The Gossiping Gourmet: Eat and enjoy the beach at the same time

Normally, if you want to eat on the beach in Laguna, you have to pack a lunch and schlep it to the seaside. This is certainly the cheapest way to go but if you don't like sand in your sandwiches or sharing salads with the seagulls, then the Terrace at the Hotel Laguna may be the place for you. It is one of the very few spots, surprisingly, where you can actually dine at the shore and are welcome in your shorts.

There's nothing fancy here. The tables and chairs are the ubiquitous outdoor white plastic and the floor is concrete, so you can come in dripping from your dipping. There is a minimum of décor, in fact we can't think of any. Oh wait, there were two potted plants; but it's one of the most beautiful places anywhere to eat a meal because the view from their extensive deck is simply extraordinary! With only a glass wall between you, the sand, the sea and the sky, this is such a pretty spot, especially on a warm summer evening as the sun slowly sets on the horizon. The palm trees on the cliff are silhouetted against the changing colors while the sunlight glistens on the waves.

You do pay for your pleasures however, as the prices are steeper than the décor would lead you to believe "” but it is a hotel restaurant and they do tend to be more expensive; so be prepared for a $17 cheeseburger or an $18 Chinese chicken salad. Appetizers are in the same price range but then so are the entrées, which make them a better deal.

You can, in fact, make a meal out of some of the appetizers like the steak quesadilla, the stacked chicken nachos or the lamb chops. The latter are four very nicely seasoned grilled chops with a rosemary balsamic reduction and caramelized onions. They are served with French fries. Other choices include crab cakes, calamari, prawn cocktail or on the lighter side, a seasonal fruit plate with yogurt.

The menu has a number of entrée salads, including a sashimi plate. There is a classic Niçoise, turkey Cobb or Caesar with your choice of chicken, salmon or shrimp and a seafood pasta salad. We shared the Chinese chicken, which was full of nice ingredients: toasted almonds, yellow and red bells, cucumbers, edamame (not usually found in Chinese chicken salad), crispy wontons and not-so-nice canned mandarins. Strangely, the chicken had the flavor of salmon. We assume it had been cooked on the same grill where the salmon had been before it, not a serendipitous merger. The soy sesame dressing was very bland so we started cooking on the spot, requesting salt, lemons and hot sauce from Martin, our very solicitous and helpful busboy, who we hope will soon be promoted to waiter.

Our favorite dish was the Baja fish tacos. These are a far cry from the versions served in chain restaurants. Two big fat pieces of juicy cod, lightly battered and fried to a crispy finish were stuffed into soft corn tortillas. They were garnished with creamy Baja sauce, fresh chopped tomato and cabbage. Two of these made a very generous meal. We suspect these same plump pieces appear in their fish and chips as well. They came with a side of especially good black beans, zipped up with garlic.

A big bowl of cioppino was chock full of very good seafood: crab legs, tender clams, giant shrimp, chunks of salmon and black mussels. Orzo pasta had been added to the tomato broth to make a filling soup. The real disappointment was the lackluster broth. It was missing any depth or layering of flavors. We were surprised that with all the fresh seafood, the juices didn't lend any character to this one-dimensional broth.

The Atlantic (farmed) salmon that lent the fishy taste to the chicken may be eaten on its own in a roasted garlic beurre blanc. Prime steak is skewered, marinated in garlic and herbs, and served with truffle onion rings. For those of you who long for mussels when sitting by the seaside, they're served here in a shallot-basil tapenade with white wine butter sauce and bacon, then classically paired with French fries. Finally, pasta lovers can have penne with broccolini, crimni mushrooms, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and blackened chicken in Parmesan cream sauce.

Sandwiches are all served with fries. Besides cheeseburgers, they have open-faced ahi and a turkey, avocado and bacon wrap.

There is hope for vegetarians in the guise of a vegetable club with portobellos, tomatoes, brie, red onion and a balsamic reduction, served on panini.

The two pizza selections include a simple Margherita pizza and the very intriguing, very interesting sounding Milano, topped with proscuitto, provolone, black figs, arugula and red grapes.

A nice feature is the separate children's menu with some kid-friendly offerings like grilled cheese sandwiches, chicken bites and pepperoni pizza.

Of the four desserts, we sampled two. That was because we sent one back. Although we are chocolate lovers, we did not love the chocolate lovers cake, which we found to be impossibly sweet.

Our waiter graciously whisked it away as he had recommended it and brought us an excellent carrot cake, which was not a spice cake as carrot often is but was very tender, moist and buttery. It was topped with the usual cream cheese frosting and sitting in a less usual but very delicious caramel sauce.

For the jet lagged and the hung over, there are also three breakfast selections, which are served daily until 3 p.m.

If you have out-of-town guests and want to give them a classic, casual beach experience with a dynamite view, this is the place to take them, and afterward you can take the kids to play on the beach.

If You Go

What: The Terrace at the Hotel Laguna, (949) 494-1151, www.hotellaguna.com

Where: 425 S. Coast Hwy.

When: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Prices:

Appetizers: $10 to $19

Salads and sandwiches: $12 to $21

Entrées: $18 to $22

Desserts: $9 to $11

Wine:

Bottles: $25

By the glass: $9 to $13

Corkage Fee: $15


ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at themarkos755@yahoo.com.

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