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O.C. Eats | O.C. on the Menu

A Good Walk Improved by Food and a View


Canyon Lodge in Laguna Beach looks out onto chaparral-covered hills at a golf resort called Aliso Creek Inn. This is a setting with the sort of grandeur you'd ordinarily expect only in a national park. On a beautiful day in late spring, no O.C. restaurant can hope to be as dramatically splendid.

The appointments inside are less convincing, but they're comfortable nonetheless. In the lunch room, where the mood is altered somewhat by the presence of a big-screen TV, you sit on roughhewn log chairs with backs constructed from a crisscross of thick leather straps.

The main dining room sports a roaring fireplace, a rich red woolen carpet, tables with polished wooden surfaces and tapestry chairs upholstered in designs recalling Native American themes.

Both dining rooms are perched directly above a 9-hole golf course that appears to be both beautiful and challenging. And the views are, it goes without saying, spectacular.

For anyone who has lived in the Midwest, where golf courses and country club restaurants dominate the landscape, Canyon Lodge will seem instantly familiar. Golf is the thing here; it's a way of life. Look out one of the panoramic windows and if there's any daylight at all, chances are you'll spot a duffer teeing off. Many of the waiters work at Canyon Lodge in part because their perks include greens fees.

But Canyon Lodge would like to be thought of as a serious restaurant. Head chef Arnold Kwok is a native of Singapore who began his career as a student at the celebrated Parisian cooking school La Varenne, so he also has a background in French cooking. But his cooking, at least here, is all-American, with only a few hints at his personal history.

One of those hints is the salad of Mandarin chicken, a take on what most of us know as Chinese chicken salad. This is a true fusion dish that you won't find anywhere in Asia, and I've never had a better version. Kwok uses nappa cabbage, giant strips of blackened chicken breast, pungent mandarin orange slices and a rich, spicy peanut dressing subtle enough to sneak up on you. It's just plain great.

Sometimes, though, the chef's imagination has the opposite effect. The Canyon crab cakes are three enormous golden brown disks, and at first you're bound to think this is the world's most generously portioned crab cake dish. But you'll soon discover that these crab cakes are mostly rice. It's a bland, stodgy dish.

The cream of tomato soup is a great success, and probably the most Continental item on the menu. It's a grainy, coral-pink tomato bisque covered by a perfectly flaky hat of French pastry.

Wild forest mushrooms, available at dinner only, is a rich, deliciously reduced blend of oyster and porcini mushrooms in a classic brown sauce, along with caramelized shallots, pecans and Maytag blue cheese.

But there are odd missteps as well. Mom's meatloaf, served with brown gravy and mashed potatoes, comes in three uniform slices, with a mulched texture and a flavor no more distinctive than meatloaf from the freezer case.

The Canyon Lodge vegetarian pizza, topped with a combination of fresh spinach, tomato preserves, sauteed eggplant and fresh mushrooms, can be quite doughy. The Canyon Lodge homemade potato chips, spiked with seasoned salt and served with a dipping bowl of creamy ranch dressing, are terrific when hot--but don't let them cool on you. Nothing kills the appetite like cold grease.

In general, Kwok shines in main courses and desserts. The peppery flatiron steak is seared with caramelized onions and served with nicely seasoned fries. Salmon is pan-roasted to a lacquered finish in a tangy citrus butter; it comes with a delicate mango salsa and fluffy, fragrant basmati rice. There's a fine chicken that is hickory-smoked before being oven roasted, and it's a bargain at $13 for a half bird. The filet mignon with wild mushroom Merlot sauce and roasted potatoes is fairly classic American chophouse fare.

I wasn't crazy about the baby back ribs, mopped with a vinegary Carolina-style barbecue sauce, because the meat did not strike me as top-notch. The prime rib, on the other hand, is one of the best around. Kwok smokes the meat through and through with hickory chips and then grills it. It's tender, intoxicatingly scented meat, accompanied by a baked popover.


This kitchen makes its own desserts, and does so admirably. My favorite is a buttery poppy seed lemon shortcake served with whipped cream and fresh sliced strawberries. When really ripe berries are available, this dessert will be just about perfect. The sweet, gooey baked apple crisp is served with a mini-sundae of vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce.

A lush cheesecake is served with a nice vanilla bean Bourbon sauce. Another of the few items on this menu that allude to Asia is the silky smooth lemon-scented rice pudding, served with fresh seasonal fruit.

I'm strictly from the Mark Twain school of golf. He's the writer who once quipped, "Golf, a good walk ruined." But viewed from a window, over a bowl of Kwok's tomato soup, it almost makes me ready to go looking for a good set of clubs myself.

Canyon Lodge is expensive. Appetizers are $5 to $12. Salads and soups are $5 to $7. Entrees are $11 to $22. American classic desserts are $4 to $5.


Canyon Lodge, 31106 Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (949) 499-2271. Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; brunch 10 a.m.- 3 p.m. Sunday. All major cards.

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