When I discovered the nonstop surfing videos playing in the lounge at the Sunset Grille and Bar, I nearly backed straight out the door.
Don't think me surfophobic. It's just that I don't generally free-associate serious cooking with a restaurant quite this beachy, particularly not a former Rib Trader that's decorated with plastic fish, papier-mache alligators and wooden flowers ablaze with pastel glory.
So I was wrong this time. This lighthearted, sun-splashed Dana Point restaurant may be whimsical to the very core, but something really special is going on in the kitchen. Come casual, but come hungry.
Casual, definitely. The tables are covered in butcher paper during lunch, though there's white linen at dinner. The restaurant is festooned with capricious art, marlins, surfer shirts and fish that glow in the dark. Its walls are a creamy shade of driftwood, making it all seem fun and relaxing.
The only one not relaxing is probably head chef Sean Grovier. Grovier is a graduate of the Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and his cooking reflects California, Louisiana and Europe (some of the many places he has worked). His food has a finished quality that one expects only in far pricier or--dare it be said?--trendier restaurants, an effect most likely achieved through hard work.
Indeed, two or three of his oeuvres --crab cakes, spare ribs and barbecue chicken salad--rival any I've eaten. All three are oddly individual, yet they represent the best of that elusive ideal, California cuisine, where light, fresh products are supposedly cooked with a minimum of fuss.
The best appetizers actually stretch across the southern half of the United States--for instance, crab cakes with red chili sauce and garlic aioli. They're crisp, golden disks, two to an order, each flavored intensely with the taste of sweet crab meat. Grovier serves them with two sauces, one red, the other yellow, artfully dribbled across the plate.
Roasted poblano chili is another revelation, stuffed with Cheddar and pepper Jack and blanketed with a soft, sweet, grainy sauce made from smoked corn and cream. As for the smoked baby back ribs with kick-ass barbecue sauce and Kentucky whiskey glaze, I can't believe how tender the meat is--it just falls off the bone--or how wonderfully flavorful the glaze is.
So what if the crab cakes take a page from L.A.'s seminal Southwestern chef, John Sedlar, and "the kick-ass chili" concept is borrowed from Maple Drive in Beverly Hills? This is terrific cooking.
At lunch, there are delicious sandwiches with good side dishes like multicolored cole slaw and tempting, lightly fried yam chips. Smoked turkey breast (all smoking is done on the premises by Grovier and his team of young chefs) comes on marbled rye with a tasty herbed mayo. A spicy, full-flavored Louisiana-style andouille sausage comes on a buttered roll with finely sliced, grilled onions and peppers. On top of that, there's a giant tray of at least 13 mustards.
Barbecued chicken salad, an entree in its own right, could make a perfect lunch. For this, Grovier marinates a chicken breast in achiote and other Southwestern flavorings, then juliennes it onto creamy field greens with corn kernels, black beans, three-colored corn chips and a mound of light, crisp onion rings. A colorful curried shrimp salad is served with bacon, egg, coconut, peanuts and chutney, something that would look equally at home on a table in Sri Lanka or Tahiti. Come back Stateside with a juicy barbecue burger in a fresh onion roll.
The few weaknesses in this kitchen show in some of the entrees. Roasted pork tenderloin is sliced into scallop-sized pieces, then set on a spicy white bean ragout. It's good meat, but the kitchen overcooks it, and the spices in the bean ragout taste old rather than freshly ground. There's a good-sized hunk of roasted prime rib that tastes as if it has been smoked somewhat, though the menu doesn't warn you. Order it just to get at the garlic mashed potatoes and spicy horseradish-mustard sauce.
Three-nut crusted mahi-mahi is an intriguing idea--crushed pistachios, walnuts and pecans give the fish a rich outer coat. I'd like the fish a little better without the vineyard beurre blanc underneath, though. Nuts and butter sauce both marry well with meaty fish like mahi-mahi; together, they overwhelm it. The poached salmon filet, however, is perfect. It's served pink in the center, painted with a unctuous, elegant cilantro cream sauce.
I didn't expect all the food to be on such a high level here, but I did expect fine desserts. Grovier did a pastry apprenticeship for the royal court of Denmark, and when I heard one of his desserts was called "chocolate thigh cream," that's all I needed to know.