Photo by Tenaya HillsLa Brasserie in Orange serves more than mere pricey, divine dishes: it's also a living museum. The 27-year-old eatery specializes in French cuisine that fell out of favor with Americans long ago, food that is quickly becoming a relic in modern-day France. The influx of immigrants from France's former colonies is irrevocably changing French culture; it won't be long before exciting fusion dishes appear in Parisian five-star kitchens and relegate traditional meals to the garbage disposal of history. Goodbye, coq au vin; hello, baklava brûlée.
Restaurants like La Brasserie, then, are dodos in the culinary world. The Orange institution looks, smells, tastes and sounds like the French eateries your grandparents frequented, the type of elegant dining experience that once required pearls, a dining jacket and an irony-free martini. Indeed, most of the regulars at La Brasserie are relics themselves, elderly couples from our own ancien régime—that of a Republican, Anglo, Christian Orange County.
You realize that life in La Brasserie dates from another era and social station almost immediately. The flickering light produces the same amber glow associated with a séance. Toulouse-Lautrec posters and other Gallic bric-a-brac associated with a countryside French cottage pepper the walls. When you sit down, you'll notice six pieces of cutlery on the table—two forks, two spreading knives, a cutting knife and a spoon; you'll use maybe two. If you need help deciphering which utensil goes with which course, an attentive, tuxedoed waiter answers any inquiries in impeccable French-accented English. He'll also cart out the soup of the day—usually a chilled cream of cucumber or pungently wonderful onion au gratin broth—on a dish that comes with a doily. Close your eyes, and you can almost imagine the Rockefellers as your dinner chums. You'll have to ignore the chintzy New Age jazz that twinkles in the background.
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La Brasserie Chef Rudy Carrill prepares platters that are nuanced and excellent but ultimately are most impressive because of their sheer volume and obedience to tradition. A request for a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich produces a sticky monster that looks more like a double order of French toast rather than the slices slapped together at your local deli. Beef rib-eye comes lathered with a snappy béarnaise, imposing enough to rival anything served at the Brown Derby. The Lobster Newburg hasn't been this delicious since the height of Prohibition.
All the French entrées Americans endlessly stereotype are here—duckling a l'orange, frog legs, pâté, escargot and the like. But La Brasserie also stays true to its rustic Alsatian roots by preparing nine different types of veal, each consisting of young cow slices cut into large portions, battered with egg and nearly floating over myriad tasty sauces. A musky Madeira-wine reduction accompanies the veal forestiere; a bit heartier is the veal cordon bleu, gooey with ham and cheese, more omelet than meat. The best deal is the veal Normande, mixed with apple slices, brandy and a sweet cream, simultaneously earthy and fruity. It's the salad for carnivores that care not for roughage.
The most enticing item on La Brasserie's menu, however, is also the most inaccessible: the abalone grenebloise. Generations of California schoolchildren grew up reading a fictionalized account of Chumash Indians harvesting abalone in the classic novel Island of the Blue Dolphins and admired the mollusk's shiny shells in subsequent show-and-tell exhibits. Few probably ever tasted the creature, and now kids and adults alike probably don't have the luxury—rampant harvesting over the decades having devastated the abalone population and transformed the meat into an expensive proposition along the lines of endangered Mexican sea turtle. Don't expect an abalone special in the interest of nostalgia at La Brasserie: a plate of the stuff sets gourmands back $89.95. I sure can't afford it, but the aged lovers across the room from me during one recent visit dug into it, a Last Supper of sorts for the days going by fast.
La Brasserie, 202 S. Main St., Orange, (714) 978-6161. Open Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. Full bar. Dinner for two, $34-$180(!), Food only. All major credit cards accepted.