Size Is Small, But Creativity Tall

I like the soles of my shoes to touch the floor when I'm eating. Call it a personal prejudice.

This week, though, there are two diminutive restaurants that want to keep your feet and mine dangling in the air. Both 242 Cafe and Merlino's on 17th--located in Laguna and Costa Mesa, respectively--substitute extra-tall stools for normal chairs. Maybe they're just overcompensating for their size.

But have I mentioned the food at these places? I should have, because it can be surprisingly good. These are two of the more innovative little restaurants in Orange County, places where you'll find eclectic menus and unexpected creativity.

242 Cafe is the smaller of the two, a matchbox-sized place packed with dry goods, baked goods and deli items. There are precisely five tables, and you can forget about getting one at lunch. (Dinner is a different story. One Tuesday evening, we had a reserved sign on our table, which looked a little silly, since the place was completely empty.)

Much of what you will eat is spread before your eyes here. The deli case is full of composed salads and a large selection of pates and cheeses. Just to their left, on a crowded counter, is a gaggle of homemade desserts. Behind them are shelves of uppity-looking groceries, including a rarefied selection of balsamic vinegar and high-test olive oil.

What comes from the kitchen might also be called rarefied. The cafe goes out of its way to present unusual, artistically dished-up combinations on its large, something-for-everyone menu. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. What do you expect from a cafe located directly across the street from the Laguna Art Museum?

Those salads, for example, look beautiful but come across a little tired. The eggplant caponata has too much vinegar and too little eggplant. Shell pasta with garbanzo beans tastes good, feels mushy. In the angel hair salad with fresh tomato, the pasta is slightly overcooked.

Only the lamb tenderloin salad--the one from the menu, not the ready-made version in the deli case--scores big. It's made with tender, tasty cuts of lamb, rolled in crushed peppercorns and served with tomato, red onion, balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.

The hot dishes are much more pleasing. You might get lucky, as we did, with a beautiful special of breaded scallops on a bed of sauteed spinach with sun-dried tomatoes. (There is a huge jar of these tomatoes on the deli case.) The pastas are good, too, for instance the mound of good egg pasta the chef mingles with long strips of prosciutto, more sun-dried tomatoes and some coddled egg.

I especially liked our stunningly decorative chicken Milanese, in which slices of boneless chicken breast were tossed in seasoned bread crumbs with lots of colorful steamed vegetables. The pizza misses badly, though: goat cheese, tomato, red chard, spinach and the ubiquitous sun-dried tomato adorning a gorgeous-looking hunk of inedible dough. We ate the topping and left the crust.

The desserts are tantalizing, because the close quarters almost force you to look at them while you eat. That makes the disappointment all the keener. The marshmallow-topped brownie is dry, the chocolate pound cake is bland and rubbery and the bread pudding is dense and gummy.

Content yourself instead with an excellent, freshly brewed iced tea or the good house cappuccino. And consider bringing a box to put your feet on.

242 Cafe is moderately priced. Appetizers are $5 to $7. Pastas are $12 to $14. Entrees are $9 to $14.

Merlino's on 17th looks a whole lot bigger than its kindred spirit in Laguna, but that's probably only because it isn't crammed to the rafters with comestibles. It's anything but pretentious, with a green Formica-topped counter and some little round wooden tables for dining.

The chef is John Merlino from the original Zeppa, and he's not pretentious either. I mean, the man keeps a copy of "Betty Crocker's Baking Classics" in full view over the stove, so you can guess where he gets some of these recipes. Besides good scones, muffins and cinnamon rolls, he does a mean bread pudding.

The raison d'etre for this cafe is the sandwich, a genre Merlino soars with. His all-world sandwich menu is full of surprises, most of them intelligently conceived. For instance, smoked turkey breast (cut in razor-thin slices), seasoned avocado, fontina cheese and an inspired touch of fresh tarragon.

A delicious sandwich of fried fresh fish comes with shredded cabbage and zucchini in a caper and red pepper tartar sauce. My personal favorite is confit of chicken (chicken preserved in its own fat) on a French roll with sun-dried tomato, Brie cheese, a moss-green basil spread and spicy Dijon mustard. Even the lowly egg sandwich climbs the dizzy heights, with cheese, onion, mustard and Bermuda onion on good grilled egg bread.

Sandwiches come with a choice of fresh fruit salad, chips and smoky homemade salsa or Merlino's own sesame-studded rose potato salad. There are lots of other things to eat here, too; good salads like teriyaki chicken with orange, served on crisp fried noodles with a sesame soy dressing; an eggy turkey and asparagus quiche; burritos with exotic ingredients; even breakfast items such as French toast and omelets. And there is Merlino's own blend of coffee and espresso to wash it all down.

Merlino's is inexpensive. Sandwiches are $4.50 to $6. Salads are $5.50 to $6.95. Breakfast items are $3.50 to $5.95.


* 401 E. 17th St., Coast Mesa.

* (714) 548-1598.

* Lunch and dinner 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, till 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and till 5 p.m. Sunday.

* Cash only.

* 242 CAFE

* 242 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach.

* (714) 494-2444.

* Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

* MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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