EDITOR'S NOTE: From time to time, the Gossiping Gourmets will be reviewing restaurants outside Laguna Beach in bordering areas close enough for residents to travel to easily. These columns will be called "The Gallivanting Gourmet."
Less than a mile from the Laguna border is Monarch Bay Plaza, home of the Crab Cove Restaurant. This attractive Euro-Asian bistro has made the most of its strip mall location. The outdoor patio is masked from the parking lot by three contemporary water walls. The sound of running water creates a tranquil ambience.
Indoors, "a river runs through it." The water theme is cleverly repeated in a glass covered faux stream running down the middle of the restaurant, complete with koi swimming beneath and banked by a floor of trompe l'oeil river rocks. The wall at the far end of the high ceilinged room makes a dramatic statement.
Small niches cover the entire wall, each containing a candle. The fluttering light from these electric tapers creates a mesmerizing effect. In front of them is a tall statue of the Buddha who stands serene, watching over the diners. The large mirrors, blond wood and a skylight complete this truly inviting space.
A new chef, Frank Marquez, formerly of Morton's Steak House, has recently come on board and the Cove has changed its concept from an Asian bistro to a seafood and steakhouse. The chef has kept many of the old favorites and added a number of new entrÃ©es, including four steaks and "surf and turf" combinations.
True to its name, the restaurant features several crab selections in every menu category. For appetizers, there are crab cakes, soft shell crabs, snow crab claws and crispy rice paper rolls with crab. The soup is fresh corn and crab.
EntrÃ©es include a whole roasted crab, garlic noodles topped with crab, as well as steamed king crab legs. Even the sides include crab-mashed potatoes. Only the dessert menu lacks a crab crÃ¨me brulÃ©e.
As we sipped our wine and tried to decide between crab, crab or crab, we munched on the complimentary shrimp chips, as good as any we've tasted: freshly fried and crunchy. Surprise, we chose crab! First, we had the crispy rice paper roll, filled with a pleasant combination of crab, shrimp, chicken, sweet peppers and shiitake mushrooms accompanied by a thin Vietnamese dipping sauce.
We followed them with the crab cakes, two generous cakes, filled with sweet shredded crab, not the usual breadcrumbs with a dab of the crustacean. They had a light crispy crust and were spread with a sweet and sour mayonnaise that nicely complemented their flavor.
Taking a break from our crab-themed dinner, we refreshed our palates with a citrusy calamari salad: tender rings accented with wonderfully sweet strips of mango accompanied by mixed greens in a delicate and delicious oil-free dressing.
We were tempted to order the whole cracked crab but our very solicitous waiter Carlos, from Brazil, suggested it might be easier for us to eat the crab with garlic noodles, where most of the work had already been done in the kitchen. Only the legs, still in their shells, required special tools. In preparation, he brought out a large platter of hot towels, bibs, nutcrackers and tiny forks. It seemed like a lot of equipment for those poor little limbs.
The buttery noodles were topped with lots of shredded crabmeat and surrounded by the legs. We have had their garlic noodles many times before and enjoyed them thoroughly, but on this occasion the garlic was overwhelming, under-cooked and bitter. We never thought we would say any dish had too much garlic but alas, this one really did. The delicacy of the crab was quite lost.
The new steak menu has the original bo luc lac, cubed filet mignon flamed with cognac, as well as a petit or regular filet mignon, a bone-in 14 ounce rib-eye and a bone-in 16 ounce New York. They can be served with either sauce au poivre or sauce Diane for an extra charge. There are four "surf and turfs" which include the bo luc lac with Alaskan king crab legs or lobster tail and the petit filet with the same seafood choices.
If crab and steaks are not your thing, all is not lost. There is a wokked chicken, colossal prawns, salmon, sea bass and rack of lamb.
Their signature dessert is flambÃ©ed Vietnamese baby bananas sautÃ©ed in dark rum with almonds, raisins and Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream. Mango sorbet paired with mascarpone (Italian cream cheese) and raspberry puree is another unusual dessert. More familiar is the molten chocolate cake and crÃ¨me brulÃ©e.
We try to taste whatever is seasonal and so we chose the berry tart. Served in a pallid, packaged puff pastry shell, the few berries topped a thin custard. It was drizzled with raspberry sauce and served with a large scoop of ice cream; perhaps we should have opted for the bananas.
This strikingly handsome restaurant makes a lovely spot for cocktails and even a light dinner composed from their large selection of appetizers.