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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
| Sunday Brunch

Partners Bistro's Meals Worth Lingering Over

The food is really good, but service can be really slow at the Laguna Beach eatery. Chef says new manager will get things moving.

March 05, 2000|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It pains me to whine about pokey service at a restaurant that serves such good food. But if you are headed for Partners Bistro in Laguna Beach, plan to stay a while.

We wandered in expecting to grab a bite of breakfast before heading to North County. A couple of hours later, slow service turned the meal into a day trip.

Thus forewarned, you might want to combine brunch with a tour of Laguna. Window shop, people watch, read about "the Greeter," a friendly chap immortalized by a statue in his honor at Forest Avenue and Coast Highway. And you can stop at the Candy Baron and fill a bag with old-fashioned gumballs and licorice.

But first eat breakfast. Partners Bistro is a charming little cafe-style restaurant on Coast Highway in the hub of town. Colorful paintings by local artist Jorg Dubin hanging on brick walls give the room a Bohemian flavor popular with the Birkenstock crowd. On a recent rainy Sunday, Partners proved a cozy spot to wait out a cloudburst.

While the food is worth a visit, the service leaves a lot to be desired. The well-intentioned waiters, many of whom look like Kato Kaelin, don't seem to realize a menu generally precedes an order. Once that confusion is sorted out, menus cheerfully arrive with a wooden pail, like the one in the Dubin still life near our table, filled with warm bread sticks. The garlic, herb or sourdough can be spread with a delicious mixture of herbs, nuts and butter. After what seems like a bewilderingly long time, a waiter returns to inquire whether there will, in fact, be more than bread desired for brunch. Then, appearing out of nowhere, comes a cool complimentary strawberry smoothie instead of an ordering pad.

Partners was opened 23 years ago by four friends, hence the name. Two have since left, but the remaining partners carried on and eventually remodeled the small space on the historic alley off Peppertree Lane. Chef Chris Juers, who has been with Partners since the mid-1990s, said a new manager was recently hired and the staff would soon be up to speed.

Brunch consists of appetizers, salads and entrees, all in the $7 to $10 range. Start with either the pine nut-crusted goat cheese or the smoked salmon. The cheese is served with caramelized onions and peppers and a crispy flat bread. Salmon is served with the perfect sidekicks: cracked pepper creme fraiche and a cool sprig of dill.

Soup on our visit was wild mushroom--bland. Instead, try the Partners salad of tossed lettuce with crunchy bacon and blue cheese in a garlic-cream dressing. The spinach salad is a good mix of the fresh tender greens with chopped eggs and bacon in a light sauce.

The 12 entrees offered for brunch include a selection of "French-inspired bistro food from indigenous produce," Juers said. "We try to use the freshest ingredients and stick to California products and wines."

Recommended main dishes include the small portion of tasty wild mushroom ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese in a light herb broth; the petite filet with poached eggs and bearnaise sauce; and the wild mushroom frittata, a thin open-faced omelet smothered in mushrooms. For a lighter meal, the pastas come with tomatoes and pine nuts or artichokes and basil, both in light sauces.

A dessert tray offers a chocolate mousse cake with chocolate leaves and fresh raspberry puree, a cheesecake and assorted tarts. If you can have only one, pick the warm sweet potato pie, nutty and fragrant in a crumb crust, and topped with vanilla ice cream.

*

Partners Bistro, 448 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (949) 497-4441. Brunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Price range of entrees, salads and appetizers: $5 to $10.

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