The venerable Claes restaurant in the Hotel Laguna has changed its name to Claes Ovation.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version incorrectly said Paul Bauer was at the helm of Claes Ovation. He left the restaurant in November. He now works at Red, a restaurant at the Pacific Palms Resort in the City of Industry.
What hasn't changed is the fabulous location above the beach. An expanse of windows looks out to the crashing waves and panoramic sunsets. The warm, contemporary dining room is done in soft peachy tones with pale wood accents, punctuated with black tables.
We've dined here several times over the years, and the food has been consistently good and sometimes excellent, though there have been different chefs and a variety of menus.
On this particular occasion, however, it seemed that there was some kind of problem in the kitchen. Our waitress, though new, was sweet and charming and made the best of it.
From the small plate menu, we debated about ordering the lobster spring roll with vanilla crème fraîche, tobiko (flying fish roe) and citrus powder but chose instead the ravioli and the scallops.
After we had waited for 20 minutes, these first two dishes came out less than lukewarm. We were puzzled, as the restaurant was not busy.
We took a bite of the herbed ravioli and it was delicious but in order to enjoy it, we sent it back to be warmed. A completely new serving replaced it. The plate was hot but the ravioli was only a little warmer than before; hungry, we dived in anyway.
The large ravioli oozed a tasty cheesy filling underscored with subtle herbs and enhanced by a delightful, chunky tomato coulis. Scattered around the plate were buttery, toothsome chanterelle mushrooms.
While we waited for the ravioli, we tried an unusual preparation of scallops. It was kind of a riff on chocolate and vanilla. The scallops were dusted with coco powder and were accompanied by a puree of vanilla-cardamom yucca root. A swath of smoked balsamic reduction provided the sauce.
Once again, the dish wasn't hot enough. We ate one of the two scallops but decided it was too unpleasant to finish, so again we asked our waitress to return it to the kitchen.
What she brought back was the leftover scallop on the same used plate, and as before, the plate was hot but the food was hardly warmer. We found the combination of the coco powder and the bitter balsamic reduction, which incidentally made the color of the scallops black, to be most infelicitous, burying the flavor of the delicate and juicy scallops.
We had to wait for an equally long time for our entrées, as did the people at the table next to us. Soy sake butterfish was a moist, fatty and tender filet that didn't have enough flavors on its own and the soy sake marinade was too light to impart any significant improvement. There wasn't any sauce but the accompanying juicy forest mushrooms were delicious, as was the slightly sweet, creamy, parsnip puree.
We normally order duck breast rare, longing to recapture our memories of this bird in France, but American duck is not the same. It is tougher, especially when it's rare, but we request it that way because it has more flavor.
However, here it was particularly tough, although the portion was quite generous. Again there was no sauce to speak of, just a little bit of light mustard jus.
The duck rested on a thin, rubbery potato "cake" that tasted reheated. There were also sweet, browned cipollini onions and a tiny bit of vinegary, pickled red cabbage on the plate.
Claes' menu also features some dishes that rarely appear on menus these days including roasted baby pheasant and rabbit with dumplings.
We wanted to try the mixed berry tart, but they had sold the last one earlier in the evening. We hope our experience was just on an off night at this Laguna landmark.
Where: At the Hotel Laguna, 425 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
When: 5 p.m. to close Wednesday through Sunday
Corkage Fee: $15
Information: (949) 494-1151; claesrestaurant.com