When lobster bisque is as subtly nuanced as Skenes', you want an entire bowl, not just a small cup. The stock is beautifully balanced, the lobster chunks tender as butter, and a swirl of Meyer lemon cream and a garnish of toasted almonds lifts the rich bisque high above the ordinary. Crispy duck thigh has an Asian accent, with green apple balls, peanuts and mint. And I love the lobster fritters on a stick, wrapped in shiso and then deep-fried in a light tempura-like batter.
Short ribs are as ubiquitous on modern American menus as tuna tartare. Impossibly rich, to my mind, they're almost always overkill, and here the prime short ribs are no exception. Served with braised celery and potato puree, the beef is so tender it hardly demands teeth; in the end it's cloying. Better to go for the Mediterranean sea bass, sauteed to a dark gold and served with quartered braised artichokes with the stems on, and delicious little Parmesan tortellini. Shellfish stew, though, is too subdued in flavor.
The real star of the seafood side of the menu is a piece of Tasmanian ocean trout. A deep coral in color, Skenes cooks it so it's still rare in the center, the better to taste and enjoy every aspect of this marvelous fish. The sides that come with it are brilliant -- a dreamy cauliflower puree and a delightful relish of Muscat grapes (peeled!) and capers.
Take note: The soundtrack of relentlessly upbeat or techno music can get a bit loud in the main dining room. It's meant to infuse the room with energy, and it does the job. Usually, it's just a bit quieter in the bar. One night, at one of the handful of booths that bracket the bar, two tow-headed kids scribble furiously in their coloring books while their impeccably dressed mother savors the last of her cheese with a glass of Pinot Noir. The booths, in fact, are where to sit if you want to visit comfortably with family or guests -- or even just color.
The bar also offers expertly made cocktails. They're the classics, updated with top notch ingredients and a little whimsy. Organized by type of alcohol, I can attest that the ginger collins made with ginger syrup and garnished with crystallized ginger, is something special. There's also a Champagne mojito and a lychee gimlet.
As for dessert, you can take it solid or liquid. You could cap off your meal with one of the terrific dessert wines on the list, such as Cuvee Constance, the legendary sweet Vouvray from Gaston Huet.
Or you could opt for a dessert from pastry chef Frania Mendevil. Each offering is in keeping with the rest of the menu: a mix of the original with updated classics. The one that stands out for me is the duo of butterscotch. One part is a silky butterscotch pudding with great depth of flavor. The other is a buttery steamed pudding something like a classic toffee pudding crowned with a beret of caramel.
Just when you think you're finished, the mignardises arrive for the table, grown up versions of the ice cream bonbons -- one milk chocolate, one dark chocolate for each of us. The beautiful thing is that when we leave at 11, we're not the last. Stonehill Tavern invites lingering. And that, I have to say, is a rare coup for a hotel restaurant.
Location: St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach, 1 Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point, (949) 234-3318; www.michaelmina.net.
Ambience: Solid urban bistro with an upbeat soundtrack, sleek contemporary design and a smart, well-executed modern American menu. A total revamp of the resort's restaurant, Stonehill Tavern is right on the mark.
Service: Crisp and professional but not at all jaded.
Price: Appetizers, $14 to $38; main courses, $29 to $36 (salt-baked Maine lobster is market price, lately $75); desserts, $11.
Best dishes: Lobster bisque with Meyer lemon, sea scallop crudo with roseheart radish, crispy duck thigh with green apple and mint, Tasmanian ocean trout with Muscat grape and caper relish, Mediterranean sea bass with artichokes and tortellini, salt-baked Maine lobster in fennel chowder, Berkshire pig, whole-fried Jidori chicken, butterscotch pudding.
Wine list: Fascinating and wide-ranging with close to 500 selections and priced fairly. Corkage, $25; two bottles per party maximum. Great cocktails too.
Best table: A booth in the bar or a table along the windows.
Details: Open for dinner only, Wednesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. (The restaurant will be open 7 days a week for dinner from June 5 to Labor Day.) Full bar. Valet parking, complimentary.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.