All About Food: New wood grill in a sentimental spot

A La Carte has finally bitten the dust. The gourmet takeout restaurant and catering company that we lovingly created in 1986 from a fortune teller's apartment and sold seven years ago, passing through two subsequent owners, is now undergoing a complete transformation in the competent and experienced hands of the Molteni family. We watched with mixed emotions and curiosity because of our special attachment to this space and wanted to talk to them about their plans. Our concerns melted away when we met the engaging and enthusiastic Moltenis.

They intend to open Maro Wood Grill at 1915 S. Coast Hwy. in Laguna Beach, and it's all about family. Mariano is the chef, while his wife, Patricia, a professional design marketer and a graduate of Parson's, has done the designing and will work in the restaurant. Mariano's sister Fiorella, who has worked in many restaurants and owned her own in Chester, England, has been recruited to manage the front of the house. Their mother, Lilliana, has moved here from Buenos Aires to help them. She is an architect and drew up the plans. In addition, Mariano and Fiorella's brother, Martin, is a world-famous chef who has his own restaurant in Buenos Aires, the family's hometown. He is helping to create the menu and acting as a consultant.

Mariano, or Maro, as he is known, has had restaurant management experience for many years in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. It was there that he met and fell in love with Patricia, who herself grew up in the fast food restaurant business in New York City, where her family owned several Blimpies shops. Maro and Patricia moved to New York and, with partners, opened a tapas bar. Maro, a man of many talents, then got into the antique business with friends and came out to California to expand it.

Two years ago, he left the world of antiques to his partners and moved to Laguna with his wife and oldest child, Ziggy, now age 6. Sokka, their youngest, is 1 year old. Moro began scouring the streets of Laguna for a location for his vision of a small, family-run restaurant. When he discovered the shuttered A La Carte, he knew he had found his new home.

Embarking on a complete remodel from floor to ceiling was a big undertaking. The Moltenis have redesigned the space to include an open kitchen with a nine-seat dining counter and wood-fired grill. The exterior patio with two tables will feature a fire pit as well as fountains in the planters.

The menu will be based on the wood-fired grill, as far as we know the only one in Laguna Beach. Wood-firing lends a wonderful smoky background and a beautiful grill-marked, crispy exterior to food. They will be serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can start your morning, for example, with wood-grilled steak and eggs, pancakes or an egg-white omelet. Lunch sandwiches will include chicken, chorizo, fish or vegetables, skirt steak or a top-loin hero. Salads will be available topped with grilled choices.

You know the Moltenis are from Argentina when you check out the dinner menu, which features five different cuts of beef. There will also be ribs, lamb, chicken, fish, shrimp and vegetables served with chimmichurri (thick, spicy herb sauce), barbecue or lemon herb sauce. All dinners come with a selection of sides.

Among the desserts will be flan, dolce-de-leche crepes and Italian fruit tarts. There is a children's menu and there are four special family-style takeout dinners: a whole chicken, barbecued ribs, vegetables or grilled fish with mango sauce. Delivery is also planned.

Their menu is meant to be healthy, nothing they serve is fried, and they will be using local, farm-fresh veggies with meats and fish from the best suppliers.

We are excited about a new restaurant, but especially this one on our old home turf, because the Moltenis are such a warm, delightful bunch. If love were a condiment, we know the food will be very well-seasoned.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

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