Laguna Beach's French 75 Rises Above Its Confusing Corporate Past

The Last Musketeer
The remaining French 75 rises above its confusing corporate past

ItNs still a world of uncertainty out there, especially in the tenuous business of restaurants. On a recent Friday afternoon, I was looking forward to trying the newly independent 75 Laguna Beach (which was a branch of Culinary AdventuresN French 75 restaurants up until about six months ago), when through some sort of bizarre coincidence, I got an e-mail newsletter from the company announcing that the restaurant was back in its fold and will, once again, be called French 75.

My head spun as I tried to make sense of it. But letNs start from the beginning.

Before the recession hit, David WilhelmNs Culinary Adventures owned an impressive roster of eateries. Among them were four French 75s, including this Laguna Beach location. Soon, things began to unravel. Wilhelm quit. Culinary Adventures filed for bankruptcy. Among other places, WilhelmNs Chophouse (nNe French 75 Brasserie in Irvine) was shuttered, and the Newport Beach French 75 was sold to Pascal Olhats to become the wonderful Brasserie Pascal.

Meanwhile, the Laguna Beach French 75 was left to fend for itself, where it subsequently shed its Gallic prefix and became its own entity. New freedom allowed chef Mitch Gillan and general manager Nadine Madeleine Hotong to rethink the menu. They ditched the cassoulet for a wider berth of ingredients such as Szechwan peppercorn and mirin and even offered half-priced Mondays and a prix fixe menu between 5 and 6:30 p.m. Though WilhelmNs original cadre of French 75 musketeers was gone, here was a survivor, still doing derring-do—and with new tricks up its sleeves.

So when that newsletter showed up in my inbox, I was worried. At first, it seemed like all of GillanNs innovations would be undone. Relief came when I confirmed with a phone call that chef GillanNs menu stood firm. Furthermore, for its first act as owners, Culinary Adventures was cutting prices on four of GillanNs dishes to the $20 range. This, I thought, could be the ideal situation for diners: a restaurant with an inventive chef and the pricing power of a corporation.

But then, a few days after my visit, more upheaval. I got the official word that Gillan had quit. The menu the chef developed is still in effect as of this writing, though.

This was a sad turn of events, though not altogether surprising. Judging from the meal I had during that first day of the transition, Gillan is in top form. Every dish was as impressive as I heard it would be.

It started with hot, crusty rolls, an olive mayo, and a refreshingly simple amuse bouche of chopped beets with blue cheese. Then came our first starter: escargots soaking in melted butter, flavored with an understated dose of whole garlic cloves. We snickered as we imagined the implications of what Gillan described on the menu as “free-range” snails. We did not, however, question the origin of his compressed watermelon—an intensely refreshing, sugary antidote to balmy weather. The fruit crushed into sweet juice in our mouths, chased by candied pistachios, heirloom tomatoes, Gorgonzola and the frigid coolness of an olive-oil sorbet.

Among the newly discounted entrNes, the Study of Shellfish had to be ordered just for its academic name, which we took as a challenge to channel our inner Tom Colicchios. And our judgesN table was unanimous: The scallop was perfectly cooked; the shrimp, slightly overdone; the lobster tail, a little raw in the middle. But the Himalayan red rice provided as starch bit down with a firm, granular texture and the resilient chew of gum—both the polar opposite and the answer to the clichN of risotto.

Ultimately, it was GillanNs Jidori chicken breast that showcased his talents as one of Laguna BeachNs top chefs. He French-cut the fillet, leaving the skin intact, and browned it to a crunch reminiscent of a salty chicharrón. The meat itself brimmed with moistness. A Meyer lemon emulsion, kumquat-sized tomatoes and a guacamole-green, fava-bean mash completed a bright, summery dish with a personality unexpected from the cheapest protein of the house.

Who knew it would be one of the last meals heNd be cooking there, where a lounge singer still bangs away on his synthesizer in a space that looks like a hobbitNs house coupled with the worn, Victorian grandeur of DisneyNs Haunted Mansion.

Now that Gillan has packed his knives and gone, INll be watching intently to see where he ends up. In the meantime, enjoy the menu he left behind while you can because it will likely change, perhaps back to the French staples the revived French 75 name now requires it to serve. But heck, whoNs to say it will still be called French 75 in a yearNs time. Like I said, itNs a fickle thing this business.

French 75, 1464 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8444; Open Sun.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Main courses, $18-$38. Full bar.

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