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The Gossiping Gourmet: Delights abound with new Studio chef

Drop-dead gorgeous! There’s just no other way to say it. Sitting in front of a huge picture window at sunset just after a rain, looking out at the ocean with the waves crashing "” every attempt at description becomes a cliche.

The Studio at the Montage sits atop a cliff above the ocean in a spectacular spot with views up and down the coast. This Craftsman-style cottage with its high ceilings, beautiful woodwork, enormous windows and splendid floral displays is as beautiful as any restaurant in the world, while the food is exceptional and cutting-edge.

The reason for our visit was not an anniversary or a birthday but to sample the cuisine of the new chef, Craig Strong, who replaced James Boyce in June. Strong came to Laguna from the Langham in Pasadena, where from among his many culinary kudos, he received a star from Michelin and three stars from the Los Angeles Times.

Although there are no bad seats here, we had the perfect table right next to the window, facing Catalina, which instantly induced a mood of voluptuous contentment. A series of delicious amuse bouches reinforced this feeling of well-being and being well-fed.

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A little mound of exquisitely fresh, Spanish mackerel tartare was positioned next to some finely cut rounds of Persian cucumbers. The tartare was delicate and creamy, sharpened with bright notes of lemon and zest. The crunchiness and saltiness of the cucumber provided a perfect foil for the fish.

These days, every high-end restaurant is serving mini cornets stuffed with tuna, but Strong has done them all one better "” and then some. His brilliantly inventive mini-cone was made from oven-dried pineapple! The result was a sweet fruity crunchiness with overtones of caramel. Inside, for contrast was a dollop of very clean-tasting crab salad. The combination was superb and unique.

The third little appetite awakener was a bit of a disappointment: a blini with creme fraiche, chive and a bit of caviar. There was the merest hint of flavor from the caviar, and the blini was cold and soggy.

All this, and we hadn’t even begun our meal. We’ve made our position clear on foie gras in previous columns: We simply cannot pass it up.

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Arriving on what seems to be the de rigeur long narrow rectangular plate were three different little gems. The seared foie gras, rich and custardy on the inside and crispy on the outside, was perfectly cooked. Each bite was pure ambrosia. It rested on a little bed of onion marmalade providing just the right touch of sweetness. On the left flank was a caramelized cipollini onion, and on the right flank was candied pecan, raisin and foie gras mousse rolled into a ball sitting on two slivers of nectarine; it was like nothing we’d ever encountered before, sort of a foie gras dessert, mostly sweet with a hint of savory. The plate itself was decoratively swirled with tart nectarine puree. Shellacking the foie gras with this sauce added yet another dimension of flavor.

Using a foam instead of a sauce is often decorative or just gimmicky, but Strong has created a spicy Thai carrot-infused foam that was revelatory, a gossamer cloak atop his Maine lobster tail starter. Slices of sweet lobster mingled with very thin fideo noodles cooked in lobster stock, bits of broccoli and a sprinkling of scallions composed a sonata of beautiful flavors "” another triumph from his repertoire.

We both have memories of very rare and succulent duck breast in France and occasionally here in the U.S. We keep on ordering it, hoping against hope for that rare treat. I guess we’ll have to keep searching.

Once again the presentation was a long thin plate with three components: the sauteed duck breast, basil fingerling potato puree and a rillette of duck confit with a bit of foie gras. Because we shared this entree and it was divided and presented on two plates, the duck seemed like an appetizer-sized portion.

It was served rare, as requested, but the blueberry compote sauce, which might have been a nice complement, was bland. October is a bit late in the season for good blueberries. The basil potato puree was excellent, very smooth, accented by a lovely basil flavor with just the right amount of cream and butter. The rillettes were shaped into finger-length oblongs with a crispy exterior and a dense interior. They tasted dry. Confit is salty and rillettes are fatty, but these elements didn’t emerge. Our expectations were high, based on what had come before, and this dish was not of the same caliber.

Everything was back on track with the cheese and dessert courses. Genvieve, the cheese monger, paired a California goat’s milk cheese with a hazelnut compote, a mild cow’s milk French blue with a caramelized fig and, our favorite, a semi-soft herb- encrusted sheep’s milk with an oozing honeycomb. All were accompanied by homemade wheat thins and seeded glazed paper-thin lavash.

The coup de grace was a toasted meringue, soft and pillowy on the inside and not overly sweet or chewy. The meringue was topped with passion fruit creme and sliced banana. Next to it was one perfect little banana fritter and beside that a mound of very tart passion fruit-banana sorbet. The whole concoction was a lovely blend of sour and sweet, creamy and fruity, smooth and crunchy.

In the style of classic French cuisine came a final plate of tiny little sweets: a Grand Marnier marshmallow, a chocolate truffle, a coconut macaroon and a fruit jelly. This is an amusing convention because no one could possibly be hungry at this point in a meal. And yet there was more, in case we got hungry on the way home "” a little bag of cocoa-sugared pistachio nuts.

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The chef offers a six- course tasting menu. Unlike many restaurants of this caliber, you may also order any item from it a la carte.

This is an altogether delightful dining experience, but you pay for your pleasures.

If You Go

What: The Studio at the Montage Resort (949) 715-6420 www.montagelagunabeach.com

Where: 30801 Coast Highway

When: 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday

Prices:

Appetizers: $23 to $65

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Entrées: $43 to $53

Desserts: $15 Tasting Menu: $125

Wine:

Bottles: $25 to $7,943

By the glass: $12 to $50

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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