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Laguna Niguel's New Port of Call

Scott's Seafood Now Has a South County Mooring Where Dishes Have a Distinctive Flair


Scott's Seafood has a reputation in Orange County as a major seafood restaurant. For more than a decade at its location across the street from South Coast Plaza, it has hosted countless business dinners and corporate functions, in addition to being popular with the pre-theater dining crowd for the Performing Arts Center and South Coast Repertory. For those who enjoy relaxed dining and seafood, Scott's is one name that stands out.

So when Scott's added a second Orange County location, it wasn't surprising to find it landing in Laguna Niguel, a city whose residents have the means to enjoy the county's good life and a growing distaste for having to drive to the South Coast Plaza area to find it.

Shrewd move, Scott's. Since Scott's of Laguna Niguel opened at the beginning of the year, it seems the busiest person in the Saddleback Valley city has to be the Scott's parking valet, who has probably worn out several pairs of Nikes trying to keep up with the endless stream of cars. Getting a good reservation time here has become like finding a real-estate bargain in Newport Beach.

The original Scott's was in San Francisco, and the subsequent locations have featured the same San Francisco, Victorian-style interior. All until now, that is--not Scott's of Laguna Niguel. Its chic, contemporary interior looks as if it were decorated by Z Gallerie.

It's dominated by a mural of a school of fish, leading from the front door to the bustling bar. Things aren't so hectic in the comfortable, dimly lit dining rooms, where the noise level is low enough that you can hold a normal conversation.

On my first visit, I was surprised to find that Scott's of Laguna Niguel offered only a limited menu, featuring a handful of fairly mainstream seafood appetizers and entrees. But Scott's has never been about sheer menu size, like McCormick and Schmick's, another popular high-end seafood restaurant group (with an Irvine location), which features some three-dozen shellfish and seafood options daily.

The Scott's approach is to try to make each dish distinctive. This really succeeds with some of the appetizers, such as the calamari, the grilled jumbo lump crab cake and the seared sterling salmon.

The calamari comes two ways: tossed in lemon garlic butter or prepared, as the menu calls it, "spicy Provencal style." Go for the latter, a heaping plate of lightly breaded calamari with tomatoes, onion, garlic and chives sauteed in wine. It's scarcely spicy, but it is delicious and could serve as a small entree.

I also enjoyed the moist crab cake, which seems to be made almost entirely of crab, with just enough breading and herbs to hold it together. It would be better, though, without the side of red cabbage slaw with blue cheese, two stern flavors that didn't really need to be on this plate.

Other interesting appetizers my group enjoyed were the seared, citrus-cured sterling salmon, grilled just enough to give a crisp shell to the fish, and the half-dozen oysters on the half-shell, featuring exquisitely fresh Blue Points, Fanny Bays and Malpeques.

We won't be ordering some others again, though. The beef carpaccio is thoroughly unexceptional except for good shaved Parmesan, and the baby spinach salad is bland, with only a vague hint of vinaigrette dressing.

Like the appetizers, the entrees are pretty mainstream stuff: mahi-mahi, salmon, swordfish, sea bass, ahi. What makes the difference is the presentation. The steamed mahi-mahi is so delicately cooked it's almost spongy. The fish is accented by the interesting flavors of shiitake mushrooms, Napa cabbage, green onion, cilantro and a light soy sauce. This dish really stands out.

The peppercorn-crusted rare ahi also benefits from a distinctive presentation. It looks like a giant piece of sushi--a thick cut of quickly seared ahi sitting on a bed of sticky white rice and topped with an explosive wasabi soy sauce. It is crusted with peppercorns; fortunately, they don't bury the tuna flavor.

I was less impressed with the grilled swordfish, served with a cilantro-pesto sauce and topped with sauteed tomatoes and garlic. With snow peas positioned around the plate, the dish had an appealing look, but the swordfish was rather chewy and there was far too little of that fine cilantro-pesto sauce.

More disappointing was the black grouper, which was served on a salty, cheesy polenta that completely killed the very subtle essence of this fish.

All is not fishy at Scott's. In the early '90s, the Costa Mesa site introduced aged prime steaks to the menu, and they've carried over to Laguna Niguel, which offers a 10-ounce filet mignon, a 14-ounce New York strip and a 16-ounce rib eye. These steaks equal in quality anything served at a Morton's or Ruth's Chris, and if you ask your food server, you can get a side order of the deliciously buttery mashed potatoes, peppered with bits of artichoke heart.

Scott's also offers some noteworthy non-seafood specials, such as the sliced breast of Muscovy duck covered with demiglaze and sun-dried cherries. It's moist and tender.

Still, Scott's is best-known as a seafood restaurant, and I'm hoping that, with time, the kitchen will find consistency with its current dishes and extend its menu.

Scott's is moderately expensive. Appetizers run $7 to $12, soups and salads $6 to $7, seafood entrees $15 to $23 and steaks $24 to $28. Sunday brunch is $10 to $16 per entree.

* Scott's of Laguna Niguel, 27321 La Paz Road. (949) 389-0055. Lunch daily, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 4-11 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

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