With Thanksgiving around the corner, there's no better time to post about some grateful experiences I've had recently, one of which is being invited to check out dinner, for free save for tipping, at Tradition by Pascal (yes, the same place that Man Bites World's Noah checked out for his France Day, except I didn't have a camera crew following me around -- for better or for worse). It all came together pretty quickly, one moment I was reading a press release about a media dinner that I couldn't make due to conflicting schedules and the next, *poof*, an invite to Pascal's, literally days after I read Noah's post. After reading about that gorgeous experience and seeing all the lovely food photos, how can I refuse? After a few more email tagging, my plus one and I settled on checking them out in early November.
Chef Pascal Olhats came out to greet us and asked us what we'd like to try. Being novice to traditional French foods and not allergic to anything, we decided to let him choose our courses for us. And with a knowing, ingenius smile and nod, he soon headed back into the kitchen. Meanwhile, the bread service arrived.
I don't really make a point of blogging about bread, but I found the spread most interesting. It's a chunky, garlicky eggplant spread that reminds me of a cross between salsa verde and baba ghanouj. Definitely an eclectic spin from the traditional butter.
About ten minutes later, the floor manager/sommelier came over and poured our first wines - a light, minerally Pinot Gris - followed by the waiter come out with the first courses, mussels in a white wine broth with shallots and tomatoes. As I've noted before, I'm a particularly hard sell with mussels, but these definitely passed my muster. Very clean and fresh tasting, and the broth was wonderfully aromatic and not too wine-y, which tends to happen in this preparation. Delicious enough for me to take some bread to soak up the extra broth!
Alongside the mussels came the escargot in garlic butter with a pesto topping. After all the mussel prying and plucking, I'm glad these came already out of the shell (or I might have a Pretty Woman re-enactment). The escargots tasted pretty good, meaty but not gummy, and the sauce sealed the deal; hard to go wrong with the crunchy pine nuts and the fragrant garlic and basil butteryness. And though the pinot gris wine went with the mussels considerably better since the escargots were considerably heavier and richer, but it still worked OK here.
Next came a duo-color beet salad with lemon-flavored goat cheese, roasted hazelnuts, microgreens and some well-aged balsamic vinegar (I guesstimate at least 10 years, given the syrup-like viscosity). It tasted as colorful as it looked and worked on a few levels, with the contrast-yet-balance of the different flavors and textures, from the sweetness of the beets to the tangy goat cheese and the crunchy nuts with the balsamic binding everything together. And it's so simple it lets the natural, fresh flavors come through (and I'm definitely going to try to emulate this for a future potluck.)
Alongside the beets is the seared foie gras with poached fruit. My friend, tasting foie gras for the first time, practically moaned eating this, and I agreed it was one of the better specimens I've had. It had firmness, texture and flavor before practically dissolving into fatty richness in your mouth (To quote the articulate OC foodblogger Elmomonster by way of Fifth Deadly Sin, who also dined here before, "The pleasure of eating foie gras is sanguineous and carnal. It's like pornography for the palate, and you feel naughty for loving it.") So true...
The fruit (pear? nectarine?) mixed well with the foie gras juices and this time it was my friend who was sopping up the liquid with the bread. (and it was also here that my French amateurism came through, totally unaware that foie gras' natural wine pairing is a Sauternes, which, like everything else, made sense in hindsight; rich heavy dish, rich heavy wine whose honey-fruity flavors blends well with the poached fruit).
Luckily I redeemed myself somewhat when a Napa fume blanc is poured next and already can tell that some seafood dish is coming (OK, not *that* amazing a guess, but definitely an improvement compared to my earlier wine-food faux pas). Sure enough, we were served a pan-roasted whitefish filet with a tomato beurre blanc and a tomato-herb risotto with capers. An interesting take on the more classic lemon-butter preparation, but still the same idea with the acid making the sauce less heavy and complementing the flaky fish with the crispy skin and the briny capers gave it a nice little extra zing too. The risotto here is well-made and creamy, though personally I like my risotto a little bit firmer.
We were both getting pretty full, but I know there's at least another round of savory courses since land meats have yet to made a presence. As if on cue, a pinot noir is poured and a plate of sliced, roasted duck is served. I can't quite ID the sauce but it's a wonderful sweet-savory combo that blends well with the succulent, flavorful meat. I actually commented to the waiter about how the duck tasted "ducky" and he kind of freaked out, which made me embarassed since I meant it in a good way (like beefier beef, as opposed to fishy fish -- if that made any sense) but I guess I should've been more articulate. Though in my defense, we were on our fourth glass of wine.
Accompanying the duck is the rabbit stew with wild mushrooms and a side of roasted potatoes. And at the risk of being clichéd, it tasted like a blend of chicken and lean pork with a little gameyness, but the sauce of mushroom, wine and some sort of truffle (oil? essence? maybe even actual flakes?) made it work. The colorful taters were tasty too.
Alas, given all we have eaten and as delicious as these dishes were, we couldn't finish the bugs 'n daffy. But we did make pretty good work on them by the time they were bussed away.
Of course, me being me, I couldn't refuse desserts and we're in for some pretty special sweet treats as we were served coffee and a glass of 20 yr old port (which I could sniff all day, it smelled wonderfully of butterscotch, pecan pie and rich vanilla!)
First up is the chocolate-chestnut torte, with whole pieces of chestnuts nestled within! It was dark and intense, but the lighter texture of the chestnuts made the dish less heavy and rich, so we had little guilt spooning to the very last bite.
Alongside that is lavender creme brulee in a little pumpkin; so cute! Like mussels, I'm wary of lavender since it has a tendency to be an aromatic overkill, but here it's nicely subdued by the rich custard. There's a slight perfume of the buds, but it wasn't as if I walked into a fragrance/body care shop with every bite. Needless to say, we at this to the very last spoonful too.
Of course, after nine wonderful courses -- we wanted to thank the chef and ask him a few questions, but it turned out he already left since he had to prepare/staff a charity event... but wait, he's going to drive back to talk to us anyways. Words couldn't describe how bad we felt that Chef Pascal, who's been slaving all day in the kitchen and probably ready to plop into a hot bath, or just the bed, is going to drive all the way back to talk to two Francophile poseurs (and we felt worse with every passing minute and sip of our coffees.) He showed up within 25 minutes, but our guilts said forever, and we apologized profusely before starting conversation.
And just like with Noah, Pascal was a perfect, charming man who definitely has a passion for the cuisine, showing enthusiasm for everything from intimately knowing your foods to keeping generations-passed cooking traditions alive (though he admits to modernizing the cuisine by making it lighter here than what would be served in France.)
He also spoke fondly of the 20 years he's spent here in Newport Beach (moving here after living and cooking all over Europe) and thankfully, he still looks forward to having a presence in the restaurant and plans on staying hands-on at Tradition for many years to come while hoping to expand Pascal Epicerie, a fast-casual takeout/catering offshoot offering breakfast, lunches, and prepared dinners for folks entertaining or on-the-go. We also talked about his annual cruise seven years in the running, where he and his guest sail through various regions of the world with him creating and tasting meals based on what's locally available (this year they traveled from Greece to Croatia to Italy!) And on and on we chatted, barely noticing that the rest of the place is closing up.
Not wanting to keep Pascal or the rest of the staff any longer, we left our tip on the table and made a quick departure with a full stomach, satisfied palates and plenty of stories to share and tell. My friend already can't wait to return (esp. for the foie gras) and the same goes for me, should I ever want to taste France w/o having to fly over there.
Tradition by Pascal
1000 Bristol St N