Hope for Humanity

Photo by Jack GouldHave you given blood yet? You should, you know. There is damn little else we can do to help right now beyond your opening a vein and your wallet. Don't leave it to someone else: it was depressing to see none of you young alterna-types when I was at the Red Cross last week. C'mon, you pierced-up vanity trolls, get pierced to help someone else.

When I went to the Santa Ana Red Cross office last Tuesday, there were so many apple-pie-normal and elderly folks (one on crutches!) waiting to give blood that I couldn't even get in. And it was a three-hour queue there Wednesday before my arm got tapped.

In that intervening evening, I figured, why not make my blood a little richer? So we repaired to Pinot Provence and loaded up on roasted-lamb noisette, pan-seared lobster, roasted scallops and a nice load of Gina Gallo's Marcelina cabernet, all in the hopes that whoever is on the receiving end of my donation will bolt upright on his stretcher and exclaim, "Wowee, this blood is fortified!"

There was a second, less selfless reason for dining so. And it is that, Jesus Christ, you can only take so much cascading horror before you start to feel the whole world slipping away. Did humankind spend the past 7 million years walking upright just to go gibbering back into chaos now? I needed some soothing cuisine.

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Sometimes, even more than the arts, food can give you a sense that culture endures. Maybe that is because food is a primal thing—meaning you die without it—and that when we play with our food, tarting it up in fanciful ways and calling it cuisine, it symbolizes how far we've risen from our hand-to-mouth, hunter-gatherer past.

Few in the county play with their food as well as the folks at Pinot Provence. Like owners Joachim and Christine Splichal's other eateries (including the satisfying Catal and the as-yet-untried Naples at Downtown Disney and Tangata at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art), the food and atmosphere at Pinot Provence manage to be classy without being at all stuffy.

You'd scarcely know Pinot is ensconced in the Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel, as the space had a $2.5 million makeover, with everything from the chandeliers to the limestone paving stones imported from old French chateaus. Unlike other posh joints, where their idea of comfort is to make average-income folks feel uncomfortable, Pinot is nothing but inviting. It doesn't hurt that Wednesdays through Saturdays, one of the world's great genial Boston Irish bartenders, John Dunn, is pouring there.

The cuisine is French-Californian, which, as interpreted by chef Florent Marneau, means his dishes have all the depth and subtlety of provincial Gallic cooking combined with an open-ended sense of experimentation.

The title of the appetizer "pan-seared half-lobster tail with black truffle potato brandade, grilled green onions and lobster vermouth jus" leaves little else to explain except that it's even more delicious than you'd suspect.

When the "far from Provence" roasted diver scallops and shellfish à la Thai arrive, you might fear you've ordered redundantly, as its dusky orange sauce looks just like the lobster appetizer's. There are even chunks of lobster in it, along with rock shrimp and the portabello mushroom-topped scallops. But where the appetizer had a slightly sweet and festive flair, this is a somber, reflective sauce, shaded with cumin and just a trace of unsweetened coconut.

Along with being one of the best cuts of lamb I've had, the roasted-lamb noisette was like a whole neighborhood of complementary flavors, arriving with a cumin-laced pistachio pastry and a sauce that encompassed both tomatoes slow-cooked in olive oil and garlic and little bits of something that tasted like roasted lemon drops.

Follow that with the chocolate-chip-croissant bread pudding drizzled in a zebra pattern with dark chocolate and vanilla sauce, and your blood will turn into Hemo the Magnificent.

Pinot Provence isn't cheap, but neither is it extortive. For scarcely more than the price of a CD that probably blows, you can enjoy one of the county's great restaurants. And at the Red Cross the next day, the cookies and orange juice are free.

Pinot Provence, located at the Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel, 686 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, is open Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-11 p.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-9:30 p.m. (714) 444-5900. Full bar. Dinner for two, $38-$80, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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