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The Gossiping Gourmet: Heavenly dining at Nirvana Grill

Reaching ever closer to a state of bliss, Nirvana Grille keeps refining and expanding its menu in pursuit of perfection. Executive Chef Lindsay Rosales watches over her two restaurants, one here in Laguna and the other in Mission Viejo, with a careful eye. Her partner and husband, Luis, creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere as soon as you walk in the door. In fact the entire wait staff is friendly and accommodating, making for a very pleasant dining experience. Exemplifying that geniality was our waitress, Danielle, who happens to be a family member, namely Lindsay’s sister.

The food is contemporary American cuisine with an emphasis on organic ingredients. They also feature an ample selection of vegetarian dishes.

Good bread (hot and crusty) always puts us in a happy mood, and Nirvana’s rolls fit the bill. Our mood was elevated a bit more when we discovered that on Tuesday nights, there is a 20% discount for locals. They also have a nightly happy hour with 50% off the dinner menu served in the communal and bar areas. Orders must be in the kitchen by 5:59 p.m. On Thursday, they feature two pre-fixe dinners, with three courses for $30 or $40.

We began with the seafood trio appetizer: a crab cake with corn salad, two scallops atop a butternut squash risotto cake and a large shrimp on warm lentils. Their crab cakes are slightly spicy and very well seasoned with a creamy interior and a super crisp, thin crust. The sprinkling of fresh corn kernels provided a nice textural contrast. The shrimp was sweet and tender, while the lentils were extremely flavorful and very rich. We could not have eaten more of them, but we savored every bite. Least interesting were the scallops.

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A vegetarian trio includes a portabello mushroom stuffed with goat cheese, a creamy gratin of parsnip turnip, Yukon gold potatoes and leeks and a butternut squash risotto cake.

There’s also a carnivorous trio with lamb, filet and chicken.

The grilled romaine salad had just a hint of smokiness. Caramelized onions, chopped tomatoes, creamy goat cheese and a few pine nuts drizzled with olive oil topped the leaves. A very nice balsamic vinaigrette was served on the side. We felt the olive oil drizzle made the salad too greasy and prevented the tasty dressing from coating the ingredients.

The totally addictive butternut squash risotto was the highlight of our meal. It was as good as any risotto we have tasted in Italy or anywhere else for that matter. The intense flavor of the butternut squash resonated in every bite. It was as if Lindsay Rosales had plucked the squash off the vine at its peak of perfection minutes before it was cooked. It was a truly memorable dish.

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Another outstanding entrée is the rack of lamb. These Australian frenched chops are encrusted with Dijon mustard and pistachio nuts and were perfectly cooked "” they were truly medium rare as requested "¦ unusual enough by itself. The meat was exceptionally delicious and the crust and the light demi-glace added just enough texture and extra flavor.

A great cioppino is all about the broth and what makes a great broth is all about the ingredients that go into it. Good tomatoes and the juices from a variety of seafood and fish create a multi-layered soul satisfying pleasure (actually, the invention of this dish is credited to Italian immigrants in San Francisco). Nirvana’s passes the test. The soup is filled with shrimp, tender mussels and tiny sweet clams as well as chunks of several different kinds of fish. An abundance of chopped fresh tomatoes and basil round out the flavors. It is served with a hunk of toasted bread for soaking up the last drops.

As one might expect from a restaurant that has a number of vegetarian entrées, there are a nice selection of vegetable sides. We tasted four of them. Perfectly sautéed spinach was lightly flavored with garlic. Shallot butter graced crunchy broccolini and lemon infused olive oil cloaked the juicy stalks of thick asparagus. Only the portabello mushroom was ordinary.

When we complained to Danielle that we were too full for dessert, she told us her interesting theory on the subject. “Don’t you know that there is a separate part of the stomach reserved for dessert so there’s always room for it?" With that information on board, we proceeded to order one of their signature pies and for something lighter, a Zinfandel poached pear. The pear was just mediocre. It didn’t have much fruit flavor. The cinnamon ice cream it came with was the best part of the dessert.

We were looking forward to Lindsay Rosales’ apple pie as Terry had had it a few weeks before and it was as good as ever with a crispy crust and toothsome apples. On this occasion, the opposite was true, the crust was soggy and the apples were mushy. However, the accompanying goat cheese ice cream was just a marvel.

Danielle told us the story of its creation. When pregnant Lindsay Rosales went to put some home-made vanilla ice cream into the freezer, some frozen goat cheese fell into the ice cream. At first Lindsay Rosales was sure she would have to throw away the whole batch but then she tasted it. The little nibs of cheese, combining savory with sweet, gave the ice cream a whole new dimension. Thus, great dishes are born.

It’s nice to see a restaurant get better and better. If you haven’t stopped by in a while, drop in soon for a really tasty meal.


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

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