Laguna Beach in the summertime feels quintessentially Californian. Convertibles cruise the main drag, tops down, radios blasting. The sidewalks teem with pedestrians, locals and tourists alike, a swirling parade of tousled hair, flip-flops, panhandlers, boob jobs and diamonds.
Watermarc has a front-row seat. The windows overlooking Coast Highway are flung open to let in the ocean breeze. The air is fortified with animated conversation and laughter, punctuated with the chorus of cocktails being shaken, the pop of a wine cork, a Harley roaring past the front door.
The quaint patio is tucked into a romantic, brick-paved alleyway. An upstairs deck basks in the filtered glow of moonlight that peeks through the surrounding trees. On Friday afternoons and Saturday nights, every seat in the dining room is filled. Waiters weave through the crowd, up and down the wooden stairs with armfuls of crab cakes and oysters and blood-orange martinis.
The menu is divided into two sections: small plates and the more traditional, substantially larger appetizers and entrees. Focus on the small plates. This is where the kitchen excels.
Oysters are served in threes, buried beneath shaved ice that tastes deliciously like limoncello. The oysters themselves are Fanny Bays — so outrageously plump and voluptuous they look like they’ve just come from the plastic surgeon’s office, all giddy with pride. They are meaty and velvety and wonderful.
Yellowtail arrives looking very tropical. The fish is seared but still rare, thinly sliced and layered atop sweet, warm pineapple flecked with bits of char. Bite-sized nuggets of raw tuna arrive on skewers with juicy red watermelon, cherry tomatoes and wisps of pickled ginger. “Should we order another round of these?” someone asks after the tuna disappears in a matter of seconds.
But we have already over-ordered. A plate of sticky, gooey, bacon-wrapped dates arrives, along with a quivering blob of burrata cheese and a 6-inch stack of fried potato chips that infuse the air with the heady fog of truffle oil.
The burrata is familiarly satisfying, piled with grape-size tomatoes and doused with bright green pesto that is more oil than herb. The potato chips are limp and soggy, unfortunately, but they disappear quickly anyway. Their saltiness is addictive.
“Maybe we should order more of these,” someone says, reaching her sticky fingers across the table to grab the last date.
A soup of crab and corn chowder is delightful, paired with popcorn sprinkled with Old Bay. Lightly breaded crab cakes are piled atop a fricassee of tomatoes and greens and clusters of corn in a cast-iron skillet. It’s a small meal unto itself, and although it’s all very good, the crab gets lost in the crowd.
One of my favorite small plates is the chicken liver brulée, presented like the dessert with a layer of caramelized sugar on top. I love the way the hardened sugar reacts with the metallic, iron-rich taste of the creamy liver, meant to be slathered on profiteroles. A stiff, salty hunk of fried chicken skin protrudes from the savory pudding, adding yet another dimension to the unexpected appeal of such a lowly giblet. With a dish like this, there’s no need to lament the ban on foie gras.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of the bigger dishes. They just don’t excite me nearly as much as the smaller ones. The bigger the plate, the safer the kitchen plays it.
Lamb chops are big and pleasantly fatty, crusted with pistachios and roasted just right. Underneath the lamb is a layer of Brussels sprouts cooked in bacon grease. And there is a scant drizzle of cherry demi-glace, just enough of it to bring out the best in the pistachios without muddying the flavor of the lamb. It’s a good dish and probably a top seller. It’s just not the sort of thing that anyone will be talking about the following day.
The beef short ribs fall into the category of above average, too, but the accompanying gnocchi grow heavier with each passing bite. Maybe if it were colder outside, the dumplings make more sense, but after three or four mouthfuls, I feel like I’m going to explode.
The filet mignon is stacked on top of a piece of toast, which I immediately judge as dumb. I cut into the steak and start eating. The beef is very good and perfectly cooked. And then about halfway through the steak, I get around to tasting the toast, which at this point has absorbed all the blood and jus that would have otherwise puddled around the meat, and I realize it isn’t dumb. It’s actually kind of brilliant.
I really want to love the seafood paella. The rice is undercooked, still sloppy wet. But the underlying flavors are fantastic. The seafood, including half a lobster, is cooked to perfection, grilled separately, then piled on top of the rice in a traditional paella pan. Between the excellent seafood and the deep, rich flavors of the rice, I’m almost willing to forgive the failed texture.
As I’m flipping the wine list over and over, trying to find something new or interesting to drink, I keep coming up short. Beringer, Jordan, Wild Horse, La Crema, Silver Oak, Duckhorn, Freemark Abbey … all names I would have found interesting 10 years ago. All decent wines, certainly. But for anyone who takes a keen interest in wine and appreciates the vast number of California vintners just begging to be discovered, the list feels lazy. Pretty much every wine offered here is also sold at Albertsons or Rite-Aid.
Fortunately there is dessert, which brings things full circle and ends on a high note. It takes my mind off any missteps and makes me smile and laugh and remember where I am. It brings me back to the moment.
Baked Alaska elicits a round of oohs and aahs. It’s more cake than ice cream, but still very good. It’s a stunning work of art, luxuriously wrapped with ribbons of meringue.
The beignets are hot and pillowy, served straight from the fryer, dusted liberally with powdered sugar. I look up. It’s on everyone’s lips. “Should we order another round of these?”
Lemon curd comes in a jar with blueberry compote and whipped cream. I wish the curd were more lemony, less sweet, but we still lick the jar clean.
A “Beavis & Butthead” lunchbox arrives – how did they know? – filled with housemade, cream-filled chocolate Ding Dongs wrapped in tinfoil, along with a half-pint carton of milk and a printed joke of the day: “How do lemons ask for a hug?”
If you don’t know the answer to that one already, you’ll have to go find out for yourself.
Rating: 2 stars
Where: 448 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. daily. Dinner 3:30-10 p.m. Sundays- Thursdays, 3:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Don’t miss: Chicken liver brulee, hamachi with charred pineapple, the burger, corn and crab chowder, Ding Dongs.
Best place to sit: Upstairs under the tree, or downstairs in the front window.
About the noise: Loud, especially near the bar. The upstairs patio is probably the quietest spot.
County health inspection:Looks good. No major violations on the past two inspections.
Cost: Lunch, small plates $7-$15, sandwiches $12-$18. Dinner, small plates $7-$17, large plates $16-$34. Desserts, $9. Corkage, $15, limit two.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.