Any restaurant perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, serving margaritas and nachos, is likely to be a gold mine no matter what the food is like; but to have a spectacular location and to offer excellent food as well is a rarity. We had not dined at Las Brisas for several years, having no out-of-town guests to impress, but our previous experience had been a good one, and we wanted to see if the quality of food and service was still in place. To our delight, we found everything to be better than ever.
Even on a busy night, the service was very attentive, and our waitress, Malena, was gracious and professional. If you have never dined here, we issue this warning: "Beware, the corn muffins!" These warm, spicy little gems come to the table before anything else, and it's very easy to overdo.
You can get your nachos at the terrace bar along with other casual food, but the dining room serves authentic Mexican coastal cuisine with a creative, contemporary flair. For example, the gazpacho, featuring a surprising dollop of tomato sorbet in the center, was one of the best we had ever tasted. This is not the chunky, cold veggie soup you might expect, although the delightfully fresh tasting tomato puree, with an undertone of spiciness, had some finely chopped cucumber and red bell pepper for a bit of crunch. The most intriguing element was the icy sorbet with a touch of tomato flavor and just a hint of sweetness. The experience of tasting cold and colder together was a tongue-tingling treat.
Our camarones al ajillo appetizer was another inventive variation, this time on classic shrimp scampi. Three large, plump, perfectly grilled shrimp sat atop an interesting mélange of red beans, corn, yellow squash cubes and a little bit of garlicky sautéed spinach. A delicate lemon butter sauce provided the final liaison for this tasty potpourri.
Fish and seafood are the specialties of the house whether you order from the menu section featuring favoritas de Mexico (traditional style Mexican dishes), which includes combination plates with seafood enchiladas, soft tacos, tamales, etc., or the especialidades, which are fusion style entrées like pasta with seafood or filet mignon in tequila-truffle glaze. Mero con tomatillo is halibut with tomatillo sauce from the especialidades menu. A generous piece of thick, moist fish is accompanied by small, creamy-textured roasted potatoes and a mixture of tomatoes, squash, corn, bits of green pepper and a caper or two. The promised tomatillo sauce, one of our favorites, was in short supply, more of a decoration than a sauce. The Las Brisas tomatillo sauce is really an excellent one, and the very mild-flavored fish screamed out for it. So we listened to the fish and requested more. Although it took a while to arrive, it was worth the wait.
We ordered coconut flan for dessert, expecting the traditional eggy, dense Mexican-style flan, but instead what arrived was flan-lite with coconut shreds but no coconut flavor. When Malena asked us if we liked it, we had to say "no." She insisted on bringing us something else. We had noticed a gentleman at the next table spooning chocolate mousse out of a gorgeous florentine cookie cup, made from almonds and caramelized sugar, which he never even tasted. We pointed to the florentine cup and said, "We'll take one of those." Malena said, "You can have it with chocolate mousse and crème anglaise or vanilla ice cream and berries." We went for the raspberries and they were delicious, but the pièce de resistance was the terrific crispy cookie shell.
Even in this economy, with the combination of a fabulous location and consistently good food, Las Brisas is always busy, so it's a good idea to make reservations, and while you're at it, request a table by the window.
Note from Elle and Terry: Since January, we also have been writing reviews for the Daily Pilot and the Huntington Beach Independent, covering restaurants in Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley. We wrote one review a week, which appeared in both papers. The new plan is to include Laguna. In addition, once a month the article will be an All About Food column.
Las Brisas Where: 361 Cliff DrivePrices: Appetizers: $6.95 to $16.75Entrées: $17.95 to $35.95Desserts: $5 to $8 Wine: Bottles: $23 to $175By the glass: $7 to $10Corkage Fee: $15 Information: Call (949) 497-5434 or visit www.lasbrisaslagunabeach.com