K'ya Bistro in Laguna Beach is a top contender for the noisiest restaurant in Orange County, but it has some of the most reasonably priced and tastiest food around. This may be why it's always packed and therefore so noisy.
The restaurant is off the lobby of La Casa del Camino hotel. While upstairs, there is an outdoor rooftop bar serving drinks and tapas. It is one of the hippest scenes around.
Downstairs, the softly lit main dining room has a bit of a Spanish feel, with arches along one wall separating the main room from a cozy little alcove.
The menu is chock-full of interesting choices, and because everything is served small-plate style, you can try a variety of dishes, especially if you share them with others. They are called small plates, but are not that small.
We over-ordered, but it didn't matter. We were still far under budget, and that evening there were three of us, rather than the usual two.
We were careful to order only two dishes at a time to avoid having everything arrive at once. This way, we were always eating food at the proper temperature.
Our grilled flatbread had a very thin, cracker-like bottom that got soggy from the toppings. However, the combination of toppings was perfection. Excellent smoked salmon was accented with flavorful pesto and dotted with tomato relish, capers and little cubes of creamy goat cheese. If only the crust had held up, it would have been dynamite.
The menu advertises lobster crab cakes, but in small print it says "organic corn cakes with lobster butter." We were expecting a traditional crab cake with a bit of lobster, but in fact it was three very delicious, well-seasoned, moist, corn cakes, and although we couldn't see pieces of the seafood and didn't know exactly what we were eating, they tasted really good.
We think that chef Connole may have been the first to offer the Thai-style fried calamari, which now appears on menus everywhere.
We loved the dish when K'ya first opened, and it's still good. The crispy-coated calamari rings are tossed with peanuts, shredded carrots, mung bean sprouts, cilantro and green onion in a sweet and lightly spicy Thai glaze. It is definitely a great take on fried calamari, but with more texture and layers of flavor.
The so-called "petit burgers," which make you think of sliders, are sliders on steroids. They are served in tasty, slightly sweet buns that are about two-thirds the size of a regular hamburger bun and overstuffed with goodies.
We tried two varieties, one of which was the seared ahi, which had thick slices falling out of the bun, topped with a messy and delicious mixture of olive tapenade tartar sauce, tomatoes and arugula. The creamy, salty sauce was a perfect foil for the tuna.
However, our favorite was the grilled portobello burger. The rich, meaty mushroom shared the limelight with a thick slice of deeply flavored eggplant and was finished with provolone cheese, tomato and onion. What a mouthful!
A really fresh piece of tender tilapia was lightly sautéed and bathed in lemon caper butter on a bed of very nutty, short-grain brown rice risotto, then garnished with a bit of chopped tomato relish. Tilapia is usually mundane, but this was especially good.
Our only disappointment was the white bean salad, a generous portion but absolutely bland. It cried out for more seasoning.
Our dinner guest was someone who cannot pass up chocolate anything, much less warm dark chocolate cake. K'ya's was very chocolatey and not overly sweet. We liked the thin crust dusted with powdered sugar on top of the soft cake. The vanilla ice cream that accompanied it was particularly good. This was a nice version of a classic dessert, if not a memorable one.
Good value, good food, but don't plan on an intimate chat.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
What: K'ya Bistro (949) 376-9718; kyabistro.com
Where: 1287 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
4:30 to 10 p.m. on weeknights
4:30 to 10:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays
• Small plates $4 to $10
• Desserts: $4
•Glass: 3-, 6 or 9-ounce pour, $4 to $23
•Bottle: $21 to $252
•Corkage Fee: $15