Sunday, September 30, 2007

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:

Maine Lobster
Liberty Farms Duck
Tuna
Dungeness Crab
Greens
Osetra Caviar

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.

Stonehill Tavern
(949) 234-3325
1 Monarch Beach Resort
Dana Point, CA

30 Comments:

At 5:16 PM, Anonymous Seth Chadwick said...

What a great review, Elmo! Now I have another place to add to my list of restaurants to take J. for special occasions.

I do wonder, though, what there take on cheese crisps would be. :o)

Best wishes!

 
At 5:39 PM, Blogger KirkK said...

Hi Elmo - Tavern, huh? I don't know of any tavern that serves up stuff like that!

 
At 5:50 PM, Blogger Juliet said...

Happy belated birthday! I'm going to take a cue from you and insist on getting treated to a la-dee-da place for my birthday next year. ^_^
I didn't realize it, but I guess I sort of gave you a present, too. Enjoy it!

 
At 8:00 PM, Blogger Christine D. said...

Way to roll up to the St. Regis in style! Nice. ;P That is one fantastic looking root beer float!

Happy Belated Birthday!

 
At 6:32 AM, Blogger Wandering Chopsticks said...

Happy Birthday Elmo! Wow! You've got some fabulous friends. Can I borrow them? ;)

Is it wrong that I was most impressed with the root beer float? I looove root bear. And sassafras ice cream sounds so intriguing. I'd pay $12 to experience that.

 
At 6:32 AM, Blogger shinae said...

elmo,

I am soo jealous! I've been wanting to hit that place for the longest, and your photos are getting to be more food porn by the post. :)

Keep up the great coverage.

s

 
At 9:00 AM, Blogger nhbilly said...

WOW!

 
At 12:26 PM, Anonymous Marvin said...

Great review Elmo. Nice touch at the end with your pickup truck. Stonehill Tavern is now on my list of places to try.

 
At 2:58 PM, Blogger Chubbypanda said...

Elmo,

Right back at ya, buddy. Your pictures are looking spectacular these days. I also love how your friends take you out for your birthday. Who needs more stuff? I want tasty foods!

As a side note, most restaurants will take into account dietary preferences when you order the tasting menu. It sounds like you guys made the smart choice going a la carte, but if you ever find yourself dining with someone who has dietary restrictions again, let your waiter know what they are when asking about the tasting menu. He may have to check with the chef, but chances are they'll be able to make a substitution or change to accommodate your friend. Remember, though, that what the substitution is or if it's made is entirely at the discretion of the chef.

 
At 6:10 PM, Blogger Scotty Tran said...

Hey elmo, I finally decided to make an account. I've read tons of your reviews, but I think this is the first up to date review that I really had been able to want to relate on. I love the descriptions you have on your posts. This place really seems like a world of wonder that I probably won't ever get to try. I read the review of Bluefin a while ago as well, it really seems hard to find which was better. Which was better for you?

Oh, and by the way, happy belated birthday, my birthday passed recently as well. =)

 
At 8:41 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Seth,

If they can class up root beer float, I'm sure their cheese crisp would be over the top awesome!

Kirk,

When I first heard of it a few years ago, I thought, "A tavern? You mean like bar food?" Little did I know what the prefix "Michael Mina" does to any words that come after.

"Michael Mina's Hamburger Stand" would probably break the bank, and be worth every penny.

Juliet,

La-dee-da places are great! Especially if you don't have to shell out the cha-ching!

Christine,

And I'd do it again too (the truck)!

Wandering Chopsticks,

I guess the dinner makes up for the fact that I chipped in for an iPhone for one friend. And I'd spend another $12 for that root beer float in a heartbeat.

Shinae,

Thanks! This one's been on my list for a while. Next up on the totem pole is French Laundry.

nhbilly,

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Marvin,

It's off my list now. Can't wait to hear about your experience after you take it off yours.

CP,

We were thinking of asking them to substitute, but I'm glad we ended up ordering this way. And what's a better present for a foodie than food!

Scotty,

Thanks for delurking! Good to know that you've been enjoying my reviews. As far as Bluefin vs. Stonehill, I'd give a slight edge to Bluefin. The reason is that I prefer its Asian flavors and Japanese food. Both are immaculate though. Can't go wrong with either.

 
At 1:26 AM, Blogger V said...

I'm salivating! What a lovely gift... Happy Belated Birthday!

