Outside of our world-class resorts, coastal dining often is a culinary wager. The better the view, the bigger the risk. Laguna Beach’s Driftwood Kitchen, with its yowza seaside panorama, is a beautiful illustration of this gamble. Open since June 2014, this laboriously retooled venue, which for years was the middling Beach House restaurant, now boasts new management under the Sentinel Restaurant and Hospitality Group and a new executive chef-partner, the Austrian-born Rainer Schwarz. His worldly bio is peppered with boldface players that include Switzerland’s Grand National Hotel, Carmel’s Highland Inn, and the Patina Restaurant Group.
As ever, valet parking in the alley is clogged and pricey, an annoyance that’s fast forgotten once we have a table in the 76-seat patio dining space perched mere feet from the water. The spectacular surfside and sunset view is mesmerizing and allows servers a protracted grace period before we realize we’re ready for a greeting, a drink, and a menu. Wine-by-the-glass choices are a patchy lot that cry out for details, but alas, servers don’t supply helpful answers. For this reason, interesting cocktails presented as tributes to the city’s bygone restaurants have extra appeal. A rye and pineapple creation called High Tide honors The Royal Hawaiian. Remember French 75? The Black and Blue with fresh berries and sparkling wine is a sentimental salute to the defunct icon and its beloved bar. These homage drinks are a creative, insidery touch that’s sure to appeal to locals, lending a note of old Laguna Beach.
Dinner this night kicks off with three starters, or small plates as the menu labels them: butternut squash gnocchi, hamachi crudo, and goat cheese panna cotta. We dive into the gnocchi while it’s hot—OK, warmish—before the evening sea air chills it. Every bite needs a swipe through the browned-butter sauce to flavor the bland squash cubes and near-gummy knobs of gnocchi. Fried sage leaves are the dish’s best feature. The quivering panna cotta tastes too faintly of goat cheese to play with gusto against the luscious beets. Hamachi crudo with gems of juicy grapefruit and dollops of avocado mousse is vibrant, complex, and disappears quickly after a flurry of fork attacks.
When entrees arrive, we dig with frenzied speed into the whole fried branzino and the butcher steak-pork belly combination before they go cold. This is because neither entree is served hot to the touch. Flaky and moist, the fish has the most delicate crust, allowing the rich flesh to impress. Butcher steak and pork belly is an Odd Couple combo, but both meats are cooked with care. The chimichurri sauce clearly suits the beef, and crispy red onions nicely counter the indulgent pork’s richness.
Dessert is a flat ending. Our waiter endorses the “best banana split of your life,” but it’s not. It’s an inordinately sweet, cold mess of chocolate, Luxardo maraschino cherries, salty caramel, lady fingers, scoops of ice cream and, oh yes, bruleed bananas. Our group of three adults couldn’t finish this sugar bomb. Perhaps we should have brought along some teenagers.
Dessert is the yummiest dish at lunch one sparkling afternoon. A warm plum tart with pecan crumble and a slash of plum wine caramel is buttery, darkly fruity, and not at all cloying. It’s the only dish that shows an expert hand, in this case that of pastry chef Rene Baez. Lunch’s other dishes include an over-sauced yellowfin tartare, a tasteless quinoa salad, and a salmon sandwich with a pale filet, devoid of seasoning. This is my fifth visit, and by now I’m over the view and can’t help but focus on the fact that I have never seen a manager on the floor. Clearly, hospitality here is only as polished, or careless, as your server. On my test drives, service alternates among blasé, youthful, and fawning. Sometimes in a single visit.
Two meals outshine the others: Sunday brunch, and a slow night in the cozy Stateroom Bar. Brunch is simply the daily breakfast menu extended with select lunch dishes—a perfect excuse to start the day with splendid French toast, coated in a
granola batter, topped with maple pecan butter and fresh berries that sparkle like jewels. Creamy kale, velvety avocado, and oven-blistered cherry tomatoes fill an egg-white omelet that strikes me as unremarkable, though my brunch mate devours it.
Despite website content to the contrary, there is no bar menu midweek when I sashay up to the old, brawny wood bar overlooking the patio festooned with festival lights. Affable and knowledgeable, the bartender suggests a cheese-and-charcuterie plate in lieu of the imaginary bar menu. It’s a swell array, one of the better I’ve seen lately, and the perfect partner for my whiskey cocktail, customized by the bar’s impressive brown-booze inventory.
To steal a Driftwoodesque nautical reference, meals do go adrift here. But with blissful Laguna Beach scenery like this, does it matter? Tourists migrate here year-round. Couples trek reliably coastward for Big Date nights. Locals dutifully bring their visiting friends for sunset pilgrimages. The ocean-view gambit is in full force, ensuring dining here is as good as it needs to be, but seldom better than it has to be.
619 Sleepy Hollow Lane