The Gossiping Gourmet: Hot off the grill: fine food and dessert

If they gave out an Academy Award for "most congenial hospitality in a food service establishment," hands down, the Oscar would go to Maro Wood Grill.

The dramatic makeover of the former site of A La Carte in Laguna Beach has turned the little deli into a gorgeous, fashionable, hip, new boite. Walking up to the open patio, you are immediately drawn in by the flaming light of the outdoor fire pit and then greeted with a welcome normally reserved for royalty or celebrities by Fiore Molteni, Maro's sister.

The restaurant is tiny, with only 10 seats on the heated patio and seven high-backed counter seats inside. Take your choice of schmoozing with the equally charming Maro as he mans the wood grill or enjoying your meal alfresco. While Maro is at the grill, Chef Debra Sims reigns in the kitchen.

The Molteni family is originally from Buenos Aires and the menu reflects a bit of that heritage with their signature empanadas, grilled skirt steak, spit roasted chicken and Argentinean pizza.

Their "Choices Menu" is served at lunchtime and on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. And on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, there is a prix fixe menu with a four-course set dinner with two seatings, one at 6 p.m. and one at 8 p.m. Thursday is chef's choice, Friday is fish and seafood and Saturday is meat. Menus change daily and you can access them on Facebook /notes or call them to see what is available. They deliver a chicken dinner for four but require two hours notice. Other items may be available. (Maro's is a work in progress. Keep posted on Facebook.)

Seated outside next to the fire pit on a chilly night we found ourselves so comfortably warm that we removed our coats. As we were looking at the evening's menu, we overheard a gentleman on his way out say to his companion, "That was the best meal I've ever eaten." That certainly got our attention!

Our Thursday night dinner began with an amuse bouche of a single wood-roasted oyster served in the shell, bathed in champagne. A hint of smokiness from the grill and a bit of chive blending with the briny juices, was in a word, sublime!

We also loved the cauliflower soup that followed. Its lush smooth texture was achieved without any cream at all. The richly flavored puree was enlivened with leeks, fresh thyme and a drizzle of olive oil…not only delicious but healthy too. The accompanying "bread stick" was better left uneaten, as it was neither crispy nor tasty.

The evening's featured empanada was filled with Japanese organic pears, red onion, and an unctuous mixture of chèvre, aged white cheddar and Parmesan Reggiano. The crisp, thin baked shell makes a handy holder for the savory oozing cheese balanced with sweetness from the pears. On the daily "Choices Menu," three different types of empanadas are offered.

Maro's version of caprese salad uses the wood grill. The Rosso Bruno and organic orange tomatoes are briefly roasted over the fire and then bathed in aged balsamic vinegar, olive oil and crunchy sea salt. Finally, they are paired with a mound of ultra creamy burrata cheese and leaves of basil. The combination was not only tasty but also attractive with the dark brown and bright orange tomatoes, the bright white of the cheese and the fresh green basil.

The chef's choice for the entrée was chicken — an organic wood grilled "airline" chicken breast (on the bone with wing attached, hence the name?). The blood orange sauce wasn't distinctive enough to add another layer of flavor as it lacked both acidity and sweetness. Although the chicken was juicy and good on its own, a better sauce would have been welcome. The second element on the plate was a nice cabbage apple slaw accented with dried cherries.

The grill was even used to make a distinctive take on a banana split, roasting banana halves that were then plated with house-made fudge and butterscotch sauces, roasted strawberry and pineapple sauces with whipped cream in the middle. Noteworthy were the house-made sauces and the subtle smokiness of the bananas.

Lovely people and good food make Maro's a winner on the Laguna Beach dining scene.

Maro Wood Grill

Where: 1915 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach

When: Noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday

Noon to 3 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Dinner seatings: 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. (menus posted on Wednesdays). Reservations recommended


Small plates and salads: $5 to $10

Entrées: $8 to $18

Prix-Fixe: $38 to $45


Bottles: $18 to $42

By the glass: $6 to $11

Corkage Fee: $10

Information: (949) 793-4044,

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