On our recent visit to the beaches of Southern California, we reviewed four new restaurants. The Argentine-inflected restaurant of the Hotel Joaquin is for guests only, but there are other Laguna Beach restaurants worthy of note, including two that opened within the past year. Alas, neither had a water view. I did find a new restaurant in Newport Beach overlooking a marina, where we had a relaxed lunch after a whale-watching cruise, but the view didn’t compensate for the inattentive service.
Opened in November 2018, this chic restaurant tucked into a quiet corner of downtown Laguna Beach has an eclectic menu with influences from all over the world. I spotted dishes from Peru, Japan, Morocco, Italy and Korea, among others. The common thread is that most are upscale comfort food. We started by sharing a Thai salad with rich duck confit, lime dressing, red pepper and red onion atop spinach, mustard greens and arugula. It had the complex mix of flavors for which Thai cuisine is famous, all in excellent balance. I also enjoyed my hearty main of wild boar loin with a coffee rub, fresh oregano and mellow grilled grapefruit. When I heard the pineapple upside-down cake came topped with black pepper ice cream, I knew we had to try it, but the ice cream could have easily passed as simple vanilla and the cake felt a touch dry. That one misstep doesn’t stop me from recommending this otherwise excellent restaurant, however.
370 Glenneyre Street, Laguna Beach. Tel. (949) 715-1530
In a more prominent location on one of Laguna Beach’s central commercial streets, Ocean at Main has a simple, striking and airy interior of white walls and dark-wood beams, plus an attractive patio shaded by immense umbrellas. We elected to sit outside on the perfect afternoon of our visit, but the menu we received was a rather unpleasant surprise. In contrast to the exciting lunch menu shown on the restaurant’s website, which had a list of starters comparable to the dinner menu’s, as well as three interesting main courses, the lunch menu had mostly banal appetizers — spinach-and-artichoke dip, an antipasto plate — and no main courses at all, only sandwiches, salads and pizza. Fortunately, we weren’t very hungry, and so we ordered the only two appetizers that looked remotely interesting. The tempura squash blossoms were crunchy and light, and some mild, smooth cod brandade on the side added heft. I also enjoyed the sweet and spicy pork belly lettuce wraps with crunchy radishes and carrot kimchi. But here it was the dessert — one that also appears on the dinner menu — that really shone. A quenelle of bourbon ice cream cut the deep richness of some Taïnori chocolate cake and silky, aromatic chocolate-cardamom mousse. Its gorgeous presentation and complex flavors were sigh-inducing. But the sighs were part contentment and part regret. The exquisite dessert only confirmed that we should have come for dinner, not the dumbed-down lunch.
Ocean at Main
222 Ocean Avenue, Laguna Beach. Tel. (949) 715-3870
Well-regarded Malibu Farm has branches within walking distance of the Malibu Beach Inn, as well as in Miami, Cabo San Lucas and Lanai, but its newest opening is in Newport Beach’s Lido Marina Village. It seemed like an ideal choice for an upscale lunch after we’d finished our whale-watching cruise nearby. The restaurant has a fine location right on a marina, and our table was mere feet from several yachts moored nearby. I quite liked my lunch of do-it-yourself fish tacos, composed of a plank of fresh and crispy-skinned branzino with herbed crema, Monterey Jack cheese, pico de gallo, flour tortillas and a savory gallo pinto of rice and beluga lentils. But our server never checked in to see if we were enjoying our food, and instead of inquiring about dessert, she simply presented the bill. I also found the chilly, too-cool-for-school host off-putting. Numerous politically correct pins emblazoned her jacket, as well as one that simply said, “[Expletive] you.” Malibu Farm Lido’s chefs have their act together, but front-of-house is letting them down. Fine dining this was not.
Malibu Farm Lido
3420 Via Oporto, Newport Beach. Tel. (949) 791-2096