“Oh, that’s beautiful,” I say, and my companions instinctively turn and look at the sunset. Someone sighs.
“No, not that. This,” I say, pointing to the shrimp cocktail that’s just landed in front of us.
It’s hard to ignore the view at Driftwood Kitchen. No matter how many times we’ve seen the sun dip into the Pacific, that scene has a way of demanding our attention.
“Nice,” someone says, pretending to glance at the shrimp before turning west again. “It’s perfect.” The sun is at that point where you can almost hear it sizzle as it touches the ocean.
I’m torn. The sunset is stunning. But so is this shrimp, and I feel as if I’m the only person noticing it. Funny, we almost didn’t order it. This is my third (of four) visits to Driftwood, and I avoided the dish twice already. On the menu, it’s listed as “wild pickled shrimp,” a description I can taste in my head, and that’s why it’s taken me so long to pick it.
The shrimp arrive in a frosted bar glass with housemade cocktail sauce. It looks like an elaborately garnished Bloody Mary that hasn’t yet been filled with vodka. The shrimp are big and fat and beautiful. I slip one out of the glass — like pulling a giant rabbit out of a tiny hat — and take a bite. It’s not what I’m expecting. The shrimp do not appear to be pickled. They’re boiled. They’re familiar. It’s the garnishes that are pickled: a baby carrot, a piece of cucumber. It’s the best shrimp cocktail I’ve had in a very long time. If only it were called something else, I might have ordered it sooner.
Driftwood enjoys flirting with our expectations, which has advantages and drawbacks. Mostly the former.
When you arrive, the charming hostesses ask, “Inside or outside?”
Spoiler alert: It’s a trick question. “Inside” really means outside, while “outside” is simply a matter of degree. The dining room is one big sexy balcony with lots of umbrellas to block the sun. The banquettes that hug the perimeter are protected overhead by an awning, but everything is still very much outdoors — and it’s lovely. At the far edge of the patio, a second balcony dangles over the beach. It’s this subsequent little deck that the hostesses refer to when they say “outside.”
True indoors does exist, though. That’s where the bar is, and the bathrooms. And if you climb a flight of wooden stairs, you’ll notice a large private dining room that could be used if something strange, like rain, were to happen.
The chef is Rainer Schwarz, an Austrian who originally came to the U.S. to work with the Patina Group’s Joachim Splichal. More recently he served as executive chef at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, where he collaborated closely with O.C.’s Tim Goodell to open Public, an excellent gastropub there.
The guy can cook. He creates a wonderful riff on the classic salade aux lardons with a poached egg on top. Although the menu says curly endive, my salad arrives with delicate butter lettuce and red endive instead. The lardons are superb: big, crisp, fatty lumps of fried pork belly so large that it’s difficult to distinguish them from the croutons. It’s a toss-up which is better, this or the kale Caesar with fresh anchovies. You can’t go wrong with either.
The mussels are so plump I have to wonder if the chef is also a plastic surgeon. They are steamed in white wine with fennel and cherry tomatoes and accented with big, spicy slices of Portuguese sausage. And if you like sausage, this is a great place to indulge in salami, bresaola, prosciutto, nduja (a sort of spreadable chorizo) and pork rillettes. The charcuterie plate is magnificent.
The meats in general are great: duck breast with grilled nectarines and quinoa; enormous lamb chops with green mashed potatoes; an excellent hanger steak; an exceptional burger and fries.
But as much as I like the meat here, I’ve enjoyed the fish even more. The buttermilk-fried soft-shell crabs are as good as you’ll find on the West Coast. And the halibut is stunning, served atop a fricassee of summer corn and fava beans. I don’t want it to end: a sunny afternoon, this fish, a bottle of grüner veltliner, a gentle breeze. This is why we live in Orange County, isn’t it?
And then there’s the whole fried Texas redfish, a sport fish that can grow quite large — a single specimen can easily feed four people. What I love about redfish is the size of its bones. You can’t miss them, which makes this fish a joy to eat even when all the bones are still present. The meat pulls away cleanly, leaving the cartoon-like skeleton in place.
The wine list contains many happy discoveries. Sommelier Joshua Buckner previously worked at Saddlepeak Lodge in Calabasas and Michael Mina’s XIV in West Hollywood. He knows wine as well as anyone in the county, perhaps better than most. And if you ask his favorites, his eyes light up as he talks about a pinot noir from the Alexander Valley or an atypical chardonnay from the Russian River. And no matter how much you already know about wine, you will need his help deciphering the list.
Wines are divided into four confusing categories that not a single waiter knows how to explain. At first I think maybe I’m just too dumb. But then I dine with a professional wine writer, and the list makes no sense to him, either. I dine again with a serious wine collector, who flips the pages back and forth, bewildered. “This makes no sense.” It’s like an inside joke for master sommeliers.
My favorite thing about Driftwood might be the desserts from pasty chef Rene Baez. Every single one is excellent. Spoiler alert: Just be aware that nothing is quite what you think it will be, and the waiters do nothing to manage your expectations.
Take for example, the “carrot cake.” I can’t imagine anyone not loving this dessert. But if you are expecting a slice of carrot cake because the waiter tells you, “The carrot cake is amazing!” You might be disappointed, as was the case with the woman sitting at the table next to mine.
When the carrot cake arrives looking like a Jackson Pollock of hand-torn cake splattered with frizzled carrots, a few random raisins and raindrops of cardamom cream cheese icing, she almost cries. “I hate it,” she declares. She thought she was ordering cake. Apparently, not everyone likes a riddle. Or, at the very least, they want to be let in on the joke before it backfires. Fortunately, this time, I got it.
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 619 Sleepy Hollow Lane, Laguna Beach
Hours: Breakfast, 9-11 a.m. Mondays-Fridays. Weekday lunch and weekend brunch, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner, 5-10 p.m. nightly.
Don’t miss: pickled shrimp, Parker House rolls, halibut, whole redfish, carrot cake, sticky toffee cake.
Best place to sit: “Inside” perimeter banquettes.
About the noise: Extremely pleasant.
County health inspection: Initial report not available online.
Cost: Dinner appetizers $9-$18, entrees $22-$50, desserts $7-$9. Lunch appetizers $9-$18, entrees $15-$28, desserts $7-$9. Corkage, $25. Valet parking, $7.
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.