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Chic, New, Already Well Seasoned

Woody's at the Beach is an accomplished addition, thanks to experienced chef.

October 08, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Now that summer is over and most of Laguna Beach's tourists have gone, the locals in this perennially stylish beach town can resume the serious business of dining out for pure fun.

This summer saw the debut of several attractive restaurants in Laguna, including Anastasia Cafe and Canyon Lodge. But nowhere I visited was more accomplished than Woody's at the Beach, a chic new spot housed in a PCH haunt that spent three decades as the Little Shrimp.

You can eat in the buckskin-colored dining room, which has a glorious ocean view, or on an open-air maple deck, in the shadow of a towering eucalyptus. On the deck, which is quite popular, you're separated from Coast Highway by a thin wooden wall. Between the deck and the dining-room door stand three kinetic sculptures--two gushing fountains and one torch-like flame, Olympic-style.

The dining room has a roughhewn, unfinished look. The rustic theme of the wood-beamed ceiling is continued at the table, where the place mats are cunningly braided twigs. The tables have faux-marble tops, and the stiff-backed chairs have metal frames and woven cane seats.

Woody's menu declares that the restaurant is a work in progress. The owners are modest; the food is consistently good. Chef Jeff Armstrong used to be sous chef at Christopher's, a highly regarded restaurant in Phoenix, and they must miss him there. Armstrong is adept at brunch and does an even better job at dinner.

Brunch is great fun. This is one of the few places in town, outside of Las Brisas, where you can get a real Ramos fizz, that frothy cocktail of gin, egg whites and orange flower water. The bar also pours a mean Kir royale, champagne dosed with just the right amount of creme de cassis.

Most of the brunch dishes are just as good. The real Belgian waffle, a dense, eggy creation topped with warm poached peaches and thick whipped cream, is decadently delicious. Penne pasta with smoked salmon has a huge amount of good smoked fish in a rich, creamy sauce.

Most side dishes, such as the jalapeno corn bread and homemade link sausages, are just plain great. I only found one flop here, the vegetable and mushroom frittata, which was overcooked and rubbery. Even so, it was tasty.

The dinner menu is short and sweet. Two excellent appetizers take the form of cylindrical mounds of seafood with assertive flavors. A confit is cooked salmon, lightly salted and shredded, on a creamy cauliflower puree. The sweet-and-sour tuna tartare is sashimi-quality, mixed with sesame oil and paired with a lively red onion marmalade.

The salads are surprising. Thai beef salad consists of bite-sized chunks of grilled beef, beautifully streaked with black char, on cabbage, with cilantro, mint and a sweet-and-sour Thai dipping sauce. A pickled beet salad comes with a little mound of creamy Laura Chenel goat cheese.

In the lobster salad you get two claws, haricots verts and toasted hazelnuts in a sour cream dressing. The menu mentions a sherry vinegar dressing, which I couldn't taste at all, but the ingredients worked so well that I didn't miss it in the slightest.

The entree list is eclectic, and I suspect Armstrong is trying to strut his stuff. What else can you say about a menu that spans Hawaii, Morocco, rural France and Mexico, as well as firmly entrenched Southland sensibilities?

My favorite entree is the Moroccan lamb fricassee, a subtle, slightly manicured version of a classic North African dish. The tender cubes of stewed lamb are lightly scented with cumin and coriander and set on a bed of fragrantly nutty couscous.

My other choice would be steamed ono. This tuna relative from Hawaii comes on basmati rice partly submerged in a subtle lemon-grass ginger broth. It's about as far from Moroccan food as you can get.

The rest of the entrees show similar imagination. Hawaiian mong chong, a firm-fleshed white fish, comes with glazed baby vegetables; mine would have been quite good if it hadn't been slightly overcooked. A wonderful smoked pork tenderloin came in thick, juicy slices, with chipotle peppers, caramelized green apples and garlic mashed potatoes.

*

The best pasta entree is black pepper fettuccine with duck confit and braised radicchio. The duck confit has been chopped into what tastes like a sweet red wine sauce, and the dish is unusually addictive. The menu's simplest dish is angel-hair pasta, topped with a puttanesca sauce intense with caper and black olive.

There are four desserts. The French toast with poached peaches and vanilla ice cream won't be a revelation for anyone who has tried the waffle at Sunday brunch, but it's still great. The fresh fig and goat cheese tart is striking visually, but the little clumps of goat cheese overwhelm the more delicate figs in the crisp pastry shell.

The mango and lemon curd tart is sharp and sweet. And the rice pudding with fruit compote is a perfectly round, pleasing confection lightly scented with citrus, with a crackling sugar top.

If Woody's really is a work in progress, I can't wait to see the finished product.

Woody's at the Beach is expensive. Appetizers are $4 to $9. Salads are $4 to $13. Entrees are $9 to $19. Desserts are $5.

BE THERE

Woody's at the Beach, 1305 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (949) 376-8809. 5:30-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. All major cards.

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