Laguna Beach has its share of cozy hideaway restaurants--dark, intimate haunts ideal for the carefully planned tryst. You know the type: roaring fireplace, low ceiling, decorative art.
So guess what? Another one has just surfaced, the Marigot Grille and Restaurant. It's in the basement of the cozy Hotel St. Maarten, a wanna-be Caribbean oasis just south of downtown.
But don't go expecting a clone of the other hideaways. This place is, well, eccentric.
The hotel itself is so well hidden away--the entrance thoroughly obscured by lush vegetation--that I drove by several times without spotting it. The truth is, one of the natives had to tip me off: "Just look for the Taco Bell directly across PCH," he said.
Anyone who ate in the restaurant when it was called Canterra is probably not going to recognize the place. The premises have been completely remodeled in a shower of gray. We're talking designer gray here--nothing gloomy or moody, but the soft shade someone with a name like Emilio would put in an Angora sweater. The carpets are gray. The walls are gray. Even the tablecloths are gray.
Pretty chic, n'est-ce pas? Of course, you wouldn't say the same for the pillars, engineering marvels that spring up from the carpet like beanstalks and appear to be augered to the ceiling. They would have to be classified as classical chic.
The cooking at Marigot is a mixed bag of Chinese, Italian, French and California styles. There's no convenient way to put a label on this food, because the preparations are just too erratic.
Marigot's chef is Tony Smith, a personable young fellow who once cooked at Trees in Corona del Mar. I wouldn't say he's ready for prime time, although he does handle several dishes with flair. He is, however, a fully trained schmoozer. He greets all his guests with a smile, and when time permits, he'll discuss the menu enthusiastically with them.
One evening he stopped by our table and offer to cook us a special pasta dish when we refused the ones from the menu. Another evening, when one of his appetizers turned out to be unavailable, he went to the trouble of preparing a special steak tartare, charging only $5 for it. That's a good way to make friends.
Smith is a whimsical chef who changes his menu every two weeks. You could begin, as we did, with an appealing appetizer, perhaps the quesadilla with Brie, papaya salsa and avocado, or that steak tartare (a tasty tartare, but bland--it could use a little more anchovy and mustard). Of course, there's no guarantee these things will be around, because the menu will probably have changed by the time you get there.
And sometimes he indulges his whimsy on a day-to-day basis. On separate occasions, I tried to order both his country pate en croute and his crab ravioli Cremontese but without success. Why were they unavailable? "I didn't make them today," he explained with a shrug.
There was no such difficulty in obtaining Caesar salad, a fresh-tasting version with good greens. But like the tartare, I found it awfully light in the anchovy, mustard and garlic department.
Actually, the soups are the most compelling first courses at this restaurant. Everyone at my table enjoyed the thick seafood chowder made with clams and mussels, and the sweet beefy red onion soup with made Port wine and Emmenthaler cheese.
Smith's main courses are real bafflers. He can dazzle you with a perfectly blackened Chinese sea bass in ginger garlic glaze. But you might as easily get perfectly dreadful sea scallops Medici in a sauce of sweet vino santo, pine nuts and raisins, a gluey suspension with the consistency of Maalox.
Likewise with red meats. You might get a terrific dish like Smith's braised lamb chops: choice Sonoma lamb a la Grecque with wilted spinach and some crumbled Feta, done to brilliant pinkness. Or perhaps a roast duckling with a grainy complex glaze made from tangerine and brandy, a crisp duckling that is neither fatty nor cloying.
Then along comes a dish like almond chicken with garlic sauce and fried won ton, a tasteless mass with little more character than a microwave entree from a frozen food case.
Fortunately, there are no such glitches when you get to dessert. Smith makes his own, and this is the one aspect of his craft in which he shows real consistency.
His creamy Chambord cheesecake is one of the best I've ever tasted, with an unctuous cream topping that tastes like a sweeter version of creme fraiche. He makes a mean homemade carrot cake too, and an excellent champagne sorbet. Ask him to put the sorbet in one of his lace cookies with fresh fruit, the way he did it for us. It's one of the most refreshing desserts I've had for quite some time.
Marigot Grille and Restaurant is moderately priced. First courses are $3.50 to $7. Pastas are $9.50 to $12.50. Main courses are $11.50 to $16. Desserts are $3.50 to $5.50. A final note: The wine list is small, but so is the corkage fee, a cozy $5.
MARIGOT GRILLE AND RESTAURANT
696 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach.
Dinner Monday, Wednesday and Thursday 4 through 11 p.m., Friday 4 p.m. through midnight, Saturday 2 p.m. through midnight, Sunday 10:30 a.m. through 10:30 p.m.
All major cards accepted.