Pretty, Playful, Polished: Populaire Modern Bistro
3333 Bristol St. Unit 2601
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Average cost: $$$
Parking: plenty of parking options at South Coast Plaza. Located in South Coast Plaza on Level 2 in the Saks Fifth Avenue wing (where Lawry's used to be).
Hours: Monday - Thursday: 11am - 8pm
Friday and Saturday: 11am - 9pm
Sunday: 11am - 7pm
Notes: modern French bistro ambiance with fun pop culture references sprinkled throughout for a touch of whimsy. Delicious fusion combining French, California, and Asian influences for a tantalizing culinary adventure.
Recommended: book via Yelp for a meal to remember with fresh, high-end ingredients, unique twists, and excellent service.
Sometimes the stars align in the form of dream partnerships: Reading about how Chefs Ross Pangilinan and Nicholas Weber, two long-time culinary colleagues, Patina Restaurant Group alums, and chef friends were opening a joint restaurant called "Populaire" was exciting news indeed. As a former fan of Pinot Provence (R.I.P., sweet Pinot Provence), the French restaurant where the two met, and current fan of Terrace by Mix Mix, 24 Carrots, and the Cannery, I was incredibly eager to see what magic a joint restaurant by these two talented chefs would create!
Populaire serves classic French bistro staples but adds modern, California flavors and twists, including some Asian influences. For our first visit, Chef Nick very kindly treated us to to the DUCK CONFIT SPLIFF, which consists of a delectable combo of well-prepared duck confit in a petite eggroll and fried to crispy perfection, cucumber, cilantro, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander or Vietnamese mint), perilla (aka shiso, beefsteak plant, Chinese basil, or purple mint), and nouc cham (refreshingly herbaceous Vietnamese dipping sauce). The result is a perfectly delightful combo of French + Vietnamese fusion that opens up the palate very nicely.
Populaire's menu is thoughtfully categorized into different sized portions for easy ordering, and any Quentin Tarantino fans will enjoy the whimsical reference as well:
Having enjoyed a tantalizingly tasty hors d'oeuvre, we moved into the "Petite Assiette" portion of our meal with a stunning trio of: Crab Chawanmushi, Kombu Cured Fluke, and Ratatouille.
The RATATOUILLE simply blew us away - although we've both had Ratatouille before, we've never had one like this before! The Ratatouille was so good that I had to research it after our meal, and I found this illuminating video and article that helps explain how Chef Nick built layers of flavor, depth, and complexity by adding unexpected twists to the dish, which consists of egg yolk, aged white cheddar, gochugaru chili, olive oil, and perfectly toasted crostinis to soak up the vibrantly decadent flavors. Take this trip to "Flavortown" and savor every scrumptiously hearty bite!
Our faces after trying the Ratatouille, and the tiny t-rex next to our table that lends the cutest touch of whimsy (rawr!):
The KOMBU CURED FLUKE was a refreshing and well-balanced dish; since fluke is mild and smooth with a hint of sweetness and faint brininess, it was well complemented by the slivers of black splendor plum (moderately tart balanced by rich sweet flavors), and wood sorrel (aka sourgrass or oxalis), all swimming in some luscious lemon mosto oil, and topped with some salt flakes. A gorgeous dish!
The CRAB CHAWANMUSHI is a must-order for any seafood fan or Japanese cuisine devotee, as it contains a creative trifecta of: crab, chawanmushi, and uni (sea urchin), in a saffron dashi (Japanese seaweed-and-bonito broth), scallions, and dollops of red yuzu kosho (chili paste) for pops of citrusy, mildly spicy flavor. More subtle than some of the other Petite Assiette offerings, it was clean, fresh, and sweet, with flavors that played well together and created a smooth and soft mouthfeel. I would come back just for this dish!
These three "Petite Assiette" dishes set the bar high for our two "Grand Assiette" choices: the Duck Breast and Spanish Octopus, for our own little surf and turf main course combo. The SPANISH OCTOPUS was incredibly tender and covered in a hemp seed crumble that was reminiscent of furikake (crunchy Japanese seasoning made of nori seaweed blended with sesame seeds, sugar and salt), and served with Koji Creme Fraiche, and thinly sliced, cured green tomato. This was also a more subtle choice compared to the explosion of flavor that is the Duck Breast.
Although there were some extremely close seconds, my favorite item of the night was the best duck I've ever had: the DUCK BREAST at Populaire ticks all the boxes for a main course: savory, fatty, saucy, and cooked to perfection. Served with pickled cherries, red endive, brown butter beet purée, and black garlic molasses, it was a perfect symphony of flavors and every bite was deeply satisfying.
Please excuse that bit of hemp seed crumble that made its way from our spanish octopus to the duck breast as we always share dishes. :P
What an incredible first visit at Populaire - we can't wait for round 2, as there are still so many interesting dishes on the menu that we want to explore. Thanks so much for the kind hospitality and excellent service, and it was such a treat to meet Chef Nick!