Enough wackiness has been done in the name of California Cuisine that people are starting to say there's no such thing, just as there supposedly is no California dialect. Then along comes a place like Claes' to show us that, for better or worse, dude, there is such a thing, hard as it may be to put a finger on.
Claes' is a place that wants to be Californian: It uses lots of pasta, radicchio and kiwi; it serves duck salad with goat cheese and orange/sesame oil dressing, and it has crazy dishes like the "cake" that is portions of whipped cream, hazelnut meringue and kiwi puree arranged side by side.
Yet these exotic touches cannot disguise a very solid European idea of fine cookery--solid in its steady technique and in being . . . well, not terribly light on the feet. This is essentially a Continental restaurant in Ray-Ban sunglasses.
Of course, Claes' may not have much choice in the matter. It is located in Laguna Beach, which is only slowly waking up from its traditional resort-town timidity in gastronomic matters. Since Claes' is actually part of that old landmark the Hotel Laguna, there is such a thing as catering to clients who have been coming back year after year (the waiters are devilishly gracious to nice ladies of a certain age). So it may not be in the mood for daring experiment. After all, a lot of people must come to Claes' for reasons other than a quest for cuisine, California or otherwise. It's right downtown. It has a great ocean view. And there is a fashion show at lunch.
So, on the appetizer list, half the items are safe selections of salmon: marinated salmon with dill and a sweet Scandinavian mustard sauce; Danish smoked salmon, which has very nice texture and flavor (for some reason the menu claims that it will be accompanied by a timbale of something and a hazelnut something else that don't seem to appear), and salmon fettuccine, a surprisingly vigorous dish with the expected cream sauce flavored with garlic, lemon and lots of saffron. The list is rounded out by fettuccine with either scallops or escargots in cream sauce with tiny bits of diced onion.
I guess I'm saying I wouldn't call this California Cuisine. Well, then, what is? You can talk about insistence on freshness, a love of unusual ingredients and a taste for unheard-of flavor combinations and so on; but I think it's basically a spirit.
People think of us Californians as ultra-casual, but there also is a quality of eagerness, a feeling that anything that takes our fancy is something to jump into with both feet. We've developed a taste for French wine? Hey, let's plant a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon! We find out they actually use merlot as well as Cabernet in the great Bordeaux wines? Hey, let's plant a lot of merlot too!
Claes' just doesn't have this happy-go-lucky, fools-rush-in quality--which is no sin. That has been responsible for a lot of bizarre, inedible, but authentically Californian, cuisine. And when Claes' kitchen doesn't work too hard at being Californian, it can do a perfectly excellent job, as with its filet mignon in zinfandel sauce, or seafood Claes, a rather traditional French idea of lobster, clams (complete with roe) and baby oysters in saffron cream sauce.
But it can stumble all over itself when it tries to be Californian.
There's a broiled chicken breast that comes with peanut butter. That's right, just peanut butter--that stuff that sticks to the roof of your mouth. If there is anything else to this sauce, it quite escapes me. Its attempts at the exotic can be vague and uncertain, such as adding a little kiwi to the mint sauce on the lamb chops.
The wild-man act of this menu is veal medallion "Impossible," a veal steak on a conventional bed of spinach and mushrooms. The impossibility of this combination is that it is roughly wrapped in a crepe and, I expect, baked until the crepe is slightly stiff--somewhere between baked Alaska and a tostada. Nice meat glaze sauce, though.
Yet I must admit that one of the weird dishes is an unexpected success. The duck breast has a strange, dusty aroma (is it duck fat?) that goes curiously well with the sauce of honey and port wine. Speaking of dusty flavors, there is a fresh (non-sweet) walnut bread that comes with the meal. Forgive me, but this is some of the dullest bread I've ever had.
Among the desserts, one is Continental in the stodgiest sense: a badly misnamed "fragilite cake" that has no fragility at all but has layers of rather chewy flaky pastry with a mocha-flavored filling that seems to be cream cheese. Cake Claes, the cakeless "cake" of whipped cream, meringue and kiwi puree plus some coconut macaroons, is perhaps better thought of as a sundae without ice cream. On the other hand, there is a stupendously luscious ice cream cake consisting of layers of hazelnut and chocolate in raspberry sauce, topped with real whipped cream.
At lunch entrees and salads run $8.25 to $12.25, with some special items lower. At dinner appetizers are $5.75 to $7.50, entrees $14.50 to $21.25.
CLAES' CALIFORNIA CUISINE Hotel Laguna, 245 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards accepted.