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These are the Riches of the Rich

Hush your poor gut at Laguna Beachs buzz spot

Photo by Tenaya HillsThe rich are different from you and me—for instance, they don't drink lemonade.

I was reminded of this class truism one recent balmy evening at Hush, the fabulous Laguna Beach restaurant that's receiving more buzz than a honey-covered nude. The striking male waiter had just swung open Hush's encyclopedic wine list, a Maya Lin memorial listing more than 900 wines, each page emblazoned with booze accolades from such noted souses as St. Thomas More, Napoleon and even Ecclesiastes 9:7 ("Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart"). But alcohol rarely knows my mouth, so I ignored those encouragements to sip and instead requested lemonade.

The maitre d's concave smile quickly collapsed into a straight line. His brow furrowed, his jaws clenched as if a brute leered at his sister. "I'm sorry, sir, but we don't serve lemonade," he spat in a hushed, shocked tone. "And even if we did, I don't think it would be fresh-squeezed."

"Do you have anything that's not wine, then?" I responded. "Maybe a Coke or some iced tea?"

Pain pricked his face again, and after an uncomfortable while, he informed, "We do have a full bar, sir. Might I interest you in a gin-and-tonic?"

And that's how I leapt off the poor wagon and sipped on a beautiful $35 port.

You'll find yourself emulating the well-off, too, upon ascending a staircase that leads into Hush's second-story environs. It's a wonderful eyesore, an anomaly among the run-down boutiques and faceless office buildings cluttering the southern portion of Pacific Coast Highway. The eatery's exterior—frosted-glass-window walls ring the outside patio, royal-blue walls highlight the greenery planted toward the back—suggests a Miracle Mile art gallery rather than comfy bistro. Inside, though, it's all lounge: classy teak tables coupled with soft leather booths or furnished with regal metal chairs. A long bar is the current must-flirt for Laguna Beach's young and old singles. And muted lighting rewards everyone with a hazy, attractive glow that also distracts from the very-scuffed floor below.

Elegance also is prominent in Hush's menu, a New American take on standards such as rack of lamb, salmon and pork tenderloin that reminds me why people would ever plunk down $50 for a dinner. On a previous outing funded by a six-figure-salary friend, I indulged on the grilled Alaskan halibut surrounded by fennel and summer corn that gave the platter an aesthetic better suited to a LACMA exhibit. The fish's usual mild flavor rocketed toward the ethereal, a vibrant, irresistible delight thanks to a tangy lemon beurre blanc that the chef countered nicely with a mango salsa so fresh you could almost make out the machete chops.

But on my day of sommelier-insulting, I desired to remain decidedly hoi polloi. I first slurped up some vichyssoise, the soup's chilled potato-leek charm tempered with drops of warm celery oil and livened with a wonderful sourdough roll I kept dunking into the porcelain bowl. Following was a roasted young chicken that surprised me with its rustic heft. The dish was like a Norms lunch special prepared in Pacific Palisades: a lightly roasted baby chicken complete with two drumsticks, wings and beautiful breasts, all glazed with a pepper-laden chicken jus. I snacked on the hen as if eating at El Pollo Loco, almost ignoring the yield-sign-yellow squash slabs that buttressed the bird. The chicken sat above tiny cylinders of creamy, lightly spiced andouille sausage studded within a mound of obsidian-black rice grains that unfortunately tasted like obsidian.

Dessert capped the evening at Hush, a slice of chocolate macadamia nut cake that possessed the perfect symbiosis of fluff and goo. But as much as I gorged to my content, I felt wrong. People at the other tables spoke of stocks, vacations and The Devil Wears Prada.The staff, while eminently friendly, nevertheless was segregated as if it were pre-Brown Topeka, Kansas: taking reservations at the front was a blond hostess, while dotting down orders were young white males who probably escaped from a J. Crew catalog. And the people who actually carried out the grub were broad-shouldered Latinos, their bronze skins nearly disappearing within sharp black uniforms.

I felt obligated to say something, sneak my hermanos a word of Spanish to encourage them, put my elbows on the table and revolt against pretentious dining. But when you just gnawed on chicken from heaven, with port wine slowly soaking through your soul, racial and class warfare tends to dissipate like the sun into the Pacific. And that's how I ended up ordering caviar.

Hush, 858 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-3616; www.hushrestaurant.com. Open daily, 5:30-11 p.m. Full bar. Dinner for two, $60-$90, food only. All major credit cards accepted.
 
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