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Studio at Montage Laguna Beach

September 16, 2009|S. Irene Virbila | Restaurant Critic

As friends and I approach Studio, the restaurant at Montage Laguna Beach set on the edge of a bluff, I can see chef Craig Strong silhouetted against a silvery mauve sky as he talks to a table of guests on the outdoor terrace. Palm trees in front are ablaze with the setting sun and in the grass behind him, a trio of bunny rabbits play and nibble. We're seated outside, too, the better to enjoy the sea air and the unobstructed view of the coastline. What a spot!

After eight years as chef at the Dining Room at the former Ritz-Carlton Huntington in Pasadena (now the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa), Strong is in an enviable position as the new executive chef at Studio, replacing opening chef James Boyce. He's entirely comfortable cooking in a hotel system, having worked for Ritz-Carlton for much of his career in Atlanta and Barcelona before Pasadena. And this is a plum assignment.

No other restaurant in Southern California has this mesmerizing view, and this happy combination of setting, great food, polished service and deep wine list makes Studio at Montage one of the region's true destination restaurants. Talking to that table, the chef seems quietly confident, proud of what he's doing here. He has traded in the old-school dining room of the Ritz-Carlton for this free-standing Craftsman-style building. And he has changed Studio's culture in the process. The whole place feels warmer and a tad more relaxed, and, most important, people seem to be having more fun. A hostess leans out the door to welcome guests. Tall French doors are thrown open to let in the salt sea breeze.


Passion for his work

I hear Strong tell his guests, obviously fans from his previous post, that it took him three months to fully introduce his own menu. And now he's taking over the dessert menu "because it's close to my heart." It's refreshing to find someone at his level still so passionate about what he does.

Though it's hard for the setting not to trump the food, Strong's menu at Studio is delicious by any standard. Of course, he's got a tasting menu, but it's a reasonable number of courses (just six) and anything on it can be ordered a la carte, which broadens the choice of a handful of starters and main courses. And nothing is set in stone: Each time I visited, there were at least a few new dishes to keep the menu fresh.

Once everybody is settled at table, out comes an amuse, which could be, for example, an elegant terrine of guinea hen in a black truffle vinaigrette or a single marvelous fried butterflied shrimp with a few slices of vinegared cucumbers, both light, and, well, amusing.

His cooking has a distinctive Mediterranean and even Catalan influence that doesn't come from books, but from his time in Barcelona. So you find seared Monterey calamari with baby arugula and a garlicky aioli. The squid is as sweet and meaty as cuttlefish, the body stuffed with breadcrumbs and herbs.

Or a stunning dish of lightly roasted lobster tail with fideo noodles in a green curry lobster sauce. Forget the lobster, however delicious, I just want to scoop up those broken noodles, cooked like risotto so they drink in that wonderful stock. And who wouldn't enjoy wild striped bass served with tiny brown "clamshell" mushrooms and green beans in a "bouillabaisse" sauce whipped into a froth that gives foam back its good name?

That time spent by the Mediterranean may be why the chef is so strong on fish. One night I had a fabulous piece of Columbia River salmon with finely diced rhubarb on top -- just a little pinker than the salmon -- served in a suave beurre rouge sauce.

French turbot came with soft pillows of semolina gnocchi with artichokes and peas in a mussel nage, or bath. And Alaskan halibut in a verjus sauce was as perfectly cooked as I've ever had, served with parsnips, pea shoots and tender roasted apples.

Strong can use sweet to his advantage, too, as in an appetizer of thinly sliced cantaloupe and honeydew melons wrapped around lump crabmeat to resemble cannelloni. The sweetness of the melon and the crab woven with the honey-sherry vinaigrette on the swatch of salad creates a dish with bright, melodic flavors.

As the wind picks up one night, a server offers blankets to those of us sitting outside. One woman wraps herself up in one like an Indian chief and gets up to stand at the edge of the bluff, mesmerized by the moon on the water. The wine and the main courses warm us up.

Strong serves thick medallions of duck breast with Bing cherries glistening on top. It's emphatically not sweet, perfect against a basil-fingerling-potato puree. Nothing ever goes over the top here, not even a luscious lamb chop served with "melted" tomato -- cooked for a long time at slow temperature and stuffed with a finely diced ratatouille and served on top of white beans wrapped in Tuscan cabbage.

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