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RESTAURANTS : High-Concept Grill Is Pushing the Right Buttons

Picture this: A bearded beach character wearing a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt sits down at the bar of a hot new local restaurant on a packed weekend night. He begins to mutter and comport himself in a most unconventional manner. The manager appears.

The manager asks the man to leave, politely at first, then a bit more insistently. “It’s the American way,” screams the man, “it’s the American way,” and abruptly shatters the calm by smashing something against the bar’s back wall. Boom! Within seconds the man is tackled by a waiter and two cooks. Bang! Over goes a concrete table set for five--dishes, glassware, startled customers and all. There is stunned silence.

Enter our heroes, the local police, alerted before the trouble actually started by our heroine, the hostess. The boys in blue cuff the fella, who is kicking and snarling, and drag him off. The relieved crowd cheers for nearly a minute.

That is exactly what transpired last Saturday night, a scene directly out of Hollywood, and it got Laguna Beach’s smart new Sorrento Grill off to a dramatic start. You may be pleased to discover that they handle their dining room with equal efficiency.

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Sorrento Grill, one of the best new restaurants around, is virtually assured of local stardom. Eight months of highly visible downtown construction attracted a crowd of curiosity seekers from the start; now the lines are getting longer by the day. There is always a wait for tables. Perhaps our bearded friend objected to a wait of almost 1 1/2 hours.

This is a high-concept operation that manages to push all the current conceptual buttons: a stunningly designed open kitchen, casual servers in soft pastel uniforms, high ceilings and post-modern vastness, a terra cotta tile floor, uncomfortable deco chairs, a decibel level even Philip Glass would object to, a menu personifying Cal-Italian chic, the best local produce, the up-and-coming woman chef. All this--and the food is wonderful.

The chef is Roseanne Ruiz, she is from San Diego and she is hot. I knew it the moment I saw Chino ranch tomatoes on her appetizer list. Those tomatoes--a palette of oranges, yellows, greens and grudging reds (because everybody knows tomatoes are red)--are worth making the bumper-to-bumper drive over Laguna Canyon Road. They are served with mozzarella and basil, little cruets of balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Actually, they are best on their own: just close your eyes and put a slice in your mouth. When combined with Sorrento’s house bread, a crusty, Tuscan foccaccia straight from the oven, few things on earth are more irresistible.

Ruiz paints simple pictures, but her images fade slowly. Roasted peppers are mixed with fat Portuguese anchovies, and heaped on bruschetta , olive-oil brushed-grilled bread. Her Caesar salad, almost perfect to begin with, has thin slivers of the peppers and little pieces of mesquite-grilled chicken on top. Tuna carpaccio, pounded thin and artfully drizzled with a wasabi creme fraiche, is a still life in pink and white.

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Pasta dishes come in giant glass bowls; all of them are made with that good, extra virgin olive oil. There is a rich fettuccine with prawns, prosciutto and fresh basil. Linguine with plump, juicy clams is most appealing in its natural sauce. Sorrento soup--a bowlful of garlicky, red stock with mussels, clams, prawns, snapper and linguine--is a dish you rarely find outside New York’s Little Italy. It is good--but almost too rich for Southern California.

At seats by the open kitchen you get a good whiff of the meats and fish as they grill over mesquite embers. And even if you don’t get what the hostess calls “counter positions,” you are constantly aware of the grill as you dine; the scent fills the restaurant.

Halibut and salmon are exceptional, appropriately seared and slightly undercooked. Ahi and sea bass are also fine, if a little less appealing. Fish dishes come with a choice of pasta or vegetables, and as most of the vegetables here come from the Chino Ranch, the choice should be easy. One night, I had niblets of white corn in a sweet pepper butter sauce; tasting the corn, you will swear that Chino’s white corn is the best you have ever eaten. Another night, I had Chino’s amazing zucchini.

But it doesn’t end there. A tender, dry aged rib-eye steak is served with crisp, thin-cut homemade fries. Osso buco is delightful. In fact, only the “garlicky chicken with rosemary polenta” is a disappointment--it is rubbery and undercooked, and the oily rosemary polenta that comes with it doesn’t work at all.

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Desserts also reflect Ruiz’s simple-but-unrestrained approach to cooking. Creme brulee is rich. Fresh peach cobbler tastes of baking powder and nutmeg. Homemade vanilla bean ice cream with chocolate sauce is three little scoops of creamy beige in a dark brown pool.

The reaction has been equally unrestrained. “I never dreamed the food would be this good,” I heard someone say. “Great,” “fantastic,” can be heard all around the dining room. Still, there are some problems. Service is slow. It is hard to order from the wine list. The restaurant looks spacious but isn’t, and the noise level is almost unpleasant.

But all in all, there is a lot to like about this place. So much, really, that I would be surprised if anyone left mad. Well . . . almost anyone.

Sorrento Grill is reasonably priced for its high quality. Appetizers are $3.50 to $6.50. Salads are $2.75 to $9.75. Pastas are $7.50 to $15.75. Main dishes are $10.25 to $17.50.

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SORRENTO GRILL

370 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach

(714) 494-8686

Open daily. Monday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Sunday, 5-9:30

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All major credit cards.


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