If you opened a French restaurant, you, too, would have the songs of Edith Piaf playing so that her rich-as-foie-gras voice could float through the air. You, too, would hang a poster of Toulouse-Lautrec's iconic portrait of Aristide Bruant, his face defiant and proud. David Kesler does it because he can no longer rely on the moody atmospherics of the Cellar in Fullerton, where he toiled for nearly a decade as its executive chef. Now on his own, Kesler's mission statement for his new restaurant sounds like a rebuke of his previous employer: He says he's out to offer "French cuisine without the high prices, sub-par food and pompous attitudes."
Even still, there's only so much he and his wife, Pam, can do with posters and blue paint to make you forget that the place used to be Sal's, the long-lived, red-checkered-tablecloth Italian joint it replaced. When you dine at Bistro Bleu, you're keenly aware you're in the real Anaheim, the one that might as well be on the other side of the world from Disneyland. Zankou Chicken is down the street, there's an old-school A-framed Wienerschnitzel within spitting distance, and the cluster of mini-mall businesses it neighbors includes a liquor store and an auto-repair shop with signs painted in block letters so big and gaudy they can be seen by passing satellites.
You can't blame the Keslers for trying everything they can. They've set two tables on the sidewalk because that's what a French bistro would do everywhere else—never mind that the view of the blighted parking lot is significantly less scenic than the Champs Élysées. They've even hired an actual Frenchman as one of the servers, with an accent lifted seemingly from Gigi yet the real deal. Fortunately, the same can be said of the prices. With all the renovations he has done, Kesler is most interested in decoupling the exorbitance from French cuisine, pricing most of his dishes in the $15 range. It's just a coincidence that I was at Brasserie Pascal only a week prior for a review of their foie gras dinner (see "A Foie Farewell," May 25), but comparing dinner receipts from the two French restaurants was eye-opening. Pascal Olhats charges a Fashion Island-appropriate toll of $9 for his French onion soup; Kesler does it for $4. I much prefer Kesler's, not just because it's half the price, but because it does at $4 what all French onion soups do: The crouton sinks and softens; the caramel-colored broth murmurs the sweetness of the melting onions; and the Gruyère spoons out in webs so stretchy people around you might think you're eating noodles.
Bistro Bleu, www.bistrobleudining.com. Open for lunch, Tues.-Fri., noon-2 p.m.; dinner, Tues.-Wed., 5-8 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 5-9 p.m.; Sat., 1-9 p.m.; brunch, Sun., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$50, food only. Beer and wine.
The decent and basic $9 charcuterie plate includes a rectangle of homemade pâté and little toasts to spread it on. The $6 escargots is presented simmering in a mini-Dutch oven as a Provençal stew, with garlic, tomatoes, mushrooms, parsley, white wine and a splash of crème fraiche. There's no need for any shell-gripping contraptions or even a tiny fork. In fact, there is no table setting. Silverware here is crammed into Mason jars; the napkins are made of paper; and when you order wine by the glass, servers fill it to the brim.
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SHOW ME HOW
Just as at Brasserie Pascal, you should order the soufflé at least a half-hour in advance. But at $6, Bistro Bleu's automatically distinguishes itself as the most reasonably priced in the county. Though Kesler's soufflé is a shade lighter than Olhats', it's also fluffier and comes with a soupier chocolate sauce that doesn't overpower the delicateness of its tenuous existence as an air-puffed brownie. And yet the same kind of formality precedes the soufflé here as it does at any Michelin-starred place: A server will cut a small hole at the top with a spoon, then pour the sauce and send dollops of cream down the well.
Bistro Bleu is not yet perfect. A coq au vin seemed over-reduced one evening, needing every bit of the buttered pasta to mitigate its saltiness. And the steak frites I ordered medium came out nearly raw; it was pre-sliced and draped in a sauce it didn't need, with a pat of chilled, herbed butter that took its sweet time to melt. Despite missteps that would indicate the barely month-old restaurant is still calibrating, Kesler has done exactly what he set out to do: French food, stripped of arrogance and high costs. You'd be an elitist if you so much as complain that the French fries he serves are the same as those at every corner burger joint. He cooks them crisp and serves them hot, and if you have a problem with that, then perhaps you deserve to pay more elsewhere.
This review appeared in print as "Out of the Bleu: The Cellar's previous executive chef opens an inexpensive French restaurant."