Yesterday was my birthday, which means I’m a picky Virgo. I was in the mood for superior seafood, lobster bisque and soufflé, and I didn’t want a long drive with a late reservation. While researching my options, I happily discovered that Byron Gemmell had relocated his kitchen to Dana Point. I first dined in his Costa Mesa restaurant back in the nouvelle cuisine heydays when his homey Gallic comfort food stood in stark relief to the less-is-best excesses of the 1980s. I was gratified to find that time and distance have not nibbled away at his dedication to fresh, flavorful, classic French cuisine for the hungry masses.
Gemmell’s is a true gem in a rusty setting – an older mixed use center at the Dana Point Harbor with ample free parking and no valet in sight. I give our meal 5 stars for quality, portion size, service, price, location, and accessibility. Our party of 4 food-loving adults agreed that it was well worth paying $210 for our meal plus the 73 highway toll, not to mention the extra drive during Monday night rush hour. All dishes were generous and very reasonably priced. My son, another picky Virgo who just returned from a culinary pilgrimage to the upscale buffets and designer chef restaurants of Las Vegas, pronounced his meal at Gemmell’s better than any he had in Sin City.
The evening breeze was balmy, so we asked to sit in the patio area, which is more like a sun room with large open windows, ceiling fan, evocative artwork and a not-too-cheesy fake fireplace. Even the patio tables have fine linens, silverware, a muted candle, and a long-stemmed rose. French music played unobtrusively in the background. As my dear husband and I like to joke, sing it if you know it.
The wait staff was attentive, good-humored and not at all stuffy. They brought us a basket of 4 aromatic, round, oven fresh french rolls with butter. Aromatic is a good word to describe every course – pleasing to the eye, nose and mouth.
My brother and I enjoyed a deliciously different, earthy lobster bisque – not as buttery or sherry-laden as the usual bisque but with an intriguing seasoning blend I could not identify. My husband gave me a bite of his tasty wilted spinach salad with hot bacon dressing. My son had a hearty onion soup with croutons to soak up a rich broth and topped with plenty of gooey gruyere.
Our entrées arrived on extremely hot plates that retained their heat without overcooking the meat, making each bite all the more heartwarming. My brother chose the roasted duck with caramelized bananas in a reduction of rum and banana liqueur. The skin was so crisp and meat so yummy that he cleaned the bones. My son had the scallops in champagne garlic sauce, which were large, perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned. I had a bite of my husband’s succulent rack of lamb with thyme garlic demi glaze before he devoured the whole thing, despite his strong willpower and earlier plan to leave half for leftovers. The food really was that good.
My selection was a moist, tender poached filet of salmon in a champagne lemon dill cream sauce that complemented the fish without overpowering it. I love fresh dill, especially with salmon, and the flavor synergy was just lovely. Each entrée was accompanied by a scoop of rice delivered on its own small plate and circled by a wreath of fresh vegetables: a shot-sized puree of carrots, a few haricot verts, florets of cauliflower and broccoli, and bites of green and yellow squash. All our entrées were less than $30.
We ordered the individual chocolate soufflés with a chocolate crème anglaise sauce poured into the center of each soufflé by the wait staff. Dessert lived up to our high expectations. Some restaurants serve a lava cake or sweetened popover and call it a soufflé, but this was the real deal in all its lofty glory. In addition to the soufflé choices, the dessert menu includes an apple tart tatin, lemon tart, mousse au chocolat, flourless chocolat (cake, I presume), and the ubiquitous crème brulée.
Gemmell’s also offers a variety of fine wines and after dinner drinks from coffee concoctions to dessert liquors. When he learned of my birthday celebration, the host kindly offered me a complimentary glass of port. Byron Gemmell is also the Executive Chef of the Vintage Steakhouse at the San Juan Capistrano train depot, which actually features an authentic Pullman car as one of its dining venues. Next stop!