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RESTAURANTS : De Palma Makes His Mark's With Looks, Chatter

October 06, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

Mark De Palma is an energetic, black-shirted presence with perfect hair; he was born to run a restaurant. That's him at the front of his Laguna Beach restaurant, Mark's, greeting the art establishment types that flock here nightly. That's him in the dining areas, keeping watch over his new customers like a Secret Service agent assigned to a President.

The restaurant's terrace is almost like a private club, what with all the schmoozing and inter-table chatter that goes on out here. De Palma relishes socializing. Until recently, he concentrated energies on his other Mark's up in West Hollywood, a popular spot with industry insiders. Now he's made plenty of new friends down here, and Laguna has a hot new hangout.

Clever design has undoubtedly played a part in the restaurant's early success. This is one restaurant that wouldn't look out of place either in Malibu or on the shores of the Mediterranean. The outer dining room has a floor of bare gray stone; palm fronds jut out from the walls at sharp angles and blond wood wainscoting contrasts nicely with the white table linens--a striking juxtaposition. Embellished by the work of well-known local artist Wayne Forte, this room is both spare and subtle, with no space wasted; call it New Age/Japan on PCH.

Still, when the weather is good (and that's often, in Laguna), most customers prefer sitting on the terrace, shielded from the sun by mustard-colored canvas umbrellas, even though this means having to ignore distracting traffic noises from the street below. On weekends, especially for Sunday brunch, the patio is an especially tough table. Standees run four deep at the bar.

Mark's menu is full of Mediterranean, California and even a few Pacific Rim dishes--the type of eclecticism that a community such as West Hollywood demands. You will find Chinese-inspired dumplings stuffed with shrimp and vegetables, quasi-Mexican turkey breaded with cornmeal masa and pumpkin seeds, the de rigueur pizza a la goat cheese, a few creative pastas and a collection of the salads and grilled items that define the California idiom: Shanghai chicken salad for one, the over-familiar seared ahi for another.

This eclectic style has been filtering down into southern Orange County by inches and may have just found a home here. Still, I can't help thinking that what comes out of this kitchen could use more polish, even if certain faces in the crowd tell me the food is beside the point.

Dining at Mark's begins on a wholly encouraging note. The first thing you are served is a basket of warm, crusty olive rolls, alongside a white porcelain plate upon which is a perfect square of cold, hard, fresh butter. Combined with the aesthetics of the room, the breaking of this bread is a near-perfect experience. Things become somewhat less than perfect later on.

Several dishes at Mark's are acceptable without making a strong impression. Steamed Eastern mussels, for instance, have a nice Mediterranean feel. The shellfish come in a white bowl, drenched in a nondescript broth flecked green from a slight overdose of thyme. The chicken tacos are better. The soft corn tortillas are loaded with tasty chunks of fried, nicely spiced chicken breast, flanked by delicious guacamole and a mild tomato salsa.

But the kitchen may be out of its depth when it comes to the west side of the Pacific Rim. The Asian-inspired shrimp dumplings have a proper al dente texture, but the filling is insipid and the soy dressing has too much vinegar. Shanghai Chicken salad has the opposite problem. This mixture of greens, shredded carrot, fried won tons and rice noodles, roasted chicken and cabbage is too sweet.

Scallop shrimp linguine is a solid, dependable choice among the pastas. The nicely chewy noodles are topped with tiny bay scallops and flavorful shrimp in a roasted tomato sauce. Smoked chicken fettuccine appeals to me as well, but because the chicken has a heavily smoked aftertaste, I won't say it is for everybody.

One of the best main dishes is roasted chicken with french fries, and it doesn't surprise me that it happens to be the most unassuming. This kitchen tends to run into trouble when it gets fancy. Compare the seared ahi, which needs to lose the mushy brown rice, the overcooked baby bok choy and the penetrating ginger sauce and learn to be just a good piece of fish. The turkey scaloppine with masa pumpkin crust is oily and overbreaded, though the cranberry chipotle sauce is a nice twist on an American classic.

The properly thick grilled pork chops are a good choice--if you don't have a problem with a lot of sauce and rather wet corn, shallots and tomatoes mussing up the texture of grilled meat.

Desserts include a sweet chocolate souffle served in a tiny souffle dish, a nicely caramelized tarte tatin and a delicious chocolate mousse lining an elegant little chocolate cup. The espresso is hot and so is the scene, so there are plenty of reasons to show up at Mark's. I just wish more of them were things to eat.

Mark's is moderate to high end. Starters are $3 to $8.50. Salads are $3.50 to $7.50. Main courses are $8.50 to $13.25.

* MARK'S

* 858 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach

* (714) 494-6711

* Dinner 5 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. nightly; Sunday brunch 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

* American Express, MasterCard and Visa

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