Bistrot Massilia: Butter Up!
You realize the futility of having a reservation for Bistrot Massilia on the Thursday night before Mother's Day weekend when you get there. There's not a soul except for the lonely waiter, who's so happy to see you he bounds from the back of the restaurant to meet you at the door.
"You have zee restaurant to yourself tonight!" he chirps brightly with no shortage of energy. "Please choose any seat you like, perhaps by zee window?" He bows, then sweeps his arm to show you the way (you half-expect him to leap and click his heels). He follows as you walk through the empty chamber, past dozens of flickering LED-candle-lit tables and a cozy little cubbyhole of a booth seemingly dug out of the red-painted wall. You shimmy around a small grand piano and notice the sign atop it says the jazz musician plays only on Friday and Saturday nights, presumably when diners are here.
You choose your seats at a table overlooking a courtyard, thinking to yourself that, coupled with the fact that most of its customers are probably saving their fine-dining dollar to spend on mom on Sunday, when it counts, Bistrot Massilia isn't a Thursday-night kind of a place. As with almost all French restaurants, going here is something you reserve for commemorating an anniversary or popping the question. A weeknight when you still have work tomorrow is too ordinary an evening for what you're about to eat, drink and pay for.
It must be said that Massilia's prices aren't exorbitant, but they're not cheap either. There are $30 bottles of wine, but you could easily spend as much as six times that on others, including a $174 Chateau Leoville Poyferre that's described as having "scents of sweet soil with herbs." As such, you shouldn't go with a monetary budget—or even a caloric one—in mind. At the very least, you need to allow yourself to sponge up every drop of the melted butter the escargot come swimming in. The half-dozen snails—dark, chewy, shriveled-up morsels tasting as though they were revived from the icy depths—are the best excuses to do so. And when you do, try to not think about how you've just eaten the equivalent of a stick of butter as though it were soup.
For actual soup, don't opt for the "du jour," which the waiter recites with measured enthusiasm; go for the French onion. Baked Gruyère cheese seals the top of the crock pot tighter than a drum. And when you pierce the gooey, cheesy toast crust, a plume of steam shoots up, as would a long-dormant volcano ready to wake up. You blow on each spoonful so you don't scald yourself, and then sip what turns out to be one of the most complex, well-designed French onion soups in the county. The broth is rich and beefy but cut by the shrill tang of white wine, onions liquefied to sugary slips and whole peppercorns that explode without warning.
And since you've gone this far down the Gallic route, don't order the cheaper pasta plates the restaurant calls "les pates"; go for broke with filet mignon doused in a porcini mushroom cream sauce—the most expensive dish at nearly $30. You excuse the fact it comes out well-done with barely any pink in it (even though you asked for it to be prepared medium) or that the vegetable side is a bifurcated baby bok choy, the cheapest green in existence; instead, you marvel at that sauce as you drag some of the mashed potatoes through the puddle—after you've finished dabbing it onto the last of the steak, of course. You even decide you like the bok choy because, well, it's been bathed in butter. In fact, it actually tastes better than the small serving of mushy ratatouille, which was included on the plate as an afterthought.
You look across the table to see your date is happy with the salmon, the one the waiter recommended over the trout with almonds. You see her lap up the tangy lemon-butter emulsion with the fish, but also notice she's using it to moisten the side of red-tinged rice that's otherwise dry where it isn't clumped in the shape of its cylindrical mold.
For dessert, don't order just the crème brûlée, the chocolate mousse or the profiterole; order all three in a dessert sampler because the restaurant gives you that option for an extra $1.50. And when you go home with your lips still greased with butter and your teeth stained by chocolate and wine, the satisfaction that comes with the meal you just ate will make it feel as though tomorrow's the weekend.
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