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Gone Native

Washington Chef Marc Cohen Is Right at Home in Laguna Beach With 230 Forest Avenue

April 12, 2001|TOM VASICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The expression "how very Laguna" suggests liberal politics, quirky attitudes and paintings of dolphins and whales living harmoniously beneath the waves. But it also describes 230 Forest Avenue, an industrial-style art gallery/martini bar/bistro serving fusion cuisine, all in a noisy, crowded, energetic, narrow space without any convenient parking.

Yet it's brought to us by a chef who came here only six years ago from not-very-Laguna Washington, D.C. He's a quick study.

Here's the layout. An open kitchen and bar are squeezed along the right wall; the left wall features the work of notable Laguna artists (currently, William DeBilzan). The floor is concrete and the tables are close together, guaranteeing a high noise level. The saving grace is a glass-walled entry--enabling the restaurant to spill onto the sidewalk.

For all the bustle, dining is a leisurely affair here. The menu begs you to sample a range of starter plates, salads and entrees. There's something for everyone, but every dish bears chef and co-owner Marc Cohen's distinctive stamp, one informed by a particular love of Mexican and Pacific flavors and an artist's flair.

The appetizers emphasize shellfish. There are creamy-textured Florida stone crab cakes infused with spinach, lobster potstickers and wonderfully salty prosciutto-wrapped shrimp topped with pesto (served with tomato and mozzarella).

Pacific oyster stew features thick, meaty oysters in a lightly creamy saffron broth. Chopped potatoes and morel mushrooms add substance, but the oyster flavor predominates. A salmon-and-mussel stew with white beans and smoked bacon uses a vegetable-fish broth heavy with tomato flavor, suggesting a cioppino. (There is a cioppino on the menu, in case you're wondering, and it's chock-full of lobster, prawns, oysters, clams, mussels, calamari and assorted fish.)

The entrees are more impressive than the pastas. Like the starter plates, they emphasize seafood. Cohen uses the usual fish you find in other restaurants--halibut, ahi, mahi-mahi, salmon and escolar, plus specials such as grouper--but he serves them with distinction, offering interesting flavor combinations drawing upon Mexican and Pacific Rim influences.

For example, the hazelnut-crusted halibut is topped with a mound of papaya salsa, and the chipotle honey-glazed escolar comes with a stone-crab taquito and a sweet-corn salsa. In neither case does the elaborate garnish interfere with the seafood flavor. This is especially welcome with the delicately crusted halibut.

However, Cohen indulges in ingredient overkill in his treatment of mahi-mahi. It comes in a macadamia-nut crust topped with a mango slaw, blackberry vinegar and warm pineapple butter. The crust is nice and crunchy, but the sweetened blackberry vinegar strongly upstages the mahi-mahi. The same sort of thing happens with the blackened swordfish. The baseball-sized cut of fish is covered with a carrot-ginger syrup, which is just a bit too much.

There are no such problems, though, with the thick cut of grilled salmon, which comes with tempting sides of sour sake cucumbers and a shrimp spring roll. It's my favorite of all the seafood dishes here.

*

At first glance, the pork chop entree seems out of place on this menu, but, as with everything he serves, Cohen gives it a personal stamp. The double-thick chop is marinated in maple syrup and grilled to perfection, the marinade forming a thin crust. It's an excellent pork chop, although you may not enjoy the gimmicky roasted garlic custard and limp sweet potato fries that come with it. My suggestion: Substitute the buttery, garlic mashed potatoes for the fries, and all will be good.

230 Forest Avenue also draws in the lunch crowd with a wide selection of salads and sandwiches. Pink grapefruit pieces add a nice flavor to the house baby green salad, which can also be ordered with sesame grilled chicken. The Caesar salad can be topped with this chicken or calamari or fried oysters.

The two most intriguing choices are the salade Nicoise with a decidedly untraditional honey and whole-grain mustard dressing, and the endive and Maine lobster salad in a light creamy dressing. The lobster salad uses impressively large chunks of lobster, and you get more than your money's worth ($16).

This same lobster salad is served as a sandwich in a crispy baguette with a massive side of salty shoestring fries. It's messy and troublesome to eat, but very, very satisfying. Overall, the sandwich selections are all quite tempting. You can get an oyster po'-boy; a grilled salmon filet and wasabi cream sandwich; a sandwich of grilled portabello, roasted peppers and goat cheese; and a chicken sandwich with smoked bacon and Havarti cheese.

Most days there's a lunch special, and it's likely to be out of the ordinary. If they're offered, I highly recommend the seafood taquitos filled with shrimp, tuna and lobster.

Overall, Cohen can get a little too cute with excessive presentations, but underneath all this flash is some solid, heartfelt cooking. With its "how very Laguna" style, 230 Forest Avenue isn't for everyone, but if you don't mind a place being very Laguna, you're in for a treat.

Prices are moderate to expensive. Starter plates run $7 to $12, salads $11 to $16, sandwiches $9 to $15, pastas $11 to $19 and entrees $17 to $27.

*

230 Forest Avenue, 230 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach. (949) 494-2545. Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday, 5:30-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.; closed Sunday. Full bar.

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