Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Stonehill Tavern

A Wednesday night dinner in Dana Point compelled my trip through the netherworld of Orange County, which has been criticized on so many more important fronts that its lack of culinary ambition and quality seems like an obvious logical deduction. My primary hope was that by virtue of being located in a St. Regis, Stonehill Tavern, which is part of Michael Mina’s chain of hotel restaurants, would have more in common with its praised flagship in San Francisco than the chain’s four Las Vegas restaurants or--and this is a new one--its outpost in Atlantic City. My secondary hope was that Stonehill Tavern would be immune from the garishness of, say, Mastro’s Ocean Club in Newport, where the gods of Chaos, Lunacy and Bad Taste, pace Mr. Hitchens, clearly gained ascendancy.

Upon entering this attractive restaurant, guests encounter dramatic, almost labyrinthine rows of sleek wine storage that rise up to the ceiling and yield to the compact bar. A long and comfortable dining room dining room lies just beyond and perpendicular to the bar. There are also tables on a veranda that offer ocean views during daylight.

After an unappealing and over-conceptualized amuse bouche of chilled marble-sized heirloom tomatoes, watermelon geleé and balsamic vinegar, Stonehill Tavern brought out my favorite: warmed Alpine rolls from Bread Bar, heretofore served only at my home away from home, Hatfield’s.

Stonehill Tavern has a smart menu that is at once ambitious and offers rarefied technical dishes such as pig cooked sous vide and, befitting its resort setting, sells a hamburger and fried chicken (albeit for $28 and $30, respectively). Stonehill Tavern categorizes its appetizers by culinary phylum: lobster, duck (pardon, Liberty Farms duck), tuna, shellfish, greens, and for SEC-violating expense accounts, osetra caviar. There are three preparations of each, and diners can order one or a tasting trio.

We liked the butter-poached lobster in a bisque of nettles with ricotta ravioli. With the pink lobster perched on top of the vernally green soup, the dish was very pretty. However, there was slightly too much butter in the lobster, which concealed its flavor and the ravioli were submerged and lost in the bisque. The seared foie gras with a strawberry-rhubarb relish was flawless: the foie gras was served at room temperature, maybe even a bit cool, and was so smooth and delicious that I wonder if the unconventional temperature was by design. If it were any warmer, the foie may have melted. Another success was the duck thigh with apple and a shallot jus. I only had a single bite, and while the menu advertised the dish as crispy, this usually compelling adjective did not serve the creation justice. While the skin was moderately crispy, this quality was beside the point, because the meat was tender, moist and full-flavored, which is not easy to pull off in my experience.

I then mistakenly had a lobster salad with grapefruit and avocado which was nice and light, but after the heavier appetizers got lost in the shuffle. A traditional salad--and Stonehill Tavern’s caesar and watercress salads both looked good--would have been a smarter interlude. The caesar consisted of hearts of romaine, which are smaller and more inviting than the standard romaine lettuce one finds in the majority of caesar salads.

The entrées were excellent. I enjoyed the dover sole, which the menu described too fancifully as being in a phyllo-crust and with crab and Dijon-butter. In actuality, the dish was simple: namely, fresh fish, expertly cooked with a little butter. From what I understand, the sole is a Mina staple and justly so. I sampled the roasted lamb, which was accompanied by braised artichokes, and it was equally delicious and simple.

The beef filet, the first steak I’ve sampled since celebrating Marisa’s birthday at Chez L’Ami Louis, served medium rare or medium proved decisively that “saignant” or underdone is the only way to eat it. I have long eschewed ordering steak, and now I know why. For restaurants not to cook steak rare (while getting away with serving raw fish) is offensive, and insofar as restaurants have adopted this policy out of a fear of liability, our system of torts has run amok and our health codes have become too stringent.

Stonehill Tavern unexpectedly had an excellent personality and was by no means a mere Orange County outpost of a successful San Francisco restaurant. It was not just an overpriced, vacuously formal restaurant at the St. Regis. Stonehill Tavern was very busy and I observed only one septuagenarian with an ingénue. The restaurant showed off its insouciance by playing, however softly, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on its sound system. Our waiter respected the niceties of the business dinner, but was pleased to interject his opinions in an appropriate and personable fashion. He was neither aloof nor ubiquitous.

Living in a geeky post-Sideways world, we tried our hand at pinot noir tasting. We stared with the 2005 Sea Smoke Ten from Santa Barbara, followed with the 2005 Beaux Frères "Beaux Freres Vineyard," a favorite from the Willamette Valley, and concluded with an anonymous Nuit St. Georges selected by the sommelier. I liked the Sea Smoke the most, though the Burgundy didn’t get a fair shake because of my excessive tippling which by the end nullified any sensory discernment. Since writing about wine seems to be a futile exercise for those not capable of authoring The Last of the Savages, I will only say that the Sea Smoke was like Miles Davis in that it had a sense of style and was tight. The Beaux Freres was the rock-‘n’-roller, and the Nuits St. Georges was much subtler, the Bill Evans of the group.

Stonehill Tavern
1 Monarch Beach Resort
Dana Point
(949) 234-3318

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