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Photo by Jeanne RiceRenaissance Bistro is a second-date restaurant: classy, pricey, but not so classy and pricey that your date thinks you're trying too hard. You'll get originality points for being able to locate an independent eatery in Brea, a city that never met a chain restaurant it didn't like. They'll give you bonus points because the both of you can dine either in a cozy patio area armed with heaters for chilly nights or an elegant interior with scenic pictures of the Italian countryside. But ultimately, your hypothetical honey will give you a kiss for treating them to some of the finest Northern Italian cuisine in North County.
Love can bloom simply from Renaissance's stunning bread: a raspy crust outlines a soft body to create a bendable yet rigid treat; these are rolls that spark affairs. (Well, that and an inattentive relationship exasperated by lack of communication and respect. C'mon, people, you need to talk to each other!) The bistro bakes them in small slices, the better to scoop up an accompanying garlic sauce that's as zesty a condiment as I've ever tasted.
You want a long-lasting relationship, though, so proceed to the paninis and start with the grilled chicken. Two large slices of foccacia encase tender chicken breasts and proper pepper placements covered in a sharp lemon-caper mayonnaise. If your partner is a vegetarian, no worries: suggest the vegetable-and-cheese panini. Its mixture of musky eggplants, tart peppers, mozzarella and a funky tomato-basil sauce will convince them to let you touch their knee. I don't know why this is true; it just is.
Paninis come with a choice of salad or soup. The minestrone soup is passable, and the baby organic lettuce salad is fine, but you're trying to awaken your lover's libido. Request for them the superb Caesar. Its dressing is delightful, the foliage fresh, and the croutons crunch. What more can you ask of a dish that conjures up Rome but was made in Tijuana?
Mention such relevant trivia to your crypto-companion, and they'll admire your intellect as well as your goofy good looks. But it's with Renaissance's pastas they are going to surrender to you, starting with the hackneyed-everywhere-but-here fettuccine. One version mixes the noodles with chunks of blackened chicken breast and sun-dried tomatoes that taste something like Tuscany. The fettuccine alfredo, meanwhile, features chile flakes sprinkled over the usual suspects—mushrooms, a superb Parmesan cream sauce and broccoli. The heat of the chile will serve as a convenient excuse when your de facto darling asks why you're sweating so much.
Other pastas also impress (the capellini pomodoro is exceedingly fresh and biting), but if you want to ensure a third rendezvous, treat your date to the penne with spicy sausage. Italian sausage's harsh taste usually overwhelms all of its accompanying ingredients, but here the former pig's subtlety is surprising and welcome. The hearty dish has judiciously dispersed olives and eggplants complementing the sausage, while an unexpected mint dash on the penne is a much-needed refresher from the other intense flavors.
The filet mignon is a hunk of bloody/burnt ambrosia, marinated with untold numbers of herbs and spices and a delicate Merlot sauce. The rosemary chicken, meanwhile, is one of the few times I have tasted the dish and was actually able to smell the rosemary's fragrance. Both come with servings of garlic mashed potatoes (which unfortunately taste like the stuff you hurl at siblings during Thanksgiving) saved by sturdy carrots and zucchini slices that are slices of buttery heaven.
Almost forgot to mention the bruschetta, but you and your supposed sweetheart won't. It buckles under luscious tomato hills and a liberal sprinkling of cilantro. Eat it together and re-create the Lady and the Tramp scene—except, you know, with bread, not pasta, which may make it harder to eat the same thing at the same time, what with the tomatoes falling off and . . . you know what? Forget it.
The only dangerous aspect of Renaissance Bistro is the multicultural yuppies that will attempt to take your budding beloved away from your lonely arms (it happens). Relax; you have a nice personality, you know a great romantic restaurant, and your date still doesn't know the real you.
RENAISSANCE BISTRO, LOCATED AT 955 E. BIRCH ST., BREA, IS OPEN MON.-THURS., 11 A.M.-10 P.M.; FRI., 11 A.M.-11 P.M.; SAT., 10 A.M.-11 P.M.; SUN., 10 A.M.-10 P.M. (714) 256-2233. BEER AND WINE. DINNER FOR TWO, $20-$40, FOOD ONLY. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.