High-Class Slumming

Low lights, small plates and big flavors at Motif

Photo by Tenaya HillsMy charming companion andI had already spent a good half-hour running around the St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach like Iowans. We stared gape-jawed at the opulent fountains, ooohed the diamond-crusted sandals encased within a boutique display, and concocted a fantastical scheme that would have the handsome Hawaiian valet fetch us a Beemer after our meal instead of the gray Toyota Camry in which we arrived.

We were here for dinner. We didn't follow the stream of suited men and Manolo-soled women toward Aqua; neither of us could afford it. Instead, we wanted to do some high-class slumming at the St. Regis' lower-priced, casual alternative, Motif.

But we couldn't find it. Took the elevator down—nothing. Jogged up spiraling staircases—nothing. Opened doors, passed bars, went outside; nothing. Defeated, we walked into a high-ceiling, low-lit room with paintings hoisted onto easels. A blonde stood sentry next to a podium.

"Do you know where Motif is?" I squeaked, afraid she would mistake me for the help—it's happened at tony Orange County restaurants before. She pulled out a pair of tall, thin menus and showed us to a table next to an indoor palm tree, and we began worrying again.

Motif advertises itself as a "small plates cuisine" establishment that "allows you to taste new dishes," says Motif's website. "Enjoy old favorites and take full advantage of your dining experience by sampling." Yeah, right, we muttered: "small plates cuisine" sounded more like a convenient excuse to treat guests to a bill-to-serving-size ratio that would rival the incrementally exorbitant fees found at the ritziest Newport Beach sushi houses.

Motif's menu advises eaters to pick three to four platters per person, but my charming companion and I agreed that five between the both of us would suffice—two of her picking, two of mine and one decided together. She's a quasi-vegetarian, so her choices were of the roughage variety—a beet-and-goat cheese salad and pumpkin gnocchi.

I was skeptical about the salad, but those doubts dissolved within a heap of juicy beets, their iron-rich tang mitigated by the salty, creamy goat cubes that left thick smears wherever you spread it. The waitress then brought out my first choice: three figs wrapped in fried prosciutto. The seedy flesh of the fruit spilled onto our plates once we cut the cheese; mixed, dairy and fruit united into an ardent flavor approaching the crackly intensity of the finest chicharrones.

Sure, our entrées were tiny, but executive chef Azmin Ghahreman wasn't bilking us at all. The gambas à la plancha meal, featuring shrimp about the circumference of an A-Okay sign, piqued our sweat glands with a dense, buttery paprika sauce that made us breathe a bit slower. The pecan and sage morsels used to brush up the pumpkin gnocchi played off each other splendidly—sweetness and bite. Ghahreman did a masterful job of putting heft into each selection's flavor, and each course's taste caressed us and enticed different sections of our palate equally. What's more, most of the entrées were around $10, and all came with unlimited pickled olives and peppers and a great roll of sourdough.

With four outstanding servings vanquished, we relished the thought of our shared choice: fried chicken with a maple-pecan waffle. The waitress set it on the table, by far the biggest entrée of the night—almost approaching Roscoe's size—and we eagerly forked through it . . . and frowned. The thing was good—the fried chicken, in particular, exhibited a non-greasy taste that's apostasy in the fried-food kingdom. But that was the problem: it was toogood. Chicken and waffles is a breakfast for the hoi polloi. Motif's was too nuanced, too showy, kind of like a burrito sorbet.

But Motif quit slumming with dessert: a decadent chocolate square for my charming companion, and a chilled fruit soup redolent of a million melons that makes my tongue flicker even as I type. This affordable luxury appealed greatly to us—about $100 for seven dishes and a bottle of delightful Shiraz—and we spoke of returning soon, perhaps making this a weekly rendezvous. But then the handsome Hawaiian returned with my Camry—and we couldn't scrounge up enough for the tip.

MOTIF, ST. REGIS RESORT MONARCH BEACH, 1 MONARCH BEACH RESORT, DANA POINT, (949) 234-3765. OPEN DAILY, 6:30 A.M-2:30 P.M. & 5:30-10 P.M. FULL BAR. DINNER FOR TWO, $36-$80, FOOD ONLY. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.

 
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