Photo by Amy TheligAs Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle draws up his latest revitalization plan for the city, you can bet Disney Dollars to cents he won't ask Yves' Bistro to join in—nor is it likely the restaurant would accept the offer. See, this comfy eatery was a casualty of Anaheim's early-1990s redevelopment, when it opened a second location in the city's desolate downtown. Everything went well at first: Anaheim's Redevelopment Agency loaned owner Yves Masquéfa $210,000 in 1991 to help with the expansion, and business quickly blossomed as city officials and residents starved for high-class fare patronized the place for its French and Italian cuisine.
But the soufflé soon collapsed, so to speak. A year after Yves' downtown debut, the Anaheim City Council booted Planning Commissioner Glenn Hellyer from his position after discovering Hellyer had invested $20,000 in Yves'. Although the city attorney later determined Hellyer never broke any conflict-of-interest laws, the subsequent controversy transformed Yves' into culinary kryptonite for Anaheim officials. Business plummeted, and Masquéfa closed Yves' downtown branch in 1994, retreating to his original Anaheim Hills spot.
The Hellyer affair continues to rankle some Anaheim politicos. But visit the intimate Yves' come Friday evening, and you'll realize why politicians would reasonably risk their political careers for this restaurant.
Most likely, you'll meet Yves at the entrance. A lean, handsome man of French and Algerian descent, Masquéfa spends the evenings roaming around his namesake, asking smiling customers whether their meal was magnificent, recommending wines from the bistro's small-but-impressive cellar, even presenting platters. When Masquéfa stands still, he rests his large hands on the back of an occupied chair as an uncle would when advising a niece on what college to attend.
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The familial vibe comes naturally, maybe because the ambience veers toward crazy, rich-aunt living-room chic. A small main dining room leads into an adjoining roofed patio that overlooks a parking lot. People sit on stately but faded chairs that look as if they were purchased en masse at an estate sale. Vines and branches snake around some of Yves' patio walls; upon closer inspection, they're fake.
But as Masquéfa walks in and out of kitchen and dining room and waitresses cart out his creations, your focus rightly returns to the dinner table. Begin by nibbling on the macadamia-encrusted Roquefort, the famously smelly cheese studded here with peppy nuts, deep-fried, then drenched with a berry coulis—a savor simultaneously tropical and rustic. It's the embodiment of Masquéfa's delicious balancing act between traditional and innovative. Sometimes he slips, as in a filling-but-unexceptional filet mignon accompanied by a boring mushroom sauce. Better to knife through the l'agneu au porto, a succulent lamb sirloin roasted, then painted with a sweet port-wine reduction that teases out the lamb's sublime gaminess. And any of the veal dishes—whether picatta, parmigiana or slices served in a champagne-derived sauce—justify removing baby cows from their mommies just days after birth.
As great as the meat dishes are at Yves', I'm more impressed with the pasta selection. The nouille roulet is a hearty mess, five massive pastas of indeterminate classification gorged with sweet Italian sausage and fluffy ricotta cheese, then baked in a creamy sauce that nicely complements the accompanying spinach strands. The gnocchi vodka, meanwhile, is southern Italy's potato-dumpling standard, now flamed in enough vodka to get your taste buds tipsy. Masquéfa might not be Italian, but you can drop him in the middle of Sicily, and no one would notice.
One curious thing about Yves': when you place your dinner order, the gracious hostess will ask if you want dessert. Don't take it as pushiness because the only desserts available are seven types of soufflés, and each takes about 45 minutes to prepare. Don't sigh in disappointment when the rather-small soufflé finally arrives, either—the fluffy pastry carpet-bombs its flavor across your tongue whether it's made with blueberry, lemon peel or a Grand Marnier-infused selection that delivers a can-can kick to your endorphins. And as you poke into the soufflé, and the soufflé deflates like so many Anaheim redevelopment dreams, don't bemoan Yves' isolated location in Anaheim Hills: Monsieur Masquéfa wouldn't have it any other way.