Pepper Tree Lane is one of the most charming spots in Laguna, with its old brick walkway, overhanging plants and wrought iron gates.
It’s named for the giant, old pepper tree that dominates this mini-courtyard and shades the atrium upstairs at Partner’s Bistro.
The restaurant also reflects this pleasant ambience with its brick interior, dark wood bar area and brass chandeliers.
It is known to locals as “Rick’s Place” because the chef/owner, Rick Sadleir, has been there for 29 years, shopping, cooking and schmoozing with his customers and friends.
We debated between sitting upstairs in the glass-enclosed terrace or downstairs at a table by the open window.
The terrace was appealing, shaded by that lovely tree, but we couldn’t resist the cool breeze wafting through the window on this warm evening. Note: Our very pleasant waitress, Hannah, said we were seated at table 20, and it could be requested when making a reservation.
Before perusing the menu, be sure to check out the two prix fixe dinners listed on the blackboards outside: salad, entrée and dessert for just $21-$23.
Tasty garlic herb butter arrived immediately with some not very tasty soft rolls but we didn’t mind because we were distracted by the mellow jazz of the Brad Malinowski trio who play there on Wednesday nights. Their music was just right as a background for dining.
Rick boasts that he makes his own pasta and tomato sauce from scratch and smokes his own salmon.
Anxious to try his handiwork, we ordered the wild mushroom gorgonzola ravioli in tomato sauce. The pasta itself had excellent flavor and texture and was cooked al dente but the filling spent too much time in the Cuisinart.
The chopped mushroom and gorgonzola garnish provided the missing texture and the tomato sauce was absolutely wonderful! It was layered with flavors and had a nice balance between sweet and acid, plus there was lots of lovely garlic.
One of Rick’s newer recipes is the lobster and crab spring rolls, served with a chipotle blackberry dipping sauce. Most notable was the thin and crispy exterior that had absolutely no trace of grease. We marveled at how this might be accomplished.
Once again the filling was chopped too finely to distinguish the ingredients and the southwestern seasoning suffocated the subtle seafood. The sauce was thin and too sweet.
One of the more popular appetizers is the fresh salmon that Rick smokes himself. It’s served with olive crostini, dried tomato crème fraiche and basil.
Rick is very fussy about his meat so the Angus tenderloin carpaccio, which is thinly sliced raw beef, sounds like a good choice, served with tomato horseradish relish and a mascarpone toast.
The ahi tartare comes with wasabi aioli, marinated Japanese cucumbers and country toast points.
Salads include the usual suspects: Caesar, spinach, tomato mozzarella and baby greens but Alaine’s shrimp and cilantro salad sounds intriguing.
Seasoned pan roasted shrimp with cherry and pear tomatoes, red onion and blue cheese is tossed in a lime dressing.
The Partner’s salad, on the menu for more than 25 years, comes with a bit of everything: lettuce, avocado, roma tomatoes, Swiss cheese, blue cheese, bacon and creamy Caesar dressing.
The extensive list of entrées features Ricks premium cuts of beef, which are his pride and joy.
Most notable is the Pittsburgh style filet, which is spiced, rubbed and charred, accompanied by his gorgonzola macaroni and cheese.
Another old standby is beef bourguignonne, surprisingly made with tender tips of filet mignon, then simmered with mushrooms, tomatoes and potatoes in red wine and demi-glace. Unusual too is that it’s topped with a flaky puff pastry, Rick’s version of potpie.
Rib eye and New York steak round out the beef selection. There is also a rack of lamb with a hazelnut, honey crust and a prickly pear glazed pork chop.
There are four pasta dishes. One is a vegetarian lasagna with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and three cheeses.
Another is house-made torn pasta with shrimp, mushrooms, artichoke hearts and capers in a light cream sauce.
Seafood dishes include scallops, tuna, salmon, and halibut.
Wanting to taste as many of these as we could, we ordered the spicy cioppino, chock full of shrimp, crab claws, calamari, clams, mussels, halibut, salmon and garnished with one jumbo prawn.
Rick’s skills seem to shine when he comes near a tomato. The broth was excellent: subtly spicy, with potent gusts of garlic, vibrant with tomato and rich with the briny flavors of the seafood.
Unfortunately, the clams had an unpleasantly strong flavor and the rest of the seafood tasted indifferently fresh. Only the halibut was worthy of the fabulous broth.
Happily, the cioppino came with some nice garlic toasts, so that we could soak up every last bit of that luscious liquid.
The apple strudel that accompanied the prix fixe dinner at a neighboring table looked so tempting that, although it wasn’t on the menu, we asked our waitress if we could get it for dessert and were told that there was no problem.
This meant passing up the special chocolate, espresso soufflé for two with vanilla ice cream in the middle, drizzled with chocolate sauce, as well as the crème brulée with fresh berries or the apple pear bread pudding. However, we were happy with our choice.
The buttery pastry surrounded a generous amount of cinnamon-scented apples accompanied by a perfect little dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkling of fresh berries.
The large comfortable bar area with its long list of appetizers make this a pleasant venue for listening to jazz on Sunday through Thursday.
Almost 30 years in this charming location qualifies Rick’s Partner’s Bistro as a veritable institution in Laguna Beach.
ELLE HARROW AND TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at email@example.com.