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3-HOUR TOUR

In Laguna, Green on the Grounds and on Your Plate

June 08, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition

The glory of nature is in full flower at the Hortense Miller Garden in Laguna Beach. After a fragrant stroll on this colorful hill, repair to one of Laguna's more sequestered spots for a quiet lunch.

10 a.m. to noon: Hortense Miller cultivated her magnificent, 2 1/2-acre garden helped by a single employee. Today it exists as a monument to vision, courage and eccentricity.

The garden is carefully landscaped along a series of trails sloping down the side of a hill next to Boat Canyon, a rather barren, largely uninhabited canyon owned in part by the massive Irvine Co. Thousands of flower bulbs are in bloom here at various times of the year: narcissus, babiana, sparaxis, freesia and other exotic flora. One is a mystical green plant called puya, from Chile. Another is the graceful mother fern, so called because of the little baby ferns partially hidden underneath.

Miller bought this Allview Terrace hideaway in 1957. By 1959, she was ready to move in and begin what has become an ongoing project.

Today, there are nearly 1,500 varieties of plants, flowers, herbs and succulents in the garden, a number in a constant state of flux. Miller still gardens every day, opening her garden to the public weekly. Visits are organized by arrangement with the city of Laguna Beach.

There was a fresh, oxygen-rich buzz to the air the morning I took my tour. Six of us rendezvoused with docent and tour guide Renate Gurano directly above Riddle Field, behind the Vons on Coast Highway in north Laguna. In short order, we car-pooled up to the gated community where the garden entrance is.

Gurano dazzled us with her knowledge of native shrubbery and general botanical knowledge from the minute we entered the garden's modest gate. She pointed out that we were 450 feet above sea level and showed us a hedge of fire-resistant, waxy lemonade berries.

From there, we were pulled into a world of steep stone staircases, ash-colored eucalyptus trees and walls of aloe. Camellias bloomed in red and white, and the scent of garlic leaves wafted to our noses.

Near the residence, a somewhat modest wooden house, there are small drinking pools for the wildlife that still populates this canyon: deer, raccoons, field mice, chipmunks and dozens of bird species. Miller's bedroom has an all-glass front facing the drinking pools. She likes it that way, she says, because it allows her to watch the animals without disturbing them.

Depending on her whim, Miller, who's in her late 80s, sometimes comes out to talk with tour takers. The day I was there, she regaled us with anecdotes about her native St. Louis, overpopulation and man's fragile relationship with nature.

With her black-rimmed glasses, determined jaw and assertive ideas, Miller turned out to be nearly as compelling as her garden. She would probably say this last observation was nonsense. To her, the important things are her plants, milkweed, jasmine, a cherry tree in full blossom and azaleas past their prime, ready to bloom again another season.

Noon to 1 p.m.: Suzanne Megroz of the Z Pizza chain has opened a quiet little eatery, Z Bistro, on a sheltered stretch of Forest Avenue, away from most of Laguna's downtown bustle. The location is its weakness and its strength. It's an excellent place to hide away and rarely as crowded as it should be.

Megroz is from Nice, in southern France. That explains the presence of tartines (open-faced sandwiches on good country breads) and the colorful salads, such as the one called Bistro ($3.95), mesclun (mixed salad greens), tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella and homemade garlic croutons. If you really want to eat like a Frenchman, try crudites ($4.95), greens with an assortment of julienned raw veggies such as beets, celery root and carrot.

I like to order the tartine called pan bagna ($5.95) because it is so typically Nicoise; canned tuna, anchovies, garlic, olive oil, hard-boiled eggs, green pepper, green olives, tomatoes and red onions--a salade Nicoise on bread. Another French standby is the Croque Monsieur ($6.95). Think of it as a grilled ham and cheese, with an accent.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

3- HOUR TOUR

1. Hortense Miller Garden

22511 Allview Terrace

To arrange a visit, call the city of Laguna Beach, (714) 497-0716. Tours are generally conducted Wednesday and Saturday mornings and alternate Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Allow six weeks for a booking.

2. Z Bistro

361 Forest Ave.

(714) 497-9444

Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.

Parking / Buses

Parking: For the garden tour, park on Locust or Jasmine streets, then walk to the car-pool spot, which is determined at registration. At Z Bistro, there is metered street parking.

Buses: OCTA Bus Line 1 runs north and south on Coast Highway. Get off at corner of Forest Avenue and Coast Highway.

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