 
At 8:26 AM, Anonymous howie said...

Wow! Looks like a decadent, amazing experience!

I've tried the Root Beer Float at Aqua when Mina was there, and it is definitely rave-worthy.

Was Stonehill pretty busy? I went to Aqua in Dana Pt a few years ago, and it was so quiet and empty that it was unsettling. The food was great though.

 
At 5:36 PM, Blogger ChristianZ said...

We need to have a root beer float meetup there sometime.

 
At 9:03 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

V,

It was a lovely meal! And thanks for the birthday wish!

Howie,

It was dead in the restaurant. Only a few parties present, but it was Wednesday night, so I didn't expect it to be busy. I do wonder now though: is it like that all week?

Christian,

I'm game if you are!

 
At 12:05 AM, Anonymous henrychan said...

happy belated birthday elmo!! i like the fact that they serve several different preps and cuts of a dish. Never heard of them doing this elsewhere. I'll havta add this place to my list of "Must eats." And, that root beer is a "must get!"

 
At 10:23 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Henry,

I also thought that. The Trios is apparently a signature thing Mina does in all his restaurants. Two is better than one, three is better than two. Never is it a crowd.

 
At 12:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It all sounds wonderful! Especially, that rootbeer float! The best float that I have ever experienced was the one I had at the Stadium Club in the Staples Center. They "shaved" frozen rootbeer and layered that slush with ice cream. Then they poured IBC rootbeer over it and set the bottle down next to you to add more if you liked. It's been 10 plus years but, still memorable.
Thanks for the great review!

Fellow Northparker

 
At 12:26 PM, Blogger Windo said...

great review elmo. the berkshire pig looks amazing. i'm a fan of the berkshire pork links at shabu shabu japanese restaurant in mission viejo. i'm salivating now for that $12 root beer float. this place is something to look forward to for sure.

 
At 1:16 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Northparker,

That sounds exactly like the SHT's root beer float! So who copied who?! HAHA!

Windo,

That berkshire pig was succulent. The chewy cheek needed a little getting used to (maybe because I KNEW it was pork cheek), but dang it was tasty!

 
At 5:48 PM, Blogger Richard said...

That sounds like a wonderful place for special occasions... I'll have to remember it. ^_^

And belated happy birthday!

 
At 8:48 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Richard,

Thanks! Hope you like it when you try it.

 
At 7:34 PM, Blogger Just the Sous Chef said...

Oh, my husband took me here for my birthday ... my highlights- the wine somelier (sp?)recommended the PERFECT wine based on what we told him we liked and the Sirloin Burger with Truffle cheese is to DIE FOR ... amazing ... I know, I know, who orders a Cheeseburger at a fine dining restuarant ... pregnant me!!!! I had heard about it and it definitely lived up to its expectations. MMMMMMMMMMMMM, it sounds so good right now. Happy belated B-day!

 
At 7:57 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Just the Sous Chef,

Oh I bet that was one extraordinary burger though!

 
At 3:40 PM, Blogger Menu Taster said...

Great review! It swayed me to take my bf here for our Anniversary date. The food here is awesome!

 
At 10:17 AM, Anonymous vicki said...

my bf and i decided to try this place out last night for our post vday dinner :) and it was WORTH the DRIVE and every penny!!!! we LOVE this place :) thank you for your review!!! keep it up!!!

v*

 
At 10:32 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Menu Taster and vicki,

So glad you guys tried it. I'm even happier it made your special nights even specialer (is that a word?)

 
At 3:31 PM, Blogger Loving Annie said...

Good Sunday to you Elmomoster.

Just ate dinner there last night. Your review was awesome and totally accurate !

I am a socal girl - going to add you to my links :)

 
At 9:28 AM, Anonymous joeblackuz-at-gmail-dot-com said...

If you turn left instead of right when you first pull in you can park downstairs and forgo the valet ;-)

Excellent write up. I Was debating on taking my wife for her birthday-had reservations but was leaning towards something else. Your article inspired me to just do it...

 
At 3:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I request this restaurant for my birthday dinner every year now. My husband has been taking me there 1/year or 3 years now. What really blew our socks off the first time we went was the butterscotch pudding dessert. I am not much into sweets, but this was the most fantastic creation I have ever tasted. It took me right back to childhood. The restaurant seems to rotate it back into the menu only during the spring (I'm a May baby) and I go back just for the pudding.

 

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