Day 43: France
Things are getting very strange. On September 16th, Eater LA, the popular Los Angeles restaurant, bar and nightlife blog made a post about our website. A successful restaurant publicist read it there, then contacted me to see if I would be interested in being hosted for France Day by Chef Pascal Olhats at his popular Newport Beach restaurant, Tradition By Pascal. These two things, first of all, were an absolute and total shock to me. Before the project began I had said, “Two of my total pipe dreams for this project are to somehow, like maybe on day 70 or something, have Eater LA hear about us and links to us, or that a nice restaurant hears about us and offers a free meal. Wouldn’t that be the most ridiculous thing ever?” To have both come about, totally on their own, beginning on Day 16, felt absurd. Now obviously, I don’t want to be hosted at a restaurant which isn’t very good and where I’ll have to feel bad about giving an honest reaction to the food, so I did some research and from everything I could tell, Tradition was one of the best French restaurants around. So I told the publicist that I was totally honored (which I was) and that I would absolutely be thrilled to be hosted by Chef Olhats. Then the publicist asked what I’ve done for publicity and I told him the truth. “Nothing.” Pretty soon after, the publicist winds up getting in touch with Allie MacKay from the KTLA Morning News Show, who then contacted me and set things up for an early breakfast segment at the restaurant’s epicerie next door. So the absolute absurdity continues, the plan is set in motion and all things are go.
GirlfriendBites and I, after going to sleep around 1 AM, wake up at 4, gather our belongings, shower and drive down to Newport Beach to meet Allie, the publicist, the camera man and Chef Olhats. We arrive with heavy eyelids and craving caffeine, but luckily, we’re at a French café, so we’re promptly accommodated. I meet the group and everyone is extremely nice. They explain that we’re going to be shooting three teasers and three segments. Allie had asked me to bring some of the photos from the blog, and those are now laid out at a table with various delicious baked goods (including extremely fluffy croissants) and my cappuccino. The first segment is me at the table being interviewed about the project, which is very bizarre, but especially so since she is talking back and fourth with the studio anchors during the interview and I can’t hear what anyone but Allie is saying. So I’m just sitting awkwardly, grinning and for some reason, rubbing my chin a lot, not even aware of when I’m in the frame.
The second segment is with Chef Olhats and I in the kitchen as he makes pain perdu (french toast) with Grand Marnier poured into the eggs. We finish the segment and Chef gives me a bite. It’s crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and you can really taste the Grand Marnier. Now I know what to do when I make French toast. We then head into the main restaurant and sit down for the final segment. Chef Olhats prepares some pâté, toasted bread, a light salad and some meats to have out during the shoot. GFB joins for this final segment as we’re asked more questions and the chef talks about the evening’s menu. I manage to have a total slip up, saying that I’ve had Bolivian food when in fact it’s one of the countries whose cuisine I’ve been struggling to find. The segment closes and chef brings out a half bottle of red wine. It’s now nine in the morning, but I’ve been up for five hours and decide to have a glass to go with the beautiful selection of meats set out in front of me. I eat the whole plate almost entirely by myself.
GFB and I join everyone outside and listen as they talk about how they think shoot went. The camera man says “I was assuming that you were gonna be some huge fat guy” and Allie adds “I’m just glad you came off okay. A lot of people, even if they seem articulate on the phone, just clam up once the camera goes on.” So I guess those are both positives. We thank everyone for their help as the KTLA crew rolls out, the publicist heads home and GFB and I try to figure out what we want to do during our morning and afternoon in Laguna Beach before dinner. Our solution? Parking somewhere shady and taking a nap. GFB sleeps okay, but I can’t manage to get comfortable. My mom calls to tell me that a bunch of her friends are ringing her to say they saw me on TV. She’s very excited, as moms tend to be. After a brief phone recap of how the show came off from Mr. Meatball, we kill more time by holing up at a Panera Bread so that I can use their wireless internet, drink more caffeine and write up the previous day’s post with what little brain power I’m currently operating with. Afterward, we catch a movie, change into nicer clothes and head right back to Tradition By Pascal for what I fully expect to be a great dining experience.
We arrive a little early and Pascal has not yet returned, but we run into his lovely wife and three of her friends sitting outside. One of them is Eddie Newell, who works in wine sales and trained at the restaurant to become a sommelier. He brings out a delightful bottle of Louis de Sacy champagne and we each enjoy a glass before GFB and I head inside. We are led to the table by our kind, friendly server Patrick who asks if we need anything. As we are both running into a wave of exhaustion, he offers us the option of a quick vodka Redbull, which feels totally un-French but seems like a great idea anyway, so we go for it.
Soon after, GFB and I are each given a plate of screamingly fresh and expertly steamed mussels which, at the risk of offending my mother, I decide are the best mussels I’ve ever had in my life. Chef Olhats arrives, offering a warm greeting and a perfectly paired white wine before heading back to take care of his restaurant. I make GFB sip some of the broth out of a mussel shell, like I used to with my mother’s mussel zuppa as a kid. We finish up and are given a bowl of lemon water to wash our fingers and do so happily.
