My friend plucks another glistening half shell from a mound of ice. “These are the best fresh oysters I’ve had in a long while,” he purrs. The rest of us allow Mr. Oyster his reverie as we fall into a trance, our eyes locked on the sun sliding down a cloudless sky.
We’re sitting at one of the best tables at Splashes, one of the finest surfside venues between Laguna Niguel and Malibu. Like many of its kind, Laguna Beach’s Surf and Sand Resort turns its back to busy PCH, presenting a low-key façade concealing a breathtaking site that tumbles down to a gorgeous stretch of coastline.
But we’re not here for the stunning view, we’re here to sample the work of Jeff Armstrong, Splashes’ executive chef since May. We arrive hungry, which is a problem since the sparely worded menu of seasonal California cuisine triggers questions, and our overburdened waiter keeps dashing away. Even bringing our own wines doesn’t help when no one offers to uncork them. The snarky axiom “you can’t eat the view” feels truer by the minute.
Eventually, we order three- and five-course meals from a build-your-own prix fixe deal that allows full run of the pithy menu. Our first visit is in late summer. Fat wedges of ripe peaches and heirloom tomatoes arrive in a salad perfumed with fresh basil and scattered with crunchy breadcrumbs. A cold tomato-and-buttermilk soup flaunts rustic flavors tempered with balance and refinement. Tuna seared with just a hint of chili and served with toasted pecans, grapefruit, and radish crescents is a harmonious mix and a starter I hope stays on through winter. But no first course outdoes the fat, sweet grilled shrimp hitting a beautiful groove with a hint of smoke from chipotle, juicy crunch from jicama, nutty musk from saffron, and velvety rich notes from a silky yogurt broth.
As the room fills with chic couples and casual locals, our waiter all but vanishes. Runners and bus staff supply valiant support, but their menu knowledge is limited. And though corkage is a hefty $20 per bottle, we are left to navigate the wine list alone. It’s only after we order a flight of wines to pair with a meal do we learn there is no sommelier. Here’s hoping this changes soon.
Expect winter’s menu to offer heavier main dishes along the lines of daubes and braised meats. But robust entrées from early fall, such as the wine-glazed short rib, fork-tender and juicy alongside young carrots and mashed potatoes, are sure to survive in some fashion. Rich pork loin from Vande Rose Farms is hearty as well. Roasted mushrooms mixed with fresh mint nudge this dish firmly into the win category. Alaskan halibut might stick around, too—though its side of sublime tomato-fennel stew and basil pistou may be gone by now. Semolina dumplings, parsnips, leeks, and summer truffles might appeal to some diners, but they’re a baffling mix of disconnected flavors. Vegetarians should stick with soups, salads, and sides.
The generous cheese plate also is a fine option, heavy with California artisan varieties such as Hudson Valley Camembert, Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk, and Roaring Forties Blue.
At dessert, a lackluster graham cracker ice cream brings down the ’smore made with chocolate ganache and chewy toasted marshmallow. But two fruit desserts prove pastry chef Ryan Velilla can soar: His deconstructed lemon tart with fresh huckleberries is a gem, and his rustic roasted stone-fruit cobbler is comfort fare of the highest order. On Thursdays, Velilla also works magic at the bar, creating fantastical molecular cordials—brown-butter rum with apple cider caviar goes down like butterscotch pudding and could easily sub for dessert.
A cheese selection also is on the menu at the bar, where the same panorama can be enjoyed for far less capital. Prices are nearly as high as it gets in this territory—after all, it’s in a pricey resort. But if you don’t have hundreds to drop for a feast with a multimillion-dollar view, stop by the bar at sunset (many do) and munch away on those oysters or the killer prosciutto-and-Gruyère melts on thick, grilled country bread. Warm, accommodating service at the bar outshines the dining room treatment on my visits.
Armstrong’s cooking is tightly focused on clean, clear flavors, and he has a light touch that he backs with strong classic technique. It’s a pleasure to see a menu that doesn’t incorporate a gaggle of trendy ingredients or odd couplings. If only the service could equal the dazzling setting or deluxe tab, Splashes could make the perfect wave.
Fresh oysters, prosciutto-and-Gruyère melts (bar only), grilled shrimp, seared tuna, pork loin, glazed short rib, Alaskan halibut, seasonal cobbler, Thursday night cordials.
Lunch or brunch, $9 to $24; dinner, $9 to $44.
Outdoor lounge is open on a limited schedule in winter; call ahead to confirm.
Surf and Sand Resort
1555 S. Coast Highway
Photograph by Jessica Boone
This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.