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All's Well Again at Laguna's Sorrento : Ruiz Brings Simple Fare Back to Grille

March 04, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Four and a half years back, Sorrento Grille woke up the Laguna Beach dining scene with a jolt. The restaurant's post-modern vastness fit perfectly into the arty, downtown Laguna scene. The chef, Roseanne Ruiz, drew emotional raves for her simple, earthy take on California-infused Italian cooking.

After two rapturous years, Ruiz abruptly left the restaurant and settled in as executive chef at the Mondavi Center of Food and Wine in Costa Mesa. At Mondavi, she managed a small staff, primarily catering private dinners and society functions. The experience made her a better chef, she says, but secretly she missed the buzz that only a noisy, superheated restaurant can provide.

Well, guess what? She's baaaack .

That's right. In an unusual career move, Roseanne Ruiz has returned to her old Laguna Beach restaurant. Philo and Diane Smith, who own the building, simply couldn't bear the idea of selling out to a Chart House when the restaurant owners bailed, so they bought the business and somehow got Ruiz to, as it were, come back to Sorrento. The smart crowds, also back, are doing the singing now.

The restaurant hasn't changed much in appearance over the years. It's still an attractive, cavernous Tuscan cafe with huge glass doors, an open kitchen, faux stone tables, flickering candles and a noise level that borders on the painful.

The best tables continue to be upstairs, on a mezzanine accessed by a great stone staircase. Up there, one actually hears the classical guitar music playing in the background, as one relaxes on designer banquettes set into individual alcoves painted with Impressionist frescoes.

Some of the original waiters are still there, too, providing a sense of continuity rare in a beach-town restaurant. The same waiter who served me when the restaurant opened appeared at my table in a crisp white shirt and apron. Don't worry if more than one of these waiters looks like a surfer boy who has come inside for the winter, because service at Sorrento Grille is competent and professional.

Still, no one at the restaurant is likely to top Ruiz's professionalism. When I spoke with her, she made continual references to her philosophy of simplicity in the kitchen. "Simplicity is what it's all about," she said more than once, and that's certainly what her food is about. Ruiz plays ingredients off one another deftly, and rarely tries to overwhelm your palate.

The fact that you start a meal here with firm squares of piping hot, golden, unadorned focaccia bread is an indicator of what is to come. There are rarely more than three or four ingredients in a Ruiz dish, but always plenty of color and flavor.

For example, she'll enliven a salad of exotic greens and tender, poached calamari with something as plain as orange zest, or serve her wondrous Dungeness crab cakes with an almost other-worldly blood orange aioli. In her bruschetta , grilled bread is topped with roasted peppers and anchovies, creating a dish that makes me think, for some reason, of ancient Rome. A satisfyingly light-tasting Caesar is lifted by oily, crunchy garlic croutons. Warm spinach salad is combined with calamata olives and crumbles of feta cheese, a world-beating combination.

This is an Italian restaurant, of course, but the fact that the menu lists only one pizza is a statement of Ruiz's originality. There are pastas, of course, or the complex-carbo Laguna fitness crowd would probably burn the place down. You can't go wrong with capellini (angel hair) with a basic, expertly executed checca of basil, garlic, tomatoes and olive oil, or the chef's delicious twist on carbonara-- fettuccine with prawns and prosciutto (in place of bacon) in a devilishly rich cream sauce.

Fish are grilled simply, as you'd expect: Idaho trout, Atlantic salmon, thresher shark. Expect them to be superbly fresh and just ever so slightly undercooked. That's the fashion of 4 1/2 years ago, and it's the style I personally favor.

Then there are the various meats, easily my favorite dishes here. Heading the list is pork chops glazed with balsamic vinegar served with heavenly porcini -flavored mashed potatoes, with Colorado lamb loin chops coming a close second. The former are simply the best pork chops anywhere, thick ones blackened from the syrupy, faintly medicinal black vinegar that is one of nature's magic elixirs. Ruiz's prime lamb is fork-tender. And it's glazed too, this time with an uncharacteristically complex sauce of Serrano chili and fresh mint.

One does hope for a few new dishes here, but let's be patient. Ruiz confided that the owners don't wish to rock the boat, which explains why the menu is virtually the same as it was when she left. But she also implied that she's going to sneak a few new dishes in gradually, things such as angel hair pasta with ratatouille vegetables and her terrific chicken saltimbocca.

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