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A private lesson with Pascal January 27, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in food&wine, local.
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Pascal Olhats has been one of Orange County’s top chefs and restaurateurs for decades.  He’s originally from Normandy, trained in France and Belgium and worked under the legendary Paul Bocuse in Lyon.  His flagship restaurant, originally called simply Pascal, and relaunched three years ago as Tradition by Pascal, is always right at the top of the list when the region’s best classic French restaurants are talked of, despite its unlikely location in a strip mall near John Wayne airport. 

So, it was birthday week.  Mine was last Monday and our friend Stuart celebrated his on Tuesday.  We’ve often enjoyed combined birthday dinners, but this was something different.  Stuart had won a 6-seat private cooking class with Pascal in a silent auction at a fundraising event, and he’d been kind enough to extend an invitation to Lorraine and me to be part of the evening. 

So, six of us, Lorraine and I, Stuart, his husband Jeff, and two mutual friends, John and Chris, met up at around six in Pascal’s lovely little gourmet deli, a little nervous about the extent to which our cooking chops would be put to the test.  We needn’t have worried.  Pascal arrived, introduced himself and immediately put us at our ease.  We dressed in kitchen aprons and were led through into the kitchen we were going to use.  Pascal popped a bottle of white Bordeaux, pointed us at a tray of nibbles, and distributed the evening’s menu.

As it turned out, the cooking lesson mainly involved the six of us watching closely, glass in hand, as Pascal prepared the food.  Lorraine stripped some thyme stalks, and I peeled some tomatoes, but that was pretty much the extent of our hands-on involvement.

Pascal started off with a pasta dish – egg fettucine with Rocquefort sauce.  It seemed pretty simple, and ended up unbelievably rich and tasty.  A couple of mouthfuls was all we had, and all we needed.

Next up was Pascal’s signature dish – sea bass in a thyme crust with a fruits de mer sauce.  The sauce was magnificent, mussels, scallops and shrimp shells cooked in white wine, the liquid reduced, cream added, more reduction and concentration and butter stirred in at the end.  The shellfish were just there for flavouring, but they were so good that we ate them all anyway.  The seabass was layered with a thyme-breadcrumb coating, poached in white wine and then finished off in the oven.  The dish came together remarkably quickly, and was delicious.  Lorraine was shaking her head as this delicate fish simmered in white wine and then sat in a 425 oven for what seemed like ages.  I suppose that’s why Pascal is paid the big bucks – the fish came out of the oven perfectly cooked.

The final dish was a rack of lamb with a Dijon mustard and breadcrumb crust.  This recipe turned out to be very similar to the rack of lamb that Lorraine and I do, but Pascal’s lamb was a class above ours.  I suppose home cooks can get hold of meat of this quality, but I’m not sure how you’d go about finding it and how much it would cost.

Pascal was a lovely host. There was no sign of celebrity attitude, even though he’s been a nationally and internationally known chef for over twenty years.  The conversation, and the wine, flowed freely, and Pascal was happy to answer questions about his ingredients and techniques, and talk candidly about sharing in the downturn which has affected everyone in the last few months. 

I did some research when I got home, and found that Pascal offers a Sunday evening three course prix fixe dinner for $40, which includes one waived corkage fee per couple.  That’s a seriously good deal, and we’ll be back there soon.

 And, of course, we thank Stuart for his generosity in inviting us along to an evening we won’t quickly forget.

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