For fans who remember its upbeat, successful 10-year run in Laguna, the return of Mark’s is happy news. Even for those not aware it closed in 2004—later to become the hipster hangout Hush—its return in a new canyon setting adjacent to the Sawdust Festival grounds is a felicitous event.
When restaurateur Mark DePalma shuttered his airy, whitewashed loft on Coast Highway, loyalists partial to his uncomplicated California fare and gay-friendly hospitality were scattered to the winds of an increasingly upscale beach village. But given the packed house on my Monday night visit, it’s clear supporters quickly are tracking him down.
As before, the crowd is utterly Laguna. Tables of boomers share the bar with date-night couples, while the patio barely contains frisky kiddies fresh from cotillion class and downing sodas while their parents nosh nearby. The space isn’t as roomy as the old site, but skylights and big windows recall the original. The mood is buoyant and everyone—locals, staffers, and especially DePalma himself—seems thrilled with this rebirth.
Mark’s feels a bit less rollicking and perhaps more grounded this time around. DePalma knows locals and tourists share a taste for unfussy California cuisine, fairly priced. Most dishes are less than $20, and the menu is a distilled version of old favorites, with new dishes added by chef Martin Gonzalez, czar of DePalma’s various kitchens for 20-plus years, including a thriving catering business and the now-closed Mark’s in West Hollywood.
Starters may sound familiar, but they’re fresh and generously portioned. A fat stack of diced raw ahi brightened with fresh ginger, lime, and olive oil tastes true to its sashimi-grade quality, and rests on a foundation of emerald asparagus, bright tomato, and creamy avocado. Mango Brie Quesadilla seems very last decade, but satisfies thanks to the melted, ripe cheese, roasted pasilla peppers, and a mound of terrific guacamole.
One night, I make a dinner of the large soft tacos brimming with diced filet mignon sauced with tomatillo salsa. Sour cream and that good guacamole play rich backup. A too-intense ginger soy sauce overwhelms the shrimp and vegetable dumplings with their accompanying enoki mushrooms and baby bok choy. I rescue the dumplings from the steep bowl’s brown liquid and let them drain in order to taste the mild filling.
Mark’s Salad reappears with its rich duo of avocado slices and sweet baby bay shrimp lifted by juicy mango strips and knit together with a lively red-wine vinaigrette. Pear salad is a classic of crisp romaine, wine-poached pear cubes, gorgonzola, and candied walnuts, tossed with balsamic vinaigrette.
One Sunday brunch, Cobb salad is the superstar with diced chicken, avocado, tomato, bacon, chives, egg, and red onion coated in a light dressing with a touch of gorgonzola. Like so many dishes here, it’s not daring, just delicious thanks to careful proportions.
Aside from three fish dishes, entrées tend to be hearty, with rib-sticking starches usually sharing the plate. Pork fans should not miss the luscious prime rib of pork, cured in brown sugar and gilded with cranberry-chipotle sauce. The moist meat is underscored by both salty and sweet and comes with mellow, mashed sweet potatoes and crunchy, sautéed corn. Coffee-rubbed rib-eye is a confusing riot of flavors—the java-seared steak fights with brawny slabs of blue cheese under a bold bourbon-caramel sauce—so the wilted arugula and tear-drop tomatoes don’t stand a chance.
Chicken curry, though quite mild, is easy to like. The tender meat, which comes with a mango chutney, takes well to the rich coconut and raisin sauce with the bed of white rice. It won’t challenge your favorite Indian restaurant’s version, but it’s a comforting attempt. The frequent presence of mango on the menu does get old, and so does the plethora of sweet-flavored sauces. Maybe that’s why I eagerly snap up one night’s pasta special: tender house-made ricotta ravioli in a fresh tomato sauce that hit all the right notes.
Desserts aren’t strong here. Both the apple tart and the chocolate soufflé are forgettable at dinner, but the ricotta pancakes with berry butter, and the Grand Marnier pain perdu (French toast) are memorable at Sunday brunch. The brunch menu also offers a top-notch huevos rancheros with black beans, and a superior eggs Benedict with rosemary potatoes.
Welcoming hospitality, friendly prices, and straightforward fresh fare are exactly what made the original restaurant a Laguna favorite. It’s not hard to see why folks have so eagerly welcomed Mark’s back to the neighborhood.
Dinner: filet mignon tacos, diced ahi tower, pork chop, pasta specials. Brunch: ricotta pancakes, Cobb salad, eggs Benedict.
$5.75 to about $20.
50 percent off on Mondays (liquor and desserts not included). Corkage
is $10, except Monday, when it’s $30. Free valet on busy nights.
Open Sunday nights beginning this month. Lunch served in summer only.
853 Laguna Canyon Road
Photograph by Winnie Ma
Published January 2010