By Keith Plocek
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Matt Coker
By Edwin Goei
By Dave Mau
By Gustavo Arellano
The Studio System
From the spectacular setting to the flawless service to the stellar menu, Studio at the Montage Resort has perfected the art of fine dining
30801 S. Coast Highway
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Region: Laguna Beach
Though parking is valet-only, you’ll still have to walk a good distance to get to Studio, the Montage Resort’s acclaimed restaurant. But, oh, what a walk it is. We took the elevator from the hotel lobby down to the first level, then went for a nighttime stroll through a meandering garden path that took us past immaculately clipped lawns, glowing swimming pools and a grounds crew disassembling chairs from what I imagine was one of those cliffside sunset weddings overlooking crashing waves. Even with the moon just a faint sliver, we could see the surf below us, thanks to floodlights strategically placed in the shoals. Our destination was close to the precipice: a warmly lit bungalow of modest design, lined with French windows.
As we neared it, a young woman swung open heavy doors and began what was to be a flawless night of service. Really, no restaurant in my admittedly short career of reviewing cuisine has come close to this. Not the Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis. Not Andrea at Pelican Hill. So when I say that the crew at Studio defines what exemplary restaurant hospitality should be, I mean it. There’s a genuine interest in the guest’s comfort here. Everything is done with a graceful efficiency that never feels forced.
Each staff member addressed me by name. And on the usually loaded question of flat or sparkling water, we answered, “Regular” expecting filtered tap, but got bottled Fiji free of charge, which was continually topped off so that our glasses never saw half-empty. When I asked where the restrooms were, a server didn’t just point the way; she happily walked me there. Later, I returned to my table to find the crumpled napkin I left on my chair had been replaced with a neatly folded one on the table.
Nearby, a large party with three couples at a round table was just getting its meals started. The women were served first, each by her own crew member, who placed the dish down so that it was choreographed and synchronized in time with the other two.
I was even more impressed with what they did for us. I ordered the chef’s six-course tasting menu; my date asked for a regular entrée. Other restaurants would take an all-or-nothing approach with tasting menus—either everyone at the table gets it, or no one does. Studio not only bucked this trend, but also asked if we wanted an empty plate for sharing. And when we declined, the kitchen still took it upon itself to split some of my plates. The staff wanted to make sure my date wasn’t left salivating when my courses came out—not that I wasn’t going to share.
Chef Craig Strong—who’s new to the post, leaving his previous position at the Langham in Pasadena to Top Chef-testant Michael Voltaggio—began his menu with an amuse-bouche of a postage-stamp-sized square of tuna topping soba noodles. Three thick cuts of hamachi sashimi came next, each a fleshy rush of coolness pepped up by salty bursts of green-tinged caviar and herby microgreens. Afterward, Strong delved into the rich and autumn-themed: Foie gras—a healthy portion, its outer crust seared to just shy of burnt and its middle as wobbly as half-set Jell-O—came surrounded by three tiny cubes of roasted pineapple and a swipe of onion marmalade, there to cleanse and offset.
Exactingly cooked Nantucket Bay scallops joined chewy pasta hand-rolled to skinny flutes, all blanketed in a multilayered sauce singing of truffle and brown butter. And for the main course, pheasant breast cut into beveled slices of dense pink—the best turkey you’ve never tasted. Flanking it, a comparatively ordinary confit of duck was compacted to a tight cylinder next to a splash of sauce, some salsify and crunchy forest mushrooms sautéed just slightly to wilt.
Roucoulons—a mild, rind-encrusted pasty cheese that I dipped in and slathered with the red-wine-apple compote—was the cheese course. And before the complimentary petit fours, there was a dessert plate with a swirly pastry cookie, a scoop of cinnamon ice cream and a crème brûlée that was actually baked into a whole cored apple in lieu of the usual ramekin.
It was an experience to match the extravagant cost, which blew my OC Weekly dining budget many times over. But if I haven’t mentioned the prices until now, it’s because they’re almost beside the point. You knew it was expensive before you read this far; but considering the food, the atmosphere and, most of all, the service, I bet you didn’t know it was worth every cent.
Studio at the Montage, 30801 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-6420; www.studiolagunabeach.com. Open for dinner Wed.-Sun., 6-10 p.m. Starters, $23-$29; entrées, $43-$53; chef’s tasting menu, food only, $125-$175 per person; with wine pairings, $200-$250. Full bar.
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