We’re sharing a cushy corner patio table at Ironwood, watching the sun drop as we sip a crisp white Rhône. It pairs perfectly with just-shucked oysters so lush they hardly need saucing with a mignonette. “Wow, just wow,” says my frequent dining pal. “I was starting to think new restaurants don’t bother with fine dining anymore.”
This Laguna Hills spot has been open since May 2016, so it’s not that new. Still, a dinner this rich with nuanced cooking, luscious beverage options, and surprisingly polished service feels damn novel for a yearling. These days, when hospitality cutbacks and dilution pass for cost management, it’s delightful to exit a spot sincerely eager to return.
Ironwood classifies its fare as New American. It’s delicious by any name, but I would call it refined seasonal cuisine, which better addresses the entirety of the experience. The hillside venue with little street presence hides a tasteful 110-seat restaurant that’s often packed but always comfortable. No tacky aluminum stools here. A compact bar behind the reception post buzzes with the happy aftereffects of jaunty craft cocktails with uncanny balance. I’m used to flagging servers who look right through me, but here, the personable staffers actively seek ways to accommodate guests. Need a consult on those 25 interesting wines by the glass? An erudite sommelier is just steps away.
Ironwood functions almost seamlessly thanks to shrewd operators, the same team behind San Clemente’s Vine—owner Russ Bendel Jr. and partners Kyle Simpson, Gabe Whorley, Jared Cook, and Kevin Franke.
Executive chef Cook captains the midsize menu with a spectrum that spans light to hearty, subtle to bold, rustic to urbane, and all of it swayed by Mother Nature. For example, the ethereal jade-green English pea soup is long gone, with mushrooms or butternut squash in rotation soon. Summer’s refreshing salad of sweet watermelon and ripe heirloom tomatoes under crumbled ricotta salata has an air of daintiness, until all bites are gone and slurping basil pesto directly off the plate suddenly sounds civilized. Sticky digits are inevitable with Cook’s Meyer lemon and honey duck wings, so feel free to lick those fingers; everyone else does. A fast toss in chili sauce leaves some orders spicier than others, but the meaty wings are posh peasant food either way.
If glistening fresh oysters don’t appeal, satisfy your shellfish lust with dainty seared scallops, Manila clams, and saffron couscous in a heady broth spiked with chorizo, garlic confit, and a tomato reduction. Aromatic and easy to share, this could sub as a guilt-free entree. Too heavy pasta drags down the artichoke agnolotti, but house-made pasta finds glorious redemption in the form of lithe, tender pappardelle, green with herbs. It co-stars in two entrees: buttered seasonal vegetables sparked with almond pesto and rich pecorino from Sardinia, and the crowd-pleasing giant meatball, a 1-pound, unexpected blend of ground Jidori chicken, Duroc pork, Nueske bacon, and American Kobe beef, in a pool of pungent tomato sauce.
Nightly specials, typically a fresh fish and a mighty chop or steak, are dependably splendid, yet ultra-seasonal. I don’t have space to go on about the remarkable Alaskan halibut, but do add it to your dining calendar for next July. Justly popular, the bone-in ribeye delivers deep beef flavor with superb marbling. The often-served mashed red potatoes, the side sauce, and vegetables swap in and out. Sauce choron works one season, straight béarnaise the next, and bone marrow bordelaise another time. Lamb shank braised in zinfandel is the luscious base for including sidekicks that flatter—earthy sunchoke tapenade, mint yogurt, toasted feta cheese, rounds of fresh cucumbers.
Of course there’s a monster burger: American Wagyu stacked with aged cheddar, cabernet bacon jam, pickled onion, and a sturdy potato bun. Mine quickly slid apart, but I blame my small paws. Alas, I can’t applaud the mountain of pretty fries on the side because they’re all crunch and no soul. My dream dish still haunts my appetite: Jidori chicken schnitzel, a juicy breast pounded to the size of a pancake and coated in seasoned crumbs before pan frying, is surprisingly decadent. Golden crunch yielding to tender meat, all drizzled with preserved lemon-basil emulsion. The tasty sauce also sets off the day’s fresh vegetables, nutty beech mushrooms and, wait for it, wonderful house spaetzle flecked with herbs. I’m mad for this entree, and if Ironwood were closer to home, only a restraining order could keep me away.
Generous portions of vivid fare make sharing a sane strategy for indulging while still leaving room for dessert. Sweet endings here are not mundane, and the short roster changes often. Nutella ice cream melting on a warm brownie swirled with tangy fromage blanc in the batter is a keeper. As is the deconstructed oatmeal cookie with bourbon caramel and from-scratch apple strudel ice cream.
“If I lived across the street, I would eat here every night,” declares my discerning comrade as he takes a final spoonful of caramel sauce. I agree. Good thing I live 27 miles away.
25250 La Paz Rd Laguna Hills,CA92653 | (949) 446-8772