YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


[Chef Change] A new energy by the beach

Michael Mina masters the art of the unexpected at Stonehill Tavern. It's so urban chic, you'd never dream you're in a Dana Point luxury resort.

April 26, 2006|By S. Irene Virbila | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • ENHANCED: A knowledgeable wait staff and overhauled decor help elevate the standard of service and look of Stonehill Tavern in St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach.
ENHANCED: A knowledgeable wait staff and overhauled decor help elevate… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

STONEHILL TAVERN, the new restaurant at the St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach, is a kind of miracle.

It's got just about everything: a great room, crisp service, inspired modern American cooking and an impressive wine program.

But that's not the miracle, this is: In only a few short months, it has swept away any lingering impression of the quite awful restaurant that preceded it in that space, Aqua. It's almost impossible to fix something gone so wrong, injecting energy where there was none, challenging and changing the image of a deadly-dull place so completely. But, against all odds, the St. Regis management and San Francisco chef Michael Mina, who was also behind Aqua, have done it.

The turnaround is even more of a coup given the location -- a high-end hotel resort on the southern fringes of Orange County.

It may be just a (long) stone's throw from the ocean, yet Stonehill has the aesthetic and energy of a restaurant in New York or San Francisco. For a moment, the effect is disorienting, until the host sweeps you past a wooden trough filled with fuzzy chartreuse moss and tall glass columns displaying bottles of wine, past the small chic bar, into the dining room.

Two rows of tables are lined up along the floor-to-ceiling windows hung with metallic mesh curtains. Beyond is the night, and on the horizon, the sea. Low banquettes along one wall are furnished with silk pillows to tuck behind your back. The lighting from a mix of fixtures, including quirky glass shades with glowing filaments, is just about perfect -- not too dim, just bright enough to see your food. What a concept. In tall glass vases, branches covered with pink cherry blossoms gaily celebrate spring. The decor's only false note is the stack of architecture and design books placed so high on a bookcase no one could possibly take one down and actually peruse it.

For The Record Stonehill Tavern manager: An April 26 Food review of Stonehill Tavern, the restaurant at St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach, stated that manager Tim Flowers was a master of wine. He is not.

Fans of the television show "The O.C." will note that much of the crowd here could have come straight from central casting. There are the uber-rich twentysomethings, the aging surfer-businessman, the flirty divorcee of a certain age. I watch, fascinated, as a couple in their late 30s, teeth bright white, tans perfect, get to know each other over dinner. He's wearing an expensive linen shirt and a hair enhancement. She's in a bare silver dress, all the better to show off her own enhancements. But they don't seem to be connecting. The high energy at the other tables swirls around them, unnoticed.

Servers march through the dining room in white pique vests and striped silk ties. They're charged up and starry-eyed about the food and the restaurant, which might be annoying someplace else, but here it's wildly endearing, especially after the bored and inept service Aqua used to dispense to its guests. There is, after all, something to be genuinely excited about.

One night I order salt-baked Maine lobster, and the server brings out a mountain of salt in an oval copper sauteuse. He sets it on a serving table and proceeds to chisel along the ridge of the salt until it falls away in pieces to reveal a lipstick red crustacean. But it's not time to dig in yet.

My beautiful lobster goes back to the kitchen and reappears minutes later shelled and cut into neat chunks at the bottom of an elegant porcelain bowl with some friends found along the way -- baby fennel, soft braised leeks and emerald green beans. The waiter slowly floods the bowl with a light, fennel-scented broth. I take a bite. And another. The flavors and textures are magic.

Two of my guests are intrigued by the idea of whole fried Jidori chicken for two, another piece of restaurant theater. Here's the waiter showing off the whole golden bird, then -- ta dah -- deftly carving it into serving pieces. Now I understand why come Thanksgiving, devotees are always touting the superiority of deep-fried turkey. By frying the whole bird, you get the crisp skin, but the flesh is as moist as if it's been steamed. Served in its juices swirled with whole grain mustard, this organic chicken can hold its own against a steak any day. This time, Mina is not fooling around.

Top-to-bottom makeover

TO Mina's credit and the hotel's, the change is no half-hearted effort, but a total rethinking of the restaurant from the design and decor to the concept, the management and the menu. He's brought in a crack team to retool the restaurant.

Los Angeles Times Articles