Monday, February 13, 2012

Tradition by Pascal - 02/13/2012

1000 Bristol St N
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 263-9400

It seems my friends and I are on something of a last call tour of late, first Drago and now Tradition by Pascal. Opened for over 24 years, the restaurant is one of Orange County's few bastions of fine dining supposedly topping the OC Zagat rating for over a decade. I've known about the restaurant since I started dining out regularly and though I've been meaning to go since 2006, one look at the menu saps my enthusiasm. The food is Classic French and the mental image I got was of a restaurant that is both stuffy and not a little bit tired.

Tradition's Chef/Owner, Pascal Olhats, got his start in Europe and after attending Hotel School in Brussels, he worked for legendary chef Paul Bocuse before moving on to Club 55 in St. Tropez on the French Riviera. In 1984, Chef Olhats made his way to California and and led kitchens at the Hotel Le Meridian and Restaurant Chanteclair before opening Tradition by Pascal in 1988. Tradition by Pascal is undoubtedly the flagship of Pascal's six establishments which include a brasserie, tea garden, and cafe as well as gourmet picnic and take out places. Talking with Pascal, he explained the decision to close was due to his desire to transition to the next chapter in his life. Managing his flagship restaurant simply took too much of his time, time which Pascal plans to spend on his other restaurants as well as to pen a semi-autobiographical cookbook.

Escargot Cassolette "Christine" - Toasted Pine Nuts and Garlic Butter
I honestly can't remember the last time I had escargot. The snails were tender and meaty with a trace of earthy bitterness and came soaked in a bath of herb butter. The classic combination was accented with a pleasing toastiness from the pine nuts.

Scampi Magali - Sautéed Tiger Prawns with Tomato, Basil and Pastis Cream Sauce
One of the more disappointing courses of the night, the prawns were slightly overcooked and the entire dish just felt subdued; acidity or spice would have gone nicely here and given the dish some bite.

Imported Smoked Herring & Homemade Gravlax - with Warm Potato Salad and Dill Mustard Dressing
I was a bit dubious about the herring but this proved to be the strongest of the appetizers. The salmon was unexpectedly delicious but it was the herring that surprised. Texturally the herring was more like a yellowtail while the flavor had a decidedly smoky smack but was generally light on the fishiness. The mustard, infused with a fragrant dill, left a lingering piquancy on the palate while the potato salad provided a sturdy starchy contrast to the raw fish.

Chilled Champagne Poached Oysters - (4) ou Spinach with Caviar and Dill Crème Fraîche
Like the scampi there was nothing overtly wrong with this dish but the flavors just felt washed out, the spinach provided some flavor but I would have liked more assertiveness from the oysters or caviar.

Salade Maison - Butter Lettuce, Croutons, Poached Egg, and Warm Lardons on the Side with House Vinaigrette
A take on the Salade Lyonnaise, the Salade Maison replaces the frisee with butter lettuce and uses croutons to provide some roughness. I actually preferred the butter lettuce, finding its succulence refreshing and the lack of overt bitterness allows the richness of the eggs and bacon to shine.

Dijon-Crusted Rack of Lamb - Celery Root Purée, Vegetables a la Provençale and Pan Jus
The instant I bit into the lamb, I was surprised by how soft the meat was. With no gristle to speak of I picked the chop up by the bone and proceeded to devour the game-tinged meat. Though I don't typically enjoy celery root or roasted red peppers the flavors of char and bitterness added nicely to the the dish's rustic character.

Thyme-Crusted Sea Bass - Seafood Chardonnay Sauce on a Tomato Concassé (House Specialty)
Arguably the most intriguing of the four entrees I tried, I can see why this was the restaurant's signature. The bass was actually a bit more robust than I was expecting though the fishiness is countered nicely by the lobster-bisque essence of the sauce. A bright streak of acidity from the tomato cuts right through the richness of the dish. The texture is equally distinctive with the flesh virtually dissolving into component fibers.

Braised Rabbit - with Dijon Mustard Sauce and Roasted Potatoes
Despite being the weakest of the entrees, the rabbit was still quite good. The meat is falling off the bone tender, but feels a touch dry. Oddly the flavor had a porcine cast to it and the reminiscent of the carnitas at Chipotle.

Sautéed PRIME Beef Filet Mignon Périgord - with Sautéed Foie Gras and Cognac Truffle Sauce
The final entree was a very competently prepared filet mignon. The truffles aren't really noticeable but their absence isn't missed. Instead the foie acts like a pad of butter seasoning the meat with a gamy unctuousness. The vegetables were enjoyable but I would have liked a bit more snap from the haricot vert.

Chocolate Chestnut Torte - Served Warm with Chocolate and Raspberry Sauce
With barely any chestnut flavor to speak of, was really more like a molten chocolate cake: soft, decadent, and chock full of chocolaty goodness.

Profiterole au Chocolat - Pastry Puff filled with Vanilla Ice Cream, Chocolate Sauce
A relatively rare dessert, profiteroles consist of a choux pastry filled in this case with chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Nothing too complex, but the the airy pastry and weighty sweetness of the ice cream still make for a delicious pair.

Classic French Lemon Tart - Served with Raspberry Coulis
Another straightforward but delicious dessert. The bracing tang of the lemon curd contrasts nicely with the heft of the crust.

Warm Tarte Tatin - With a Strawberry and Champagne Shot
A surprisingly progressive dessert, the upside-down apple tart consisted of a ripe caramelized apple over an unabashedly buttery crust. The dish is accompanied by a refreshing champagne mixed with muddled strawberry as well as a savory rye-studded white chocolate.

Warm Thin Apple Tart - Ice Cream & Caramel Sauce
Odd that the restaurant offers both an apple tart and tarte tatin, but there were some differences between the two. The natural flavors of the apple are much more apparent here and the dessert as a whole is more nicely integrated than in the tatin

I was pleasantly surprised by Pascal; though I expected a staid and stodgy meal, the food was anything but. Despite a couple misses early on the meal picked up markedly with solid entrees and desserts. It's a shame the restaurant is closing; sometimes its nice to be reminded tradition doesn't have to be tired.

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