One of the occupational hazards of restaurant reviewing is to learn, just after writing about a specific dining spot, that it has undergone drastic change.
No sooner did I file a rather mixed review on JJ's Bistro in Dana Point than I heard that the chef was gone, replaced by Guy Sockrider, 30, from Gauguin's in Laguna Beach.
So back I went to the gracious, visually pretty JJ's, with its pink walls and Art Deco accents, an over-the-rooftops glimpse of the ocean. And I found that it was Sockrider's third day on the job. Considering that he'd walked into an unstocked kitchen to work with a brand new staff to serve 80 hungry diners, our meals were little short of miraculous.
For openers, Sockrider redefined an appetizer we'd tried earlier at JJ's, a puff pastry with four kinds of mushrooms. The pastry was literally a puff--I'm sure I could have blown it away--the perfect foil for morel, shiitake, enoki and domestic mushrooms in a curried sauce.
The mixed-green salad displayed a composition of lettuce, including radicchio, peeled tomato slivers and hearts of palm in a light vinaigrette. The day's soup was a puree of vegetables soothed with subtle flavor and silken richness.
For entrees, we explored the evening's specials and struck gold with three boneless lamb noisettes , done to perfect pinkness and enhanced with fresh oregano-Dijon sauce. All accompaniments, from the tiny browned potatoes to the five vegetables, which included a carrot timbale, were right on.
A light Cabernet sauce set off beautifully grilled fresh halibut so perfectly that we pushed aside the topping of crab and chopped spinach.
Desserts, frankly, were a letdown, but I have hopes for the future. The apples of the tarte tatin were exactly right, and, on the chef's third day, I can forgive the short-cut use of filo pastry. I'd have thought, however, that the server might have trimmed off the burned edges.
I asked Sockrider, who trained with Roger Verger in France, served at the Commander's Palace in New Orleans and was corporate chef at the World Trade Center, about his plans. Will he completely revamp JJ's menu? Not immediately. "I don't want to put our clientele into shock," he said.
Gradually, however, he'll introduce new dishes, emphasizing fresh seafood. There will be French, Italian, German and Oriental touches, but mainly contemporary French. Sauces will remain light, fresh, natural reductions.
The current menu lists such hors d'oeuvres as Maine lobster pate with lobster sauce and cassolette of shrimps with Creole sauce and leeks. Salads include artichoke and Belgian endive with Roquefort, and soups highlight lobster bisque with Cognac. Entrees include basket weave of salmon and sole with saffron sauce, fillet of Lake Superior white fish with Printanier sauce, roast duckling flambe (with raspberry sauce one evening), sauteed veal loin with Calvados.
There's a full bar and wine list.
Dinners are pricey; a la carte entrees average $19. Lunches are a better buy, lunch includes soup or salad. I recommend the spinach shrimp salad (a multitude of shrimp and fresh mushrooms) and the quiche of chicken and broccoli with fresh vegetables, both $6.50.
My luncheon guest was impressed with JJ's. She'd been supplied with tea, hot roll and butter when I arrived.
Service in the evening has not always been as effective. We've waited half an hour between appetizer and salad, another half hour for entrees, and we asked twice for water and butter. Hopefully the efficiency and graciousness of maitre d' Thomas Muntz, who signed on about the time of our first visit, will be contagious.
Once the new staff settles in, this could turn out to be a wonderful restaurant.
JJ, in case you wonder, is J. J. Shaw, who also owns Gandhi in Costa Mesa, Newport Mandarin in Newport Beach and Chuck's Steak House in Tustin.
JJ's Bistro, 24501 Del Prado, Dana Point; (714) 240-7944. Lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 p.m., Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reservations suggested. All major credit cards. Lot parking.