Larsen restaurant overlooks the sand at smartly redone Hotel Laguna. Chef Craig Strong’s menu is relaxed enough for a community hang yet has more than a touch of meticulousness, perhaps stemming from his days overseeing nearby luxe dining room Studio. Larsen’s chef de cuisine, two sous chefs, and pastry chef were with him there, too. Several dishes jibe particularly well with Laguna Beach’s artistic roots. Consider Strong’s short rib “cigars,” playfully presented in a square midcentury ashtray with horseradish crème fraiche and finely ground black pepper “ash.” To paraphrase French surrealist Rene Magritte, “This is not a cigar.” Enhanced with herbs, garlic, shallots, and red wine, the meat is braised, chopped, rolled in French pastry, and lightly fried; it’s smokin’ good. Strong’s version of French onion soup turns the often-gooey classic into a no-mess “dunk”: A trio of breaded Gruyère cubes arrives atop a long thin crouton poised atop the rim of the bowl, begging to be broken into the broth below. Also aesthetically pleasing: an open-face sushi-grade tuna tartine with avocado mousse—so California coastal—and a deconstructed strawberry vacherin with Marcona almonds and basil ice cream.
Hot tip: Hotel Laguna first opened in 1930; because its ancient alcohol license extends to the tide line, you can legally enjoy a pre- or post-meal cocktail on the beach.
425 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-494-1151, hotellaguna.com