Excellent on many levels.
After reviewing Chowhound to find the best place for a birthday dinner in Orange County (Newport Beach area), we settled on Pascal, and was I ever glad we did.
We were seated and given some crostini with small bowls of olive tapenade and feta with herbs de provence. At the same time, the wine list was delivered, and after a spell, the waiter returned to offer drinks. We ordered a glass of champagne, which together with the appetizers, formed the tone of the evening.
There is a 5-course prix-fixe, which can be shortened to 4-courses. You can also have wine pairings with each course. In addition, you can order anything from the prix-fixe menu as a stand-alone dish. There was a wide variety of offerings. They had standard items printed on the menu (like French onion soup, seabass, rabbit, mixed green salad, etc.), and also quite a number of items hand-printed and placed on cards in the menu.
No one in our party ordered the prix-fixe, although it looked delicious. It just seemed like quite a bit of food. Next time I'll save up my appetite and order it.
For our first course, I ordered the roasted beet and feta salad served with arugula. My wife and mom each had the grilled fig and frisee salad, and my dad had the French onion soup.
For the main course, I ordered the veal cheeks served over corn succotash. My wife had the pot a feu. My mom had the duck and my dad had the rabbit.
Once we ordered, the second waiter/busboy brought over a basket of assorted breads and butter. I stuck with the tapenade and feta as spreads for the bread, though.
The first courses were delivered, and none of them were what I expected. First the beet salad. I had envisioned a bed of arugula over which the beets and feta would be arranged. Instead, it was a 2-inch tall tightly-packed cylinder of the beet/feta combination, over which the arugula was loosely tossed. It was great. The texture of the beets, offset by the creaminess of the feta provided a sensation of perfectly matched opposites. The addition of the arugula brought a crunchiness to combine all the elements into a burst of flavor in each bite.
The fig salads were more traditional in appearance, however I guess I just forgot what figs looked like. There were 2 types of figs, green and purple. They were roasted and halved, and served over the frisee that was trimmed so delicately that it didnt have the pointed ends to the leaves that I dislike. The frisee was young and tender, unlike frisee I have had in the past. The roasting process kept the figs sweet, while imparting a certain smokiness and bite to them. It was very good.
The French onion soup came not in a ramekin, as I usually see it, but rather in a shallow bowl. It did not have the melted cheese overflowing all over the place. The cheese was measured correctly to cover the top of the soup, but stay in the bowl. It had a nice crust, and it smelled wonderful.
During the first course, we finished the champagne, and started into a bottle of wonderful pinot noir.
We talked for a while, and the main courses were served. First out came my veal cheeks. According to the waiter, these were the actual cheeks of the veal, one of the most tender parts of the animal. There were three pieces about an inch and a half round. They were dark and shiny, the result of perfect cooking in a veal demi glace sauce. While it seemed the proper etiquette to use a knife, there was no need at all. The meat was so tender that you hardly even had to chew it. It literally melted in your mouth. I really liked it, but my wife said she prefers for the meat to have more substance. The demi glace was luxurious, with a subtle browning on the meat to hold it together. The corn succotash underneath was cooked perfectly. The corn was cooked but firm, so it popped in my mouth with each bite. It was not soggy at all (my primary complaint with succotash). Like the first course, there was attention not only to complementing the flavors between what was on the plate, but also the textures. The tanginess of the succotash melded incredibly with the richness of the meat; while its crispness was the perfect match to the meats tenderness. Like the salad, every bite was exciting.
My moms duck was sliced thinly, which is a real winner in my book. We had gone to Empress Pavilion the previous night, and the Peking duck there was not prepared nearly as meticulously as this duck. In fact there is really no comparison. This duck was tender and looked very succulent.
My wifes pot a feu was a big bowl with a selection of fish ranging from a large scallop to salmon to whitefish in a chanterelle broth. It is normally served with a mussel, but she elected to pass on the mussel. The fish was cooked perfectly, but she found it to be a bit bland. Overall it wasnt terribly exciting.
The rabbit was served with a bowl of mashed potatoes and a cream sauce. It got good reviews around the table.
Along with the entrees, a small bowl of scalloped potatoes and another small bowl of ratatouille was brought for the table.
After the main course, the waiter brought over a large tray of cheeses for us to select from. There were about 10 different cheeses, and he explained each one. I forget the names of them, but we selected a sheeps milk cheese (very light and mild), a soft cheese with a very mild bite to it, and another soft cheese with a more powerful bite. They came (3 of them together) on a plate with a basket of crostini that had been grilled, so it had a nice crust to it.
We enjoyed the cheeses with some 20-year old tawny port. Believe it or not, this is the first time I have had a cheese course, and I loved it. I cant have it too often, though, or else Ill balloon up and have to wear fat farm pants, but I think this is an indulgence I will try again.
After the cheese came the dessert. There were about 10 items to choose from. I chose the fruit soup of orange water and chenin blanc, fresh berries, sliced oranges, and a scoop of sherbet. Over the top was sprinkled fresh sliced basil. It was by far the star of the table, and for that matter our whole side of the restaurant. It was very refreshing, as it was cold and tart. Like the arugula had done in the first course, the basil took away any residual sweetness and tartness, and brought together the citrus and the sherbet in a way that without trying it, I never would have believed.
My wife had the cheesecake soufflé topped with a small scoop of ice cream. It was good, but a little heavy, not as light as a soufflé should be. My mom had the fresh berries, and my dad settled for a cup of coffee.
All in all, this was one of the best meals I have ever had. Certainly the company made it a wonderful evening, but the meal was nothing short of outstanding. Its not cheap, but Pascal is a great place for a special meal with someone you care a great deal about.