The Gabacho Blues

Mozambique in Laguna Beach is great once you pass the birds

Photo by Tenaya HillsPoor parrots. They just sit there in big cages near the entrance of Mozambique, the new Laguna Beach restaurant that looks and sometimes feels like a conquistador fortress perched on the cliffs of a colonial stronghold. Guests inevitably gawk at the birds and start chattering avian nonsense.

"Don't do that," my dining companion implored me during a recent visit. "They're asleep!"

I kept tweeting. The large macaw wearily opened his eye; his companion remained still. The parrot ruffled his feathers, yawned and returned to slumber. I persisted. The parrot wouldn't sing. I was approaching the cage, hands ready to shake, when my companion grabbed my arm and dragged me inside. The sight and scent of whole chickens twirling over open flames quickly quieted my mellifluous whistles.

Mozambique operates from the location once occupied by Tortilla Flats, a Mexican restaurant better remembered for weekend bacchanals than fine dining. The building stood abandoned for years until the current ownership renovated the place with the intention of introducing Orange County to South African cuisine, an amalgamation of Portuguese, Indian and Boer food that relies on spices and fruit sauces for subtle charms.

The concept of the restaurant excited me, but the birds seemed like a cheap gimmick—we're supposed to think of nature, right, but there these beasts are, caged? And the blues band growling in the third-floor bar above, intended, I guess, to make me feel the pulse of real life made me realize instead the superficiality of things. And as my mind slipped closer to Nietzsche's Will to Power, a waitress led us into the main dining room of shiny leather booths. We could smell a tempting scent of mango over meat—big problem. My companion is a vegetarian, and Mozambique's only non-salad, meat-free item was the vegetable Napoleon. We settled on it—she with enthusiasm, I with square-jawed acceptance. The heartiness of the grilled eggplant, sweet peppers, glistening cucumbers, watery tomatoes and the occasional slice of slightly melted mozzarella piled on one another like some edible ziggurat soon shooed away my grumbles, and a puddle of bittersweet pomegranate molasses smartly complemented the smoky, verdant veggies.

Though a vegetarian, my dining partner is also human, so she settled on the sweet potato gnocchi with chicken for dinner. We expected a dessert—as Mexicans, we were both used to the caramelized splendor of a steamed sweet potato. Turned out that the potatoes—snugly wrapped with thin, tapered pasta sheets—weren't too sweet. Somewhat disappointing, honestly. But smoky and moist chicken chunks dotted the plate, the sweet peppers impressed us, and the smooth Alfredo sauce was spiked with some of Mozambique's famous peri-peri sauce, an oily condiment that starts as bland as olive oil but finishes with an infernal punch to the epiglottis. The sweet potato gnocchi was one of those rare meals that plays on every one of the senses with its look, innovation, taste—everything.

And it seemed to be so for everyone in the restaurant. The couple across the aisle from us jostled with each other for the spindly, grilled prawns that topped the basmati rice mound. I caught a waft of Durban curry, a dusky lamb dish, as a waiter passed our small booth. Pork chops, plump linguiça, New York steak—the barnyard was everywhere. I decided on the Portuguese lamb chops—four of them marinated in virgin olive oil that imbued them with a thick flavor and basted with pomegranate sauce for some sugary notes. A thin layer of fat accompanied each rib—perfect.

We finished—no dessert this time, but definitely next. Nicely soused on our fruity bottle of Lessingham Shiraz, we ambled through the rest of Mozambique. The outdoor patio was for those who wanted to sip their wine under the caress of the Laguna breezes. Near the entrance was a loud bar, which overlooked the open kitchen. At the top was the Shebeen Lounge, a bar built to resemble the honky-tonks of the Cape. Perhaps we'll visit another time and indulge in the Shebeen Lounge's distinctive menu, which features such enticing bar snacks as skewered sausages spliced with pineapples and that wonderful peri-peri sauce bathed over chicken wings. But the bluesmen still yowled, and the relaxed atmosphere of the supper room disappeared. We walked downstairs and headed for PCH. I let the birds sleep.

MOZAMBIQUE, 1740 S. PACIFIC COAST HWY., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 715-7100; WWW.MOZAMBIQUEOC.COM. DINNER AVAILABLE 5-10 P.M., BAR OPEN SUN.-THURS., 11 A.M.-10 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 11 A.M.-MIDNIGHT. DINNER FOR TWO, $32-$70, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.

 
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