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RESTAURANTS : At Claes, Seafood Is Believing

October 27, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

Beautiful homes weren't the only things lost in the Laguna Beach fires last year. Danish-born restaurateur Claes Andersen had to scuttle 30,000 bottles of top-quality wine from his personal cellar when it went up in flames.

Meanwhile, life goes on at Claes Seafood Etc., Andersen's dining room at the Hotel Laguna. The hotel--and Claes Seafood's eclectic wine cellar--were spared by the fire, and we can be grateful. The restaurant's wine list, honored continuously since 1988 by The Wine Spectator, remains an intelligently priced repository of older Bordeaux and California boutique wines.

Wines are important to Andersen and to his dining room. Plan to take a meeting with the enthusiastic young sommelier, Marcelino Cosio, when you dine here. Cosio hands out tasting notes with every wine he serves.

The restaurant was renovated a year ago, about the time it tacked "Seafood Etc." onto its name (formerly, the restaurant went simply as Claes). Gone are the pink hues that once dominated this beachside dining room, replaced by cream tones contrasting with the jet-black tables emblazoned with stars. The pounding surf has always been right outside the window, so it's a delicious turn of events that the menu has developed into a mostly seafood affair by executive chef Todd Clore.

We've kept an eye on Clore (a protege of Roy Yamaguchi, owner of Hawaii's best restaurant, Roy's) since he cooked locally at Pascal, and he's finally living up to all the promise. Clore has a knack for fish, not to mention the ability to startle.

He is known for serving seared ahi with a pomegranate-vinegar sauce, a combination you'd only expect if Japan had a head-on collision with the Caspian Sea. Basted halibut teriyaki is another of his eye-openers. The fish is served with Thai jasmine rice steeped in coconut milk, a natural partner for this firm-fleshed fish.

Clore has pared down the menu to a sensible total of eight appetizers, 14 entrees. Virtually all of his items are stamped with originality. Fried Pacific oysters, perhaps the best way to start a meal here, are lightly dusted with flour before frying and served in the shell, sprinkled with finely shredded leeks and crowned with a dollop of orange Hollandaise. These oysters remind me of the curried fried oysters that you get as amuse-gueules in Michelin-starred establishments throughout Europe. In truth, they are even better than the overly complicated curried versions.

Andersen likes smoked fish, as do the hotel's many Japanese clients, so Clore smokes fish such as salmon and trout on the premises, using hardwoods (pecan, apricot). His smoked salmon plate is composed of salmon so gently smoked it's almost gravad lax, sliced thin and topped with capers, chopped parsley and shallots. Ask whether there is any of the smoked mackerel the chef imports from Europe. It's not on the menu, and it's terrific.

Chilled steamed mussels with spicy marinara work perfectly well, but one can't help wondering how much better they would be if Clore used Prince Edward Island mussels in place of the larger, less flavorful Eastern mussels. Rock shrimp enchilada is the menu's one concession to Latin flavors. Under the hard tortilla shell containing the shrimp, there is a great, smoky tomatillo reduction, one of the best spicy sauces you'll ever taste.

This is a fish lover's menu, though Clore throws in rack of lamb with maple syrup and a seared filet of Angus beef for those who insist on red meat to go with a vintage Bordeaux from the restaurant's cellar. Halibut teriyaki might just be the fish menu's chef d'oeuvre . It's a thick filet, studded with white sesame seeds and covered with a teriyaki glaze that is subtle and complex, even by Japanese standards. I predict you won't leave a grain of the rich, smooth coconut rice accompaniment, a real scene-stealer.

Lake Superior whitefish is browned to crackling on the skin side, while the flesh stays tender and soft on top. The cilantro-pistachio pesto that comes with it has a precious sound, but forget the word pesto --this is a fine, imaginative sauce.

However, Clore's imagination is not infallible. I'm still not sure about that crusty rack of Colorado lamb; it's tasty but eccentric, almost a dessert. My personal jury is also out on the ahi with couscous and pomegranate vinaigrette. The sauce is skillfully reduced, with a deeply pungent finish. If you don't mind a highly flavored sauce on a delicate fish, this one's for you.

Some fish are done with consummate skill: the thick grilled swordfish with garlic and thyme and the Chilean sea bass, lightly crusted with Parmesan in a wild mushroom sauce. I felt let down by the spicy clam linguine with onion, bell pepper, jalapeno and white wine. The elements taste good, but somehow they just don't come together.

Clore is also a solid dessert chef. He makes a delicious three-fruit cobbler, served warm with vanilla ice cream. Chocolate paradise is a terrine-shaped slice with a dense, fudgy richness; the macadamia nut cheesecake is fluffy. My choice is extra-light orange praline mousse cake.

Clore has developed into a real talent, possibly the best seafood chef we have.

Claes Seafood Etc. is expensive. Appetizers are $5 to $7, entrees $15 to $21.

* CLAES SEAFOOD ETC.

* 425 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach.

* (714) 494-1151.

* Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

* All major cards accepted.

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