Stonehill Tavern - Dana Point
I like food. I like talking about it, writing about it, taking pictures of it, and most of all, eating it. It doesn't have to be fancy or expensive. It can come from the humblest of places. It just has to be good. But once in while, a little splurging is nice. And there's no better way to splurge than when your friends are doing the splurging, like mine did a few days ago for my birthday.
Last year, it was Bluefin and Spago. This year, it's Michael Mina's Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Hotel in Monarch Beach.
If you couldn't tell by the name, this hotel was as ritzy as it gets. Guests rolled in on Bentleys and were dressed in designer duds. All around, there were polished marble columns and immaculately clipped topiary. The aura of wealth was everywhere.
As we pulled up to the valet, in a dented Toyota pickup, I suppressed a chuckle as my friend said to me under his breath, "Couldn't we have taken my car?"
But the attendant barely batted an eye as I handed him the key and we made our way in, through the lobby, past the gorgeous foyer, into the restaurant.
We sat in a glass encased booth near the bar, a dimly lit lounge with towers of glass bejeweled with wine bottles.
Our waiter was precise and professional with the chiseled features of a daytime soap star. He recited the fine details of the night's specials flawlessly, from memory -- a talent which will undoubtedly come in handy the next time he auditions.
Of the many menus he gave us, one was the tasting menu, a list of six courses for $115 per person. Originally, our plan was to try it, but everyone at the table has to agree to order it, or no one does.
This "all-or-nothing" option wouldn't work, since one of us does not eat duck or lamb, and it made up two courses.
A smarter way, we decided, was to order a-la-carte. Not only would we save money, we'd get to try twice as many items as the tasting menu offered.
The appetizers alone would account for nine items.
They were subdivided into these categories:
Liberty Farms Duck
Each category had three different variations, while a fourth, called a Tasting Trio, had a sampling. We chose three trios, but steered clear of the caviar, which commanded hefty price tags ($150-$275).
But before the trios arrived, a basket of hot rolls did. And I do mean hot. A plume of steam escaped when we tore one apart. A slathering of house-made butter liquefied on contact, and before we knew it, we finished the entire basket. The best roll was one bubbled over with crispy cheese.
Next came a complimentary amuse of raw tuna, set on a thin round of cucumber, topped with caviar. It had the diameter of a quarter, but tasted like a thousand bucks.
It readied us for the Tuna Trio ($33), served side-by-side on a flat, rectangular plate. The first was a thin square of meat, seared on the bottom, but red and raw topside. A few spears of crunchy haricot verts and a boiled quail egg accompanied an "endive marmalade". It was a study in contrast and balance, between flavors and geometric shapes.
The second was thick slices of sashimi, "cooked" with the acid of yuzu and topped with shaved radish, enoki mushrooms, and cucumber. The creaminess of the fish was offset nicely by the citrus, like scrambled eggs with a fresh O.J. chaser.
The third was tuna tartare, laced with habanero-infused sesame oil, garnished with ribbons of mint and a side of buttered toast. The tuna's fine dice sparkled ruby red, and slipped around like an oiled seal in my mouth.
The Lobster Trio ($38) was good, but never being a fan of lobster, the meat failed to impress me. Though the methods did.
The first was a chilled salad, with frisee, pickled peaches, orange, and dribbles of roasted almond oil. The lobster sat underneath, frigid, firm, and furtive.
The second lobster app was bisque presented in a tea cup. Submerged under a rich, hot soup full of its essence was more of the meat. This time, it's butter-poached. There was also a crisp, fried fleck of batter, present for crunch and color.
The third lobster incarnation was as a shiso-wrapped fritter, deep fried on a stick. A deliberate dressing down of an expensive ingredient, this was a lobster in a corn dog's clothing. It rested on a lettuce cup with a dollop of sour cream.
When I went for the lettuce after the fritter was consumed, one of us remarked, "but that's a garnish."
"On a $38 dish, nothing is garnish!" I said to nods of agreement.
Hearts of romaine was certainly not garnish either. This was the first sample in the Greens Trio ($23), the trio that trumped the others. The romaine was done as a traditional Ceasar, with cheesy, crunchy crouton cubes and generous shavings of parmesan.
The second was a salad of heirloom tomatoes, with a oozy gloop of burrata cheese for body and wild arugula for fodder. The play between the tart and the rich was thrilling, if fleeting. I wanted more than the small hill I had to share with my two friends.
The third was watercress, served with a goat cheese and pistachio. The goat cheese was mild and runny, like yogurt without the tang; closing out the appetizer course with a cooling finish.
The main entrees came next, and we passed it around to take a taste of each other's selections.
My choice was the Berkshire Pig ($37). There was not one, but two different cuts on the plate, each prepared differently. One was a loin roast -- a cylinder of very tender meat with hardly any fat.
The other was thin planks of cheek meat. These were very dense, very fatty, and very flavorful. Its bouncy bite reminded me of bologna. A thick smear of paste was the puree of yellow carrot. And yes, I shall describe it as baby food. But any baby or toothless adult would love this full-bodied and sweet spoonful of silk.
Another entree, was the Nebraska Prime Beef ($46), which also had two distinct cuts and preps. The first, was a soft-as-pudding braised veal cheek meat, which could've been eaten with a spoon. The other was a bloody hunk of steak; good but unremarkable.
Broccoli and a block of a thinly-layered potato gratin acted as sides. All together, it was a homey dish -- hearty, rich and filling.
The Monkfish ($35) on special would be the winner if there was judging. Two swollen fillets were pan-seared, cooked to perfection and served under shredded cabbage wilted with bacon drippings. Grapes, pearl onions, and marble-sized English potatoes were strewn below for flavor and starch.
Tasting the buttery, firm-yet-supple flesh, I realized that this "poorman's lobster" needs a better nickname. It did, indeed, feel and taste like lobster, but it didn't have its odor or funky bitterness.
For dessert, we passed on the usuals of chocolate cake, creme brulee, and cheesecake (all available with fanciful add-ons), for something we never thought we'd see in a fancy restaurant: Root Beer Float ($12).
Yep, thanks to Pulp Fiction, you've heard of the five-dollar shake. Well, this is a twelve-dollar float. And I'm sorry to have to say this, but: it was worth every penny.
First of all, it comes with three hot-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies, which already won our hearts. But this isn't just a mug of soda with a hastily dropped scoop of vanilla. No, this is a thoughtful and calculated dessert course.
First, the glass is filled halfway with a root beer slush, so that the scoop of ice cream can sit on it without sinking to the bottom. Then, there's the ice cream. It's not vanilla, but sassafras, which is a main ingredient in root beer. Over this, chilled root beer is poured.
The result; a playful rethinking of a classic.
When we thought we were done, we weren't. With the check (I will let you calculate the total on your own), came complimentary bon bons, ice cream morsels covered in chocolate, speared on plastic sticks.
It was a wonderful night of splurging by good friends on my behalf. One of them handed me a wad of cash when we walked outside. The money was for the valet, who was about to pull up in our pickup truck.
1 Monarch Beach Resort
Dana Point, CA