Lebanese-born Hassan Essayli is a serious restaurateur, as you can tell from one visit to Monique, his cozy South Laguna restaurant. But he didn't start out that way. His first venture into the business was as part-owner of a Norwalk coffee shop.
One morning the cook didn't show up, and Essayli had to do the cooking himself. When a burly truck driver twice sent back the 99-cent breakfast special because his pancakes weren't fluffy enough, Essayli had a sudden change of heart about the coffee shop business. He opened the more upscale Monique in 1983.
Pancakes are not on the menu at Monique. Head chef Guy (rhymes with tree) Sockrider has a dizzying style revolving around home-grown herbs, designer seafood, red meat and heavily reduced, intensely personal sauces. This all backs up a unique resume.
Sockrider is a native of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and has worked as a commis (peeler of potatoes and trimmer of bones for stock, among other things) at Roger Verge's Moulin de Mougins in the south of France, as a sous-chef in Jovan Trbojevic's Le Perroquet in Chicago and as executive chef at the World Trade Club in New Orleans. Today he is very much a California chef, so it's understandable that he occasionally shows a penchant for the eclectic.
But the surprise is finding him here, because Monique, in essence, is such a conservative-looking place. The three low-ceilinged, peach-colored dining rooms are still much the same as when Essayli first converted a suite of offices into a restaurant. There are frilly floral cushions on floral banquettes in the tiny upper room, borders of floral wallpaper above the doors in the larger front and lower rooms.
The tables are dressed simply with white cloths; six of them have an ocean view. The restaurant's tented patio, one level down a flight of narrow stairs (open summers and for Sunday brunch only), is the epitome of quiet charm.
One would automatically imagine finding the classic French Continental menu in a place like this, and in fact, that's exactly what the restaurant had for the first several years of its life. But last year, Essayli brought in Sockrider, very much to the surprise of his regular customers. The client base has changed considerably since.
So what kind of radical changes are we talking about here? Well, for starters, such appetizer dishes as grilled jumbo scallops in a lime ginger teriyaki sauce; Jamaican black bean soup; herbed goat cheese filo triangles. Main dishes such as Louisiana soft shell crabs with sauce choron; a duck confit with honey, lavender and thyme; Sonoma rack of lamb with flageolets and Dijon mustard. They don't exactly make you think of escargot or steak with Roquefort sauce.
So much the better. The scallops could easily have come from a sushi chef--plump white things staring up from a deep brown glaze. Sockrider grills them perfectly, although his teriyaki glaze is a bit sweet. Exquisitely blended ginger and garlic are responsible for their distinctive character.
And the bean soup is a real startler. It comes in an enormous bowl (four of us shared it and left half), swirled with creme fraiche, and packs a sharp, sneaky punch in every spoonful. You'd swear it had meat in it because of the jerk spices (largely ginger, cumin and clove).
Appetizers such as the cheese triangles, on the other hand, are familiar but dangerous. They're a spinoff of something you'd expect in a Greek restaurant, but the goat cheese adds a fresh twist. The problem is, the filling gets so hot you can easily sear your tongue on it. I can bear witness.
Sockrider has a way with greens. In addition to his Monique salad, made with mache and other exotic greens, there are a classic Greek salad and other creations which rotate weekly. Sockrider makes little substitutions in all sections of his menu weekly--a sauce here, a fowl there. When it comes to salads, one might find grilled leeks with walnuts and balsamic vinegar, or red oak leaf lettuce served with a warm vinaigrette and a chunk of runny Brie.
These changes have more of an impact when you get to main courses. I tried soft shell crabs with sauce choron, a sort of tomato-infused bearnaise. The crabs alone would have been rich enough, dredged in flour and fried, but the sauce made the dish impossibly rich; I could barely manage a second bite. When the waiter asked me how I liked the dish, I told him. "It's too bad you weren't here a couple of weeks ago," he said, "when the chef served them plain, with lemon and capers."
Sockrider commits this type of faux pas often. A beautiful slice of veal liver may be blanketed with a rich Dijon mustard shallot sauce, when it would be better off by itself. His emincee of beef stroganoff, curiously perfumed with tarragon, is so concentrated it's overkill.