The Althaus rules
The Althaus rules
Jonathan Ho

You Won't Be Able to Stay Neutral About the Stellar French/Swiss Fare at Basilic

Nice Raclette
You won’t be able to stay neutral about the stellar French/Swiss fare at Basilic

I may be a food critic, but a friend of mine takes being critical to a different level. Having eaten at hundreds, if not thousands, of restaurants, he has only been thoroughly impressed with two: Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas and Sushi Shibucho in Costa Mesa. Wolfgang Puck’s Spago? Suzanne Goin’s Lucques? He’ll tell you they’re just okay.

So when the dude tore up extra bread to wipe his plate clean during dinner at Basilic, I knew the place made an impression. When he was finished, the plate looked like it had been squeegeed.

The dish responsible for this atypical behavior was the scalloped veal tenderloin, cooked by owner/chef Bernard Althaus. And it was, indeed, wonderful. Tender, fingertip-sized pieces of veal and mushrooms were sautéed and swimming in a caramel-hued, silken sauce sweetened with brandy and enriched with cream, then dotted with crispy coins of fried fingerling potatoes. This was a meal to be eaten with a spoon and relished to the last drop (and licked up afterward).

Not cloying, overly acidic or rich, the veal is characteristic of the cuisine Althaus cooks: French/Swiss that’s both balanced and exacting, rustic and refined. His menu is full of the classics: coq au vin, steak au poivre, bouillabaisse—all executed with the finesse of Escoffier and Bocuse, bespeaking experience honed after stints at the Cellar and Pascal. He opened Basilic on Newport Beach’s Balboa Island in 1997. The Swiss native has been cooking there ever since.

Althaus’ coq au vin could be mistaken for osso bucco. Braised in red wine until it falls apart, each strip of the chicken ate with the wallop of wine and the beefiness of pot roast. A small serving of al dente linguine was swirled on the middle of the plate into a small beehive. Meanwhile, the intoxicating fragrance of the vino tickled the nostrils. The death and decomposition of a grape have served no nobler purpose than to help create this dish.

The bouillabaisse was intense, fortified with the sweet soul of lobster and teeming with chunks of fish and gigantic shrimp. For starch, Althaus piped a floret of mashed potato in the center of the plate. For veggies, it was baby zucchini, asparagus and a lone steamed baby carrot. But that saffron-y broth was meant to be sipped and savored.

If you order the bouillabaisse as the main course, your waiter will suggest you skip the Soupe du Pêcheur. The two are similar, it turns out. So we tried the Swiss onion soup instead, which was indistinguishable from its French cousin, as it was identical in components down to the Gruyere cheese that stretched out in melty webs.

But if it’s cheese you’re after, order the raclette—the one indigenous Swiss dish at Basilic. It can be described as a flat fondue, since it involves covering morsels of food in melted cheese. Traditional preparation starts when the cut face on a wheel of cheese is exposed to a heating element. After the topmost layer bubbles and melts, it’s scraped off immediately onto a warm plate and served. Working quickly before it solidifies, you slather the gooey mass onto boiled fingerling potatoes and chase it with cornichons and pickled onions.

If you’re lucky enough to get a seat, Basilic hosts an all-you-can-eat Raclette Night the first Tuesday of the winter months. But you can enjoy it as an appetizer any night of the week. When you do, you must also order the charcuterie platter, the customary accompaniment. Bunderfleish (dried beef), proscuitto and saucisson sec (dried salami) are all to be dragged through the melted raclette before consumption. Nearly every table in the cramped-but-cozy 24-seat dining room tried a raclette plate that night, as you also should.

At the end of the evening, Althaus came out and checked on his diners. If my mouth weren’t full of dessert—a tower made of chocolate ice cream, meringue cookies spackled in whipped cream, and strawberries—I would’ve done more than nod when he asked if everything was okay. It was more than okay. My friend’s spotless plate should’ve told him that, anyway.

Basilic at 217 Marine Ave., Newport Beach, (949) 673-0570; Open Tues.-Sat., 5:30-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$100, food only. Wine selection. $25 corkage.


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