I want to report a reappearance. Early last year I raved about a place with a furiously experimental menu--say, quail stuffed with blue cornmeal and pine nuts in desert honey and sherry vinegar sauce. Not long after, readers told me that the restaurant, which seemed to have changed its name from plain old Pave to The Pave, was serving a very ordinary menu.
It was obvious that the chef had left. I can now report that Robert Helstrom has landed in public again at the old Hemingway's Tavern by the Sea.
Frankly, it was not the most obvious place for him to go. Last time I looked, the Tavern was just a Laguna Beach hangout, a lively bar plus some upstairs dining on plain grilled meat. It even had a banner outside advertising Monday Night Football.
The Tavern has changed, though. The banner's still there and the bar action seems the same, but the Hemingway's part of the name is gone, painted right out of the sign, and the food--well, it's as if the ghost of the old Pave had floated down the coast from Corona del Mar in all, or most, of its wildness and precision.
The first night I wandered in it was cold and damp, a night when the soul cries out for something sort of warm and Mediterranean. The "griddled calamari" (abominable name) was exactly that: calamari steaks in garlicky breading topped with strips of leek, bits of bell pepper, artichoke and raw tomato, plus a little cilantro. Then came a cheering veal chop, charcoaly outside and faintly pink inside, in a splashy sauce of olive-flavored butter and sun-dried tomatoes. You might say it overpowered the veal with its sweet, olive oil aroma, but it was what I'd consider a friendly takeover.
Since then, just about everything I've had there has been remarkably good. I suppose the best appetizer has been homemade angel-hair pasta with scallops and chervil mustard sauce, and the best salad has been an off-menu special of lamb's lettuce, chicory and radicchio topped with some chunks of sweetbread wrapped in bacon, all in a robust tarragon mustard vinaigrette. They weren't the only pre-entree hits, though.
Crunchy grilled prawns came in an understated tomatillo sauce with folded corn crepes--not a euphemism for tortillas, but delicate French crepes faintly flavored with corn. "Cajun bean soup" of red beans was enriched with ham and sausage and cream, surprisingly hot with red peppers. Duck tamale (one of the specialties at Pave), made with de rigueur blue corn and a very good tamale by any standards, came in a sort of cilantro butter sauce with a sardonic little mound of hot cilantro relish much like an Indian coriander chutney.
The only appetizers that weren't on this level were somewhat ordinary crab cakes in sherry cayenne mayonnaise, and "shrimp relleno"-- a long medium-hot pepper stuffed with unimpressive ground shrimp in "mosaic of sweet pepper coulis. " (A coulis is a rather liquid reduction of stuff, so it is made into a so-called mosaic by swirling it.)
What was the best entree? Beats me. Maybe it was the mustard-crumbed rack of lamb with roasted garlic sauce, or maybe it was the "New York Szechuan," stir-fried steak with carrots and peapods in a dark soy-based sauce that might have had some oyster sauce in it. Maybe it was the sweetbreads with crisply fried capers and lemon butter.
The flashiest entree name is surely "Gulf prawns steamed in Corona," the hip beer of the season. Now, it would take a major beer connoisseur to swear they use Corona, but in any case these huge prawns are delicious with their sweet pepper and garlic butter. Perhaps inevitably the Tavern serves blackened red snapper, a version remarkable for rapier-like pepperiness that distinguishes it from any other in the county.
I had one or two service problems. Oven roasted duck, in a red chili sauce made oddly distinguished with ground almonds, was lukewarm by the time my whole table had been served. Most puzzlingly, when I ordered the pork chop with fried apples it came blood rare. Now, I realize the modern American hog tends to get commercial feed untouched by human hands, rather than being slopped on table scraps, so the danger of trichinosis infection is far less than it used to be. I don't care. When I look at pork, I want to see gray, solid gray all the way through. To their credit they took it back without demur and returned it well done with surprisingly little damage to the vegetables. I'd watch them on the pork chop, though.
I must disqualify myself in the dessert department, because the one time I felt like ordering dessert, there was nothing left but chocolate cake and homemade ice cream. Both were good, but I saw more interesting-looking things being shown to other tables earlier. Dessert here is still an undiscovered continent to me. Prices: appetizers $4.75-$7.25, soups $2.50-$3.25, salads $2.50-$3.75, entrees $13.50-$17.50.
TAVERN BY THE SEA 2007 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach (714) 497-6568 Open for dinner daily. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.