Rediscovery: Las Brisas

Three times, in the dead of winter, I dine at a Las Brisas window table overlooking the glittering sea and sweeping Laguna Beach coast. Locals in flip-flops walk their dogs, and visitors in sunhats snap pictures of the quintessential California scenery. “Ain’t it grand?” I gloat to my friends, all SoCal natives. If pride is a sin, I am clearly headed to the Other Place.

Las Brisas—The Breezes—has that effect. Its setting exudes such a vibrant sense of place that merely being there makes guests feel special, chosen. No wonder it’s the pick for many proms, birthdays, anniversaries, and for flaunting our well-endowed turf to out-of-towners.

One might argue that the fare is secondary. For years, I suggested it as a spot for margaritas at sunset, before heading off to dinner elsewhere. It wasn’t until the restaurant and its predecessor, the Victor Hugo Inn, est. 1938, popped up in a memory lane conversation with friends that I considered it anew. It seems everyone could recall an indelible meal at the bluff-top destination: a high school winter formal dinner in the ’70s, a marriage proposal during the Clinton era, a drive from Beverly Hills in a new Cadillac for lunch with Mom. I contributed a date-from-hell tale from 2000. But none of us had dined there recently.

High time for an update. And, yes, the weather now is ideal for showing off the dazzling view. But the first surprise is the snappy service. Not perfection, but our young waiter is eager to please and ultimately patient with our leisurely pace. Another surprise is that the prices are below those of other special-occasion restaurants with a view. But of course, it’s only a good value if the cuisine is well-executed.

And it is.

Mexican seafood is the category, and we’re off to a solid start with black bean soup, and gazpacho, each showing a flourish and care from the kitchen—an orb of tomato sorbet for the juicy fresh gazpacho, and for the pureed bean soup, the waiter adds garnishes from a caddy stocked with cotija cheese, minced serranos, crisp bacon, and pico de gallo.

Sticking with Mexican seafood, we dive in with Playa del Sole, a filet of sole with king crab meat, and Mero Con Tomatillo, Alaska halibut with roasted tomatillo sauce. Portions are generous and plates are brimming with food. Properly cooked and rich in flavor, the delicate sole is almost lost beneath an avalanche of competing elements. But a rescue is as easy as liberating the fish from top layers of spinach, avocado, and caper lemon butter sauce. The fat square of fresh halibut is top-notch, and the roasted garlic potatoes are flavor-dense. Colorful seasonal vegetables deliver a nice break for the palate. In a nod to the expected, several plentiful combination plates make the menu as well. La Marquesa—a beef or chicken tamale, mixed seafood mushroom enchilada, beans and rice—is typical: lots of chow, each item satisfying. Some, such as the enchilada, are especially tasty.

Sunday brunch draws solid crowds, but it’s not a buffet and consequently doesn’t feel like a touristy food hall. Four courses include a pretty, composed fresh fruit salad, a basket of pan dulce, soup or green salad, and a choice of entrées. Omelets and crepes are conventional options, but brunch renegades can order Pescadito Relleno, fresh trout that’s stuffed with crab, bell pepper, and onion; or Lomo de Cordero, roasted lamb loin over potatoes with a rosemary-garlic sauce. Sand Dabs Puerto Nuevo, which is battered filets sautéed and topped with crab, offers tasty, retro charm, and an accompanying veggie quiche seems so right on a brunch plate. Desayuno Ranchero, a fried egg on grilled Angus New York steak, is cooked to a perfect medium-rare, and oniony diced potatoes are fine starchy backup.

Chef’s dessert of the day is the final act. Cheesecake and chocolate mousse are noteworthy players, but the roster does rotate. Coffee also is included, as is tea or milk, and bottomless bubbly, too. After all, it’s brunch.

The fare may not be stunning, but it’s darned agreeable. Nothing I say here can really hurt or help Las Brisas. The place occupies a Teflon zone of its own. But it’s a worthy rediscovery for diners craving an experience that’s equal parts view, history, and food.

Best Dishes
Gazpacho; Sopa de Frijol Negro; Playa del Sole; Mero Con Tomatillo; La Marquesa; Sand Dabs Puerto Nuevo; Desayuno Ranchero; chocolate mousse.

Price Range
Breakfast buffet, $16; lunch, $15 to $22; dinner, $17 to $36; Sunday brunch, $36.

Best Seats
Window tables.

If You Go
Make reservations.

Floor captain Milton Valens has worked at Las Brisas for 30 years.

361 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, 949-497-5434,
Two-and-a-Half Stars

Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.

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