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 RecordStonehill Tavern manager: An April 26 Food review ofStonehill 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.
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.
Manager Tim Flowers comes from Aureole in Las Vegas and is also a master of wine. Instead of sleepy surfer dudes acting like waiters, we now have servers who know what they're doing. You can sense the teamwork and enthusiasm as they move about the room in a well-rehearsed choreography. Chef Joshua Skenes comes from Chez TJ in Mountain View. The sommelier is Bernabe De Luna Lopez, who trained at Highlands Inn in Carmel and exemplifies the new breed of sommelier -- passionate, relaxed, informed.
The wine fanatic among us greedily rifles through the wine list, pointing out this and that until, insanely curious, I have to grab the list away from him. It's very different from the usual hotel list. For one thing, the wines are priced fairly. But even more unusual, you don't have to search and search for something you want to drink. In only a couple of pages, I find half a dozen wines I'd love to try, or drink again, such as Gruner Veltliners and Rieslings from Austria, Vouvrays and Chinons from the Loire Valley, wines from the up-and-coming Spanish wine regions, or Pinot Noirs from Santa Rita Hills or Oregon. And I've barely skimmed the fat document which encompasses close to 500 selections. This is serious.
And the wine service is right on the mark. Wines are served at the right temperature; no one ever pours too much in a glass; the staff doesn't pretend to know more than they do.
In a trio or solo
THE menu takes some explaining. On the appetizer side of the menu, main ingredients -- lobster, scallops, tuna, greens -- are listed on the left and three different dishes involving each on the right. For example, under sea scallop you find poached scallop with shaved wild fennel and coconut broth, crudo with roseheart radish and lime leaf oil and seared scallop with caramelized potato, Parmesan and speck (a smoked raw-cured ham from the Alto Adige region of Italy). Or, you can order a tasting of all three. It's sort of a construct-your-own-tasting-menu option. Mina is in love with the idea. At his eponymous San Francisco restaurant, almost every dish on the menu is served three ways.
For me, the dishes have more effect ordered separately. If you order the trio, you get just a bite of the superb scallop crudo, but ordered by itself, you have the chance to really savor the texture of the sliced raw scallop sandwiched with wafer-thin roseheart radish marbled pink and white. A drizzle of lime leaf oil adds dimension.
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.
At Stonehill Tavern, unusually, the main courses are just as strong as the appetizers. There's that whole fried chicken and the salt-baked lobster, of course. But also Berkshire pig, a fat chop served alongside a strip of braised pork belly and a whole caramelized lady apple. The delicious heirloom breed of pork against the lady apple and the soft yielding pork belly is utterly satisfying. Stop there, and it's heaven.
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.
Stonehill Tavern Rating: ***
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.