Sunday brunch, that deliriously American blend of calories and leisure, has been elevated to an art form at two of O.C.'s better restaurants.
Ramos House Cafe, tucked behind San Juan Capistrano's Amtrak depot, has a brick patio graced by a mulberry tree, a huge cactus and rustic wrought iron furniture. On a quiet Sunday morning, there's no more pleasant spot for miles.
Having impressed diners for years with his New American salads and sandwiches here, chef-owner John Humphries has begun expanding his culinary horizons. He's instituted monthly wine dinners, and recently he kicked off a lavish prix-fixe Sunday brunch.
Probably the first thing you'll encounter at brunch is his baking powder biscuits with fragrant apple butter. I always get in trouble with them; they're so rich and flaky they don't need dairy butter. Be warned. Eat more than one and you may not have room for much else.
The brunch menu appetizers are satisfying in their own right. The blueberry coffeecake is served hot from the oven, surrounded by a moat of blueberry-laced creme anglaise. Sweet, crumbly hush puppies come with a honeyed pepper jam, and there are magically light green apple beignets with ricotta cheese and vanilla bean cream. Sometimes Humphries makes crab and sausage gumbo, and you can always get his basil-cured salmon, served with toast points and fresh herbs.
But these are only the starters. The more substantial main courses show off the chef's whimsical creativity. The pain perdu (French for what we call French toast) is impossibly rich slices of brioche bread topped with fresh peaches, toasted almonds and cinnamon whipped cream.
Humphries' Dungeness crab hash features two classic crab cakes piled up with buttermilk-batter onion rings, alongside bacon scrambled eggs and a sour cream remoulade. The Southern fried chicken salad is lightly breaded chunks of chicken breast on mesclun greens in a pumpkin seed/goat cheese dressing.
The one dish that doesn't work for me is sweet potato duck hash with mushroom scrambled eggs. It tastes just fine, but I guess I'm just hoping for more duck.
Beverages include a variety of espresso drinks, refreshing blueberry sage ice tea and fresh orange juice, squeezed to order. If you have room for a dessert (and all bets are off in that regard), go for the homemade strawberry ice cream. It's crammed into a tuile cookie and half buried under crushed fresh strawberries.
When Humphries says something's homemade, by the way, take that literally. He lives right upstairs.
Sunday brunch at Ramos House Cafe is $20.
French 75 in Laguna Beach took hold as a local hot spot as soon as it opened, and you can imagine why. The intimate dining rooms have Art Deco overtones, and the bar is framed by a mural of monkeys drinking champagne.
But in truth, people come mainly for the food, which some call the best in Laguna. I wouldn't quibble, either. Take the shrimp in cassoulet with Cognac, chives and Dijon mustard, from the dinner menu; it's as rich and delicious a shrimp appetizer as I've ever tasted.
The buttery, delicate smoked salmon (served on a Yukon gold potato rosti cake) is enhanced by a frothy shallot creme frai^che. One of the weightier starters is the duck liver mousse, a full-flavored pa^te served with brioche toast and French 75's trademark sweet garlic jam. The only appetizer I wouldn't give high marks to is the roasted garlic soup with thyme scented croutons. It's creamy, all right, maybe even too smooth, and cloyingly sweet.
Almost every brunch entree is first-rate, though. The bacon, leek, Roquefort and Gruyere tart borders on the miraculous; the filling of this flaky puff tastes like the cheese souffle of your dreams. Interestingly, this menu is one of the few around that still offers a cheese souffle, in this case a perfectly good Parmesan cheese souffle that could easily do without the sharp mustard chive butter sauce that comes with it.
I'd pass on the crispy herb roasted chicken breast on farm house potatoes; it's bland and ordinary, like a hotel restaurant banquet dish. Instead, get the roast chicken and wild mushroom crepes glazed with truffled Mornay sauce, which tastes as fattening as it sounds.
There's a hearty warm spinach salad done like a salade frisee that you might get in France, topped with a poached egg, garlic croutons and slices of smoked Muscovy duck breast (standing in for lardons). No problem with the herb-crusted sea bass on mashed potatoes, but the Maine lobster salad with tomato, endive and truffle vinaigrette belongs in cold storage; the lobster has no flavor at all.
If you're going for the whole shebang, the best dessert is an exemplary vanilla bean and raspberry creme bru^lee, which has the texture of a fine custard. The warm apple tarte tatin with cinnamon ice cream (plus praline and caramel sauces) is fairly classic and not at all bad either. Of course, it's the sort of dessert most of the beautiful people in Laguna would never be caught dead eating, on Sunday or any other day of the week.
French 75 is expensive. A la carte brunch appetizers are $6-$12, entrees $9-$16. The prix-fixe brunch includes a choice of appetizer, entree and dessert, as well as a flute of champagne, for $35.
Ramos House Cafe, 31752 Los Rios St., San Juan Capistrano. (949) 443-1342. Open 8 a.m.-3 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.
French 75, 1464 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (949) 494-8444. Open for Sunday brunch from 11 a.m.- 3 p.m., and for dinner daily, 5-11 p.m. All major cards.