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THE GOSSIPING GOURMET:Top picks from 2006

‘Tis the season for top 10 lists. We are joining the ranks of film critics, music pundits, sports writers, newscasters, stand-up comics, Letterman wannabes and yes, restaurant critics, who rank absolutely everything that has happened in the past year.

Our traveling tongues have journeyed the length and breadth of our bustling beach town ferreting out our favorites.

Here they are — in no particular order, in random categories and with no pretensions to being definitive — just what we remember as being special. We would love to hear from you about your own top 10 since we might be able to squeeze another column out of them.

1. Hands down, the most romantic place for dinner, once you get past the long, dark, dank hallway leading to it, is Splashes in the Surf and Sand Hotel.

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On a warm summer night , at a table next to the open French doors, just above the beach, overlooking the crashing waves, you can watch the sun setting into the ocean and the moon rising to create luminescent white caps. In the background, a fire crackles in the fireplace and candlelight flickers on the tabletops. Thoughts may soon drift from the dinner before you to something more romantic.

2. There is no one in town (or perhaps out of town) that can match the warmth and generosity of the beautiful Eva, the hostess with the mostessat Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen. There, she dispenses hugs and Pink Punanis, her signature drink, to turn your evening into a mini-vacation in the islands.

3. Our favorite new appetizer was a Thai take on the familiar Italian-style deep fried calamari, served at K’Ya in The Casa Del Camino Hotel. These crunchy little tidbits are served with a delicious sweet and spicy sauce and a refreshing Thai-style salad of carrots, sprouts, cilantro, green onions and peanuts that can (and should) be tossed together at the table. This is a generous portion that will serve four as a starter.

4. Of all the pasta dishes we have tasted this year, the most outstanding and authentic was Romeo Cucina’s Spaghetti di Farro, a delicate organic spelt pasta, served with a lovely array of spring vegetables and lightly tossed with good olive oil and garlic. Spelt pasta has a really nice tooth to it and doesn’t fill you up like wheat. Try it. It’s addictive.

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5. Café Zoolu has long been praised for its swordfish and deservedly so. No place in town serves a better piece of fish than this three-inch baseball cut that Mike butchers himself each day and cooks to perfection each night. We prefer it with the lemon and caper butter sauce because it allows the succulent taste of the fish to shine.

6. With all the steak houses that have been popping up lately, you would expect to find the best steak around in one of these beef emporiums, but nothing matches the bone-in rib-eye at Tabu Grill. Well-marbled, full of beefy flavor and sweet at the bone, this hunk of flesh is a carnivore’s slice of heaven.

7. For this particular entry, size does matter. In fact, it’s the only thing that matters. We must make note of Mastro’s onion rings. This serving may be the largest portion in the known universe. It would feed the entire defensive line of the Laguna Beach High School football team... and they taste pretty good too.

8. If sweets are your thing, skip dessert and head over to The Laguna Gourmet Food Gallery for their dark chocolate-covered caramels with grey sea salt. Incredibly smooth, fine quality chocolate covers these deeply flavored, creamy caramels. Then, they are topped with flakes of fleur de sel. These confections create a marriage of flavors in your mouth from which you

will never want to be divorced.

9. The best deal for a meal of real quality is definitely Laguna Thai By The Sea. The chef has a deft hand, cooking everything to perfection. They use only the freshest ingredients and a wide array of vegetables.

The sauces are excellent and the portions are generous. All the entrées are $9.95. Our favorite dishes include their green curry and their entrée-sized salads tossed with lime dressing. Chicken is our current favorite but the steak and seafood are also yummy.

10. For a total dining experience that is unique to Laguna Beach, there is the Beachcomber. This is not just about the food, which is quite good, or the view, which is spectacular, or the location, which is charming, or the bus ride down from the parking lot in a 1930’s school bus which is definitely quaint, but rather the total package.

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Stepping back in time to the Laguna Beach of that era, with its quaint cottages and laid-back atmosphere on one of California’s most beautiful beaches, this is the perfect place to bring those out-of-town guests.

We can’t wait until daylight savings time so we can take another sunset stroll along the sand, sip another pre-dinner cocktail when the martini flag goes up and just enjoy the entire adventure.

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  • SPLASHES: 1555 So. Coast Highway, (949) 376-2779
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  • EVAS: 31732 So. Coast Highway, (949) 499-6311
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  • K’YA: 1289 So. Coast Highway, (949) 376-9718
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  • ROMEO CUCINA: 249 Broadway, (949) 497-6227
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  • CAFÉ ZOOLU: 860 Glenneyre St., (949) 494-6825
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  • TABU GRILL: 2892 So. Coast Highway, (949) 494-7743
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  • MASTROS: Crystal Cove Center, 376-6990
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  • LAGUNA GOURMET FOOD GALLERY: 424 Forest Ave., (949) 376-1615
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  • LAGUNA THAI BY THE SEA: 31715 So. Coast Highway, (949) 415-0924
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  • THE BEACHCOMBER: 15 Crystal Cove, (949) 376-6900
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