There's a war raging along Orange County's southern coast, and it's delicious. For the past couple of years, the Montage in Laguna Beach, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel and Dana Point's St. Regis have spent millions remodeling, reinventing and revitalizing their resorts, all in the name of keeping the best local Xanadu. The main battlefront: restaurants. Montage has left alone its stellar Studio and Loft restaurants for a couple of years, while last fall Ritz-Carlton executive chef Joel Harrington debuted Restaurant 162', a stunning lair of inventive tapas-style cuisine. The St. Regis returned the salvo in a big way in February with the opening of its newest restaurant, Stonehill Tavