravy without the balanced complexity and thinner texture of this traditional French dish. The mashed potatoes were rich and smooth. They were sinfully delicious, and the size of the portion was generous for a small plate.

The chocolate soufflé has been a standard at French 75. Made with good Callebaut chocolate, it is baked in a 4-inch soufflé dish and offered as a dessert for two. It was more than enough for us, but serious chocolate lovers should have no trouble finishing it alone. Baked in a small crock, it has lots of crust and just a small amount of soft center. It is served with Cointreau-flavored whipped cream, which can be ladled the warm chocolate, if desired.

The blueberry, lemon and white chocolate bread pudding was a smooth-textured affair, tasting mostly of white chocolate with a hint of lemon but there were no blueberries to be seen. The cardamom-scented blueberry coulis was just a drizzle.

Other traditional desserts include a dark chocolate, banana-filled crepe, New York cheesecake, crème brûlée, a sorbet trio and of course a selection of cheeses.

If there is any way to request Melissa as your waitress, do it! She is attentive, extremely knowledgeable, charming and helpful.

With its retro French menu and brasserie-like décor, French 75 brings a Gallic touch to our Southern California beach town.

If You Go

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What: French 75, (949) 494-8444, culinaryadventures.com

Where: 1464 S. Coast Hwy.

When: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Prices:

Appetizers: $7.75 to $16.75

Small plates: $9.50 to $14

Entrées: $12.75 to $36.75

Desserts: $7 to $22

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Wine:

Bottles: $30 to $1825

Half-bottles: $27 to $140

Carafes: $14 to $28

By the glass: $9 to $12

Corkage Fee: $20


ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet foods and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at themarkos755@yahoo.com


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