Chef Olhats appears once again with a different glass of wine to pair with our next course. GFB is served a moist sea bass crusted gorgeously with thyme which has browned and crisped in the oven. It rests atop a mound of cooked tomatoes which add a perfectly muted acidity to the fish. I manage to find success on the opposite side of the spectrum with crispy veal sweetbreads that melt on the tongue immediately after contact is made. There is a large part of me which suddenly feels both tremendously lucky and extremely out of place at the same time. It feels like my family is taking me out to a special dinner for my birthday, except everyone but my girlfriend decided not to come. I express my partially alcohol-induced insecurity to our server Patrick, who handles it with great professionalism while no doubt thinking (properly, I might add) that I’m an idiot.
Soon after finishing our course, we receive another check-in from Pascal and two more glasses of wine (I’m now finishing GFB’s wines for her since she will be driving us home tonight), followed by a large, red, covered Le Creuset dish with a small bowl of rouille resting on top. The rouille is set aside and the lid is removed to reveal the gorgeous, orange, saffron infused bouillabaisse of my dreams. We fill our bowls with broth, using our forks to whisk in the rouille, then piling in the mussels, bass and other assorted tender seafood. Rich and creamy, but in no way heavy, this is a dish I will wake up in the middle of the night craving and wondering what would happen if I just drove down to Laguna Beach and started banging my fists on the door until someone let me in and made it for me. Unfortunately, the actual answer to what would happen is probably “I would get arrested”. GFB takes a look at the enormous grin on my face and remarks “You are in your happy place.” I really, really like my happy place.
The final savory course arrives in the form of two iron pots which are set in front of me. The smaller is filled with roasted potatoes and the larger is a rabbit stew, sending out incredibly savory and herb tinged fumes which go directly to my brain and cause my shoulders to relax. GFB, meanwhile, is served tender, sliced and roasted duck with a complex, flavor packed port wine reduction. More wine arrives, now with a third glass, and a new place is set at the table with a plate of haricot verts placed between the silverware. We realize what this means and wait for our wonderful chef, Pascal Olhats, to join us . He sits to a chorus of effusive praise, then looks approvingly inside my iron receptacle and says “I used some of your rabbit sauce for my vegetables.” I dig into the tender, braised rabbit, sip wine, steal bites of GFB’s juicy duck and start to live out one of my absolute fantasies: eating great food that is clearly the work of a highly skilled professional— while talking with the creator of the food himself.
Beautiful cheeses and more wine arrive, followed by an absolutely gorgeous chocolate dessert surrounded by a sauce which brings to mind the feathers of a peacock. He tells stories of his entrance into the restaurant world, going to Paul Bocuse’s house to ask for a job, starting as a dish washer and working his way up the line. He says he loves my enthusiasm for food, even after I ask him ridiculous questions like “If you were out drinking heavily until three in the morning— you’re completely drunk— and all of a sudden a VIP customer, like the President or someone, comes to you and asks you to make him something— what do you make?” (His answer: “Onion soup. It is simple, plus a soup is always a great thing to eat at that time of night.”) We get on well enough that he even seems receptive to the idea of joining me for Belgian food at a nearby restaurant run by a friend of his for Belgium Day.
The evening, quite simply, could not be going any better. The restaurant has emptied and closed its doors, leaving just Pascal, GFB, myself and Patrick (the ultimate good sport through all of this) as the only people left inside. I ask Patrick to join us at the table and we chat even longer. I bring up Thomas Keller and Ferran Adrià, both of whom he respects, but adds “If I had Thomas Keller’s ingredients, I could make food like that too” then goes on to speak very highly of Joel Robuchon. I ask him “If you could have any chef, living or dead, to cook you a meal, who would it be?” He thinks for a moment, then says “If he could do it, I would have Paul Bocuse.” I guess there’s nothing quite like having a master for a teacher.
As the night dissolves into the wee hours, we bid farewell to our spectacular host, who I now regard as one of the most truly gifted, kind and wonderful men I have met in my life, I hand a tip to our delightful waiter and then melt into the passenger seat of our car. There is happiness and then there is bliss. Tonight, I am feeling bliss. Being on television is a strange and fun phenomenon which my brain tells me is good for the website, but the food, the company and the dinner— that for me is where joy comes from. That is the essence of what the project is truly about: finding what you love and going after it. I’m now quite tired, running on the fumes of wine and caffeine, but still awake enough to know that today was a very, very good day. Life, for the moment, is being incredibly kind.
Tradition By Pascal
1000 Bristol St N
Newport Beach, CA 92660
Food Breakdown: Numerous alcoholic beverages, 8 courses split between 2 people, 1 cheese plate, 1 dessert, 1 espresso
Price: Somehow, miraculously, free
Distance From My House: 46.9 miles
KTLA, October 16th 2008: