Traipsing Through the OC
Hello Enthusiasts –
How have you been? I’ve been good, thanks. It’s been awhile. I started the new year saying I was going to post more but, alas, another resolution falls by the wayside. I just looked, and my last post was April 11. April freakin’ 11th! Well, I apologize that you’ve had to wait so long for my bon mots but until this little vanity project pays the mortgage, it will be what it will be.
And to make it even worse, for my first sojourn back into the online saddle, I’m not even gonna write about Downtown. In fact, I’m gonna write about territory into which many of us fear to venture: behind the Orange Curtain.
I don’t need to tell you why that is a scary land. All that plastic surgery. All those real housewives. All those … Republicans. But. It does have its place in the Southland landscape. Namely, a place where we Angelenos can drive for an hour and basically feel like we’re in a foreign country.
Besides, sometimes you can’t get plane- or long-car-ride away, but you want to get away a little bit farther than traveling across the 10. Long ago, I wrote about the then-new Terranea, which is a good local getaway. But sometimes you need a bit more distance, and all that eco stuff only goes so far. So, the OC it is.
Now, Mrs. Enthusiast and I were celebrating our Big Metal Chicken anniversary (What is that, you say? Read this), and decided that a little OC-style luxury was in the cards. Of course, I didn’t think that this would result in a blog post – in fact, I would rather keep these little suburban getaways quiet, for fear of jeopardizing what little urban cred I have. But on this trip, we ate at not one, not two, but three restaurants that I figured were worth putting out there, at least to the one or two lucky people who actually read this thing. Fair warning, though – they are all special occasion restaurants. These aren’t “hey, it’s Tuesday and we want to do something a little different” restaurants.
So, I’ll go in ascending order of worthiness. In which case, the first one is totally out of left field. But I’m throwing it in anyway. Enthusiasts, I give you the Carthay Circle Restaurant. I can read your mind: “Hmm. I haven’t heard of that one.” I bet you haven’t. Why? Because it’s inside California Adventure. Yes, the Disney resort. So, I acknowledge that actually going to this restaurant will require you to get into the park. Meaning it will be a special occasion day, not just a dinner. But. This place is worthy.
First, the usual pictures. Here’s the outside:
And here’s the inside (no, Disney doesn’t do subtle – but it’s certainly grand):
They’re going for 1920s, and it’s inspired by/modeled after the old Carthay Circle theater (formerly on San Vicente), which is where Snow White premiered.
You have to make reservations, and we mostly went because we could sit down and they serve alcohol. But man, were we surprised. The menu isn’t the most creative in the world (for those who care about that sort of thing, it’s here), but the ingredients were super fresh, the food was certainly way more creative than it had to be – I had Skuna Bay salmon with almond couscous and raspberry lemon vinaigrette, for crying out loud – and even the cocktails were fairly legit (correct glassware, decent spirits, drink-specific ice). Loyal readers of this little vanity project know that one of my key criteria is “better than it has to be” – well, this place, for all sorts of obvious reasons, is wayyyyyy better than it has to be. Plus, while you have to give over to the Disneyishness of it all, you gotta admit that the setting is pretty cool (and hey, you can basically wear whatever you want). Finally, if you get the reasonably priced prix fixe, you get a special VIP ticket to their World of Color show, so there’s that.
OK, to get past the eye rolling that I know some of you are giving me, we’ll move along. The next place on our list is “just” a steakhouse. But it’s one of the better steakhouses I’ve been to, and it’s in an intimate, jewel box setting. Grand, this isn’t. So now, we have EnoSteak, inside the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel. There are a few Eno wine bars around the country, including SF’s Union Square, Georgetown, and the Hotel Del. But this is the only steakhouse, and steak places don’t get much better than this.
I won’t give you exterior pictures because you just enter from the hallway leading straight up from the hotel lobby. But the interior looks like this – and this is basically the whole thing, dominated by a wine cube in the middle:
Yes, it’s your basic steakhouse leather-and-wood, but the art was cool … and it’s kind of what you want in a steakhouse. The menu isn’t going to win any awards either (but major points for giving you as many of their butters/sauces as you want, including black truffle butter), but what they do, they do really well. Besides, I don’t really like steakhouses that try to get all creative on me. Just give me a great steak. They can try something with the sauces or the sides if they want, but that’s it. And I don’t know about you, but it’s rare when I get a truly amazing steak (rare as in temporally, not in a temperature sense. I get mine medium) that reminds me how good steak can be. The service was impeccable, and of course the wine was off the charts (also, the wait staff gets points for showing us a good value without us asking, and it really was). So … go to restaurant #2 on our list for a great steak in an intimate setting inside a world class hotel.
Speaking of world class hotels, that leads us to #3 on the list. Truly one of the most spectacular settings for a restaurant I’ve ever been to – certainly in Southern California – with food, service, and wine that comes pretty darn close to measuring up. For that, we have Studio, at the Montage in Laguna Beach.
First, if you DO go, give yourself time to sit in the super welcoming hotel lobby, have a glass of champagne, listen to the piano player, and enjoy the view, whether you are staying at the hotel or not. This is a place to give yourself time for, not to walk in 5 minutes before your reservation.
But, since I started by calling the setting spectacular, we’ll get right to the pics. There’s this:
And this (a little blurry – it’s the house with the windows glinting in the sun to the left):
And the inside looks like this (sorry the second one is so small):
Basically, it’s a cozy beach cottage perched on a promontory with something like 270 degrees of ocean and greenery views. A lot of places go for big and showy with a location like this. Smartly, the Montage went for demure and welcoming, letting the view be the show.
When we sat down at our table, Mrs. Enthusiast said “wow, with a setting this spectacular, I almost don’t care what the food tastes like.” And that’s typically exactly the case – restaurants get a great location, serve medium food with crappy ingredients at inflated prices, and pack ’em in. Not this place. This is fine dining all the way. Fresh ingredients – many of the greens and herbs are grown on the premises – and generally excellent-yet-accessible food.
Plus – and I’ve never seen this before – this place gets major points for not requiring the entire table to get the chef’s tasting menu AND, they let you swap in anything on the regular menu for something that you don’t like and/or can’t eat on the tasting menu (which is a frequent problem for Mrs. Enthusiast). Finally, the wines were out of this world – perfectly paired, and from around the world.
Now, full disclosure: for you hard core foodies, I will admit that the food at Studio was probably an 8.5 on the 10 point scale (grading on a scale given this price point, which ain’t cheap). My sea bass was a tad underwhelming and my tomato salad could have used more pizzazz. But trust me – a field trip to this place will not disappoint you. (I throw this paragraph in because invariably when I rave about a place, someone tells me about the one disappointing dish they had or the one quibble they had. These are meant to be “overall experience” reviews – not ‘every dish’ reviews. So relax and go with it.)
There you have it. Three perhaps unexpected places in a perhaps unexpected locale. But next time you have your own special occasion to celebrate, you could do way worse than these gems.
PS – Before I go (have you really read this far?), we were at the Wolfgang Puck/David Chang/Roy Choi dinner the other night at the Hotel Bel Air. It was awesome (check out my pic!),
but I’m not gonna write about it, because I like to write about things you can actually go check out and that was a one night only thing. But I hear the next one is with Daniel Boulud, so I’ll try to keep you posted on that.
I’m not giving you all the address and whatnot – you know where it is – but if you do want to go, you have to reserve at 714-781-DINE.
I’m not giving you this address either because it’s something like “1 Ritz Carlton Drive” – I have faith you can get yourself there in this GPS era. But here’s the phone number: 949-240-2000.
30801 South Coast Hwy (just a few miles north of the Ritz)