Proffering a dark plate with a delicate glossy chocolate cake sporting one flickering candle, the smiling waiter asks, “So where does this belong?” “Happy 25th Anniversary” is written in icing along the plate’s wide edge. “Not here,” I say as my tablemates wince silently. “Really?” the waiter persists. “Quite positive,” I insist.
He leaves the cake anyway, and when we ask about the party that should receive the celebratory goody, the waiter breezily assures us, “I’ll just have the kitchen make up another.” This doesn’t stun us since service at The Loft is oddly slipshod from the moment we’re seated at our ocean-view table. It’s a busy summer weekday; ocean breezes and bustling staff energize the crisp space. We wait for menus. And water. And a wine list. When a runner drops off an enticing breadbasket, we conscript her in the search for our waiter.
This should not be happening at the Montage Laguna Beach, a five-star resort with six-star prices—even here at the nonchalant sibling of coastal superstar, Studio. We attack our charcuterie plate like the hungry pack animals we are. It’s a terrific assembly of prosciutto, rustic paté, and translucent ovals of aged Nostrano salami, complemented by herbed olives, grilled bread, and marinated mushrooms. Every bite delights; hunger is a potent ally.
Bearboat’s 2007 Pinot Noir supplies passable, if overpriced, company for a mix of entrées that impresses on many fronts. Gently sautéed halibut is the heart of an opulent stack built on Parmesan flatbread and laced with spiced cream, velvety ripe avocado, and crunchy cabbage. Somehow rich and light at once, it’s almost diaphanous compared to the boldly flavored grilled lamb sandwich. Succulent, tender Superior Farms lamb sirloin, thickly sliced, stands up deliciously to salty feta, crisp sweet cucumber, and a smear of cool yogurt warmed with curry spice. Served on brioche, it’s a strapping handful and half of it goes home in a stylish doggie bag.
Veal schnitzel is a surprise offering that exceeds expectations. Sizzling hot, drizzled with browned caper butter, and topped with a small fried egg, the huge slab of veal is well-trimmed and fork-tender beneath a scraggy ochre jacket of crispy breading. A simple toss of delicate butter lettuce in sharp, lemony vinaigrette clears the palate, boosting the fortitude needed to finish this cutlet the size of a small pizza. Chef de cuisine Casey Overton’s light touch and confident flavor pairings nearly outshine the clumsy service, and by the time we order selections from a savvy cheese concierge, the meal’s service lapses fade into history.
I’ve reported on The Loft’s impressive cheese program before, and it still remains a shining star hiding in a cool, dark place. Even my cheese junkie friends are unfamiliar with this treasure trove, a dazzling rotation of more than 100 cultured gems, each paired with a sweet or savory house-made condiment such as apricot-thyme compote or an olive salsa. On one lazy afternoon visit when the room is nearly empty, we make an indulgent feast of six cheeses cannily selected by the day’s fromagier, Lauren Bright. I fall hard for a new-to-me blue, Blaues Wunder, but always adore a smelly, supple Époisses, this time paired with “frog” jam, a slyly named confiture of fig, raspberry, orange, and ginger.
And just to dare my HDL, I submit to pastry chef Lee Smith’s marvelous lemon-dark chocolate tart, above, under a cloud of vanilla-flecked whipped cream, a bewitching waltz of bitter, tart, sweet, and crunchy shortbread.
By now, Overton’s highly seasonal menus are touting dishes driven by cool-weather bounty such as Dungeness crab, pumpkin, chicory, and salsify, plus hearty grains such as farro and black rice. Though there is no chef’s table per se, Overton says he welcomes and enjoys preparing off-the-menu tasting feasts with a spontaneity inspired by the kitchen’s daily endowment.
Now that I know The Loft’s moods and vicissitudes, I’m keen to return for those glorious cheeses and perhaps one of Overton’s off-the-cuff tasting meals. But I know I won’t be there to celebrate my 25th anniversary. Been there, done that.
Charcuterie plate, sautéed halibut on flatbread, grilled lamb sandwich, veal schnitzel with fried egg, cheese course, lemon-dark chocolate tart.
Lunch, $15 to $32; dinner, $17 to $65.
On the patio rail for ocean view and breezes; interior booths on north wall for privacy.
Learn about and taste themed flights of wine, paired with nibbles, 2 to 4 p.m. every Sunday during the Artistry of Wine program, $35. Reservations required.
$8 with validation.
30801 S. Coast Highway
Photograph by John Cizman
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.