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CARRY OUT : Caterers' Varied Bill of Fare at A La Carte Is More Than Meets the Nose

October 01, 1992|MAX JACOBSON

There's nothing subtle about A La Carte, a Laguna Beach take-away that bills itself as the city's No. 1 caterer. (A local magazine no longer in existence voted it as such.)

Indeed, the museum-quality displays of unctuous salads and gooey desserts hit you right in the schnoz as you come through the door, taking your attention away from the hot dishes and sandwich specials up on the blackboard to your left.

Deciding what to order isn't impossible, just difficult.

First, you should know that A La Carte has been around for going on seven years, founded by two women, Terry Markowitz and Ellen Harrow, both foodies, world travelers and seat-of-the-pants chefs.

Today, it's evolved into quite a sophisticated operation. Things marked with blue dots mean low cholesterol. Green dots indicate low fat. There are always a few dozen entrees on hand, fresh breads such as ciabatta and rosemary from a Newport Beach boulangerie called Bread Only, wines, condiments and various extras on sale. For a $5 surcharge, the store will rent you a wicker picnic basket, linen lining and all.

Getting hungry? I ordered dinner for four: three salads, four entrees, four desserts, a loaf of crusty ciabatta and a bottle of wine and snuck the bill in for just over 50 bucks. Here's what you can expect for that price.

Salads consisted of three half pints, a slightly bland "spicy" noodles in peanut sauce, a vinegared green bean salad with mushrooms and the best of the three, a delicious pasta Provencal, noodle twists punctuated with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and herbs.

I'd rate the entrees as slightly better, despite the fact that our crab cakes lost their crunch through reheating and traveling in a bubble-top, aluminum container. The barbecued meat loaf is just great, a dense, homey loaf that fills the pan, and stuffed chicken breast works thanks to a filling of ground turkey sausage, spinach and ricotta. Pass on a special such as quinoa pasta (from the high Andes) and veggies if you see it. It's bland and insipid.

Desserts are a high point, baked on the premises and tasting like it. The dense, dreamy lemon cake is one of the best I've ever eaten; the smooth, zebra-streaked cream cheese brownies are pure guilt.

One dessert that keeps on a long trip is chocolate bread pudding, but take care to shield its Grand Marnier custard topping, packed separately, from extreme heat. There are also bars, cookies and muffins, in case you get really greedy. We tried the caramel pecan bar, deliciously gooey, and were almost immediately regretted our overindulgence.

Come before 5 p.m., for delectable sandwiches such as Cajun fried chicken and roast turkey breast. Add $2 to entree prices and get complete meals, including salad, a side dish and French bread. The really decadent, or those who just can't get away from the office, can rely upon limited lunch time delivery, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

A La Carte. 1915 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted. (714) 497-4927.

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