It seems that at Claes, in the Hotel Laguna, there is an annual chef shift. At least there has been for the past three years. This is great for us because we have the opportunity to sample a new menu and again enjoy the pleasure of dining in one of the few restaurants in town that overlooks the riveting spectacle of sunset on the beach.
If you’ve never been to this Laguna landmark, the contemporary dining room is done in warm, soft tones of beige and brown, allowing the view to be the most exciting element in the dÃ©cor.
Paul Bauer has been at the stove for nearly a year and has made some significant changes in the menu. His new offerings are creative and let you be creative as well. Expanding on the previous concept of allowing you to choose the sauce that accompanies your steak, Bauer lets you select the sauce pairing for your fish entrÃ©e as well.
The menu is committed to regular seasonal changes and this review is based on their April/May selections. Claes has also added a three course pre-fixe dinner for the reasonable price of $36. One thing that hasn’t changed is their world-class wine list, ranging from a modest $27 Clos du Bois Chardonnay to a $6,000 ’92 Chateau D’Yquem sauterne (by advance order only).
The starter menu is totally revamped with many interesting, inventive mingling of flavors such as mussels with apples, lardons and sage or Ahi sashimi with watermelon, feta puree, basil coulis and balsamic vinegar.
As we waited for our tea-smoked duck breast, we were served some chilly bread, obviously not long out of the refrigerator. Odd! We sent it back to be toasted and it was light and tasty. Tea smoking the duck lent a depth of flavor that enhanced the seared rare bird. The skin was well seasoned and crispy, and it was quite delicious even though a bit chewy. But that is the nature of all duck breast served in restaurants these days if it is served rare (which is the way we prefer it). Adding to the flavor profile was a subtle pineapple chutney "” tiny cubes of sweet, lightly spiced fruit.
The Claes house salad features Point Reyes blue cheese, prosciutto, dried blueberries and a honey truffle vinaigrette. Another nice-sounding salad is the baby artichoke and white asparagus with baby arugula, picholine olives and golden beets in walnut vinaigrette.
The main course menu is either surf or turf, that is to say, seafood or steaks (with one lamb chop entrÃ©e). If you can’t decide between the two you can have an actual surf ‘n’ turf: prime filet mignon and butter poached lobster tail. Their hanger steak is marinated in garlic and herbs and there is a New York in three sizes. The red meats come with a choice of accompaniment: seasonal mushrooms, au gratin or twice baked potato, crispy asparagus or creamed spinach. If you opt for turf, you may choose one of three sauces: bÃ©arnaise (a classic reduction of wine and vinegar, thickened with egg yolks and butter, seasoned with tarragon), cognac peppercorn or Gorgonzola with mushrooms.
Claes, it seems, has decided to let you eat your poultry or pasta elsewhere.
We dived into the surf with pan-seared scallops. The suggested sauces are grapefruit beurre blanc or fig honey jus but, rebels that we are, we selected the roasted corn sauce, which was a classic beurre blanc with a hint of corn. The sauce was extremely light and delicate. Unfortunately, the perfectly seared scallops had been salted with a heavy hand. The accompaniments were quite nice. Tiny cubes of crunchy parsnips surrounded a Swiss chard timbale. Hidden in its depths were tasty bits of smoked ham.
Miso-glazed black cod is second only to foie gras on our gustatory blissometer. This fatty, moist, delicately flavored fish with its silky texture is simply ambrosia. The miso-glazed preparation is definitely the recipe of the moment. Bauer accentuates the Japanese theme with a choice of wasabi ginger sauce or toasted sesame cloud. The sauce that you choose arrives in a little pitcher so that you may use it as you wish, a very nice and different presentation. We chose the toasted sesame cloud, which was a buttery foam with just a whisper of sesame. It was so light it really didn’t enhance the fish but the sweet miso glaze provided all the contrast necessary. A creamy turnip puree and marinated Japanese eggplant completed the picture. The other nice aspect of this flavorful fish is that it is high in those highly desirable omega 3s.
Dulce de leche is a South American concoction usually prepared by caramelizing evaporated milk. So when we ordered the dulce de leche cake for dessert, we were surprised to be served a chocolate cake with a dense dark chocolate mousse layer. There was no sign of anything that resembled caramel. However, it was very good chocolate cake. It just had a very puzzling title. We will take it on faith that the trio of crÃ¨me brulÃ©es had three different flavors of crÃ¨me brulÃ©e and the cheese plate had cheese on it. Creativity should only go so far.
Bauer’s new menu merits a visit from Lagunans who, perhaps, have not been to Claes lately. The food is good, the view is gorgeous and there is something for everyone. Also, the prices have been somewhat reduced and the prix fixe dinner is quite reasonable.
If You Go
What: Claes in the Hotel Laguna, 425 S. Coast Hwy., (949) 494-1151, claesrestaurant.com
Appetizers: $8 to $18
EntrÃ©es: $24 to $43
Desserts: $8 to $12
Bottles: $27 to $2450
By the glass: $8 to $20
Corkage Fee: Free Tuesdays, other days $15