Bistro Chic

Photo by Jeanne RiceI don't normally go for restaurants named after Yul Brynner movies, but I'll make an exception for Anastasia.

At first glance, it's easy to dismiss this downtown Laguna Beach bistro/ boutique as being just a bit too Euro for our ham-fisted American sensibilities. I mean, the boutique manager's name is Zore Gharavi, and the chef is Alexandre Soto—not exactly guys you can picture in a Miller High Life commercial.

But at night, when the boutique closes, Anastasia becomes one of those sweet little restaurants you like to tuck away into your culinary memory for just the right occasion, especially if that occasion involves l'amour.

Anastasia has the hip modern art, the sexy Spanish music and the cool industrial touches (cement floors, unfinished ceiling, and stainless-steel tables and chairs) that make it a suave place to bring a date. And if atmosphere is foreplay, then Alexandre's sublime cooking will certainly lead to an impassioned climax.

Café manager Brent Farhang claims Anastasia's cuisine is a French/ California hybrid, but he's selling it short. The menu is dotted with random Euro flaves, from pastas and pizzas to rack of lamb with mint sauce and a chicken schnitzel.

But the two dishes Alexandre is known for are definitely French: the bouillabaisse and the baked halibut with macadamia nuts.

Bouillabaisse is the classic seafood soup from the south of France, a heady tomato broth swimming with clams, shrimp, mussels and assorted cuts of fish. Since I'm not much of a bouillabaisse eater, you'll just have to take Alexandre's word for how good it is. I believe him because his other signature dish, the baked halibut, is easily the best seafood I've eaten this year.

A well-cooked cut of halibut has a firm flavor and texture, which makes it one of the most enjoyable cuts of seafood for those who don't really get all weepy about fish (that's me!). Here Alexandre takes a 2-inch-thick breaded slab of halibut and bakes it until the breading (in which the aforementioned macadamia nuts are a chief ingredient) is crisp and brown. His quality cut has a fine, full flavor, but the American in you can't help but think that, thrown between a bun and topped with tartar sauce and a slice of Velveeta, it would make the greatest Filet-O-Fish on Earth.

You can tell that Alexandre likes distinctive flavors when you try other menu items. The caesar salad dressing carries the fabulous funk of anchovy. The French onion soup is festooned with onion. And the buffalo-mozzarella appetizer features gooey slabs of the savory cheese mingling with just about the freshest tomatoes and basil you'll find in Orange County. And kiddies, you absolutely must not miss the chocolate soufflé.

Anastasia is only open for dinner three nights a week, but it's open daily for breakfast and lunch. While dinner can get a bit pricy ($18 for the halibut, $22 for the bouillabaisse), lunch features $9 pasta dishes and personal pizzas and $7 salads. The breakfast menu particularly grabbed my interest—a frittata with asparagus, ham and Brie; Swedish pancakes with raisins, apples and cinnamon; and the Anastasia omelet, with sautéed mushrooms, onions, bacon and smoked Gouda. For something simpler, you can hang with some apricot oatmeal or homemade granola served with seasonal fruit.

I swear I'm going to move to Laguna Beach just so I can eat breakfast on Anastasia's patio every morning. Hey, everyone needs a goal.

Anastasia, located at 470 Ocean Blvd., Laguna Beach, is open Sun.-Wed., 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 6-10 p.m. (949) 497-8903. Dinner for two, $40-$60, food only. Beer and wine. AmEx, MC and Visa accepted.


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