The Gossiping Gourmet: Sundried Tomato hitting all the high notes

In our dining experience, Sundried Tomato has had some ups and downs over the years, but now it's definitely riding on a high. We hadn't eaten there in several years but were delighted with our recent visit. Well prepared food by chef Moises Villalva, excellent service and a convivial atmosphere made for one of our better meals of late. The menu is fairly standard California-fusion cuisine but the preparation is superior.

On a warm evening in the middle of the week, the cozy patio and the attractive dining room were full. We had made a reservation. The hostess who seated us also took our order promptly as she noticed that the waitress was extremely busy. High marks go to management for this kind of customer care. Our waitress, who arrived soon after, was charming and helpful.

A basket of hot crusty rolls quickly appeared along with their signature sun-dried tomato butter. We really appreciate when restaurants serve their bread hot and crusty, because so few restaurants bother to anymore. The olive bread was particularly nice paired with the butter.

Terry had been yearning for some good tortilla soup, and it turned out to be their Tuesday special. It was a particularly excellent rendition, lush with corn and tomato flavors while not being too rich. The tortilla-thickened broth had a creamy, smooth texture punctuated with chunks of freshly cooked chicken and thin tortilla strips for a bit of crunch. The flavors linger pleasantly on the tongue with just a touch of heat.

One of their signature dishes that has been on the menu since they opened is the crispy blackened chicken egg rolls. The stuffing was mostly chicken with mixed greens for color. Although we didn't taste anything blackened, there was plenty of flavor from the honey cilantro dipping sauce. It starts out sweet and slightly spicy and finishes with a fresh burst of cilantro. It would probably make cardboard taste good.

New to us is the blueberry Asiago salad. Tart/sweet blueberries dot the greens while savory shaved Asiago add salty earthiness. Arugula provided a bit of pepperiness, pine nuts add sweetness and crunch, and Bermuda onions a touch of sharpness. The mélange was tossed in just the right amount of a nicely balanced garlic lemon vinaigrette. We particularly enjoyed the nutty Asiago, which you don't often see sliced on a salad.

The pasta we selected has become a staple of almost every pasta-serving restaurant we've dined at. Here, it's called Mediterranean seafood fettuccine pasta, and it was the best we've had in recent memory. One of the difficulties of preparing this dish is making sure each of the kinds of seafood and fish are cooked to the proper degree, which requires extra care and attention. Villalva has got it down. The mahi-mahi and salmon were tender and moist, the shrimp and scallops were juicy, and all tasted super fresh. The seafood juices combined with the white wine, butter, tomato and red bell pepper broth made a most excellent bath for the fish and pasta. We requested the fettuccine al dente and it was perfect.

Our only disappointment came at dessert. We chose the apple cobbler. The apples, although tasty, were cooked down to something close to applesauce and the crust was soggy. By the time you read this, it will probably be off the menu anyway as they are working on the new summer menu. As warmer weather approaches, be sure to book ahead for the patio where you can watch the passing parade and enjoy the plashing sound of the bubbling fountain.

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.

Sundried Tomato Café

Where: 361 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Prices:

Appetizers: $5 to $15

Sandwiches and salads: $8 to $21

Entrées: $14 to $28

Desserts: $6 to $10.50

Sundried Tomato offers Wine 'n dine me deals. Monday is a two-course dinner for $15, Tuesday is 50% off bottles of wine and Wednesday is 50% off martinis.

Wine:

Bottles: $24 to $240

½ Bottles: $12 to $28

By the glass: $7 to $18

Corkage Fee: $15

Information: sundriedtomatocafe.com, (949) 494-3312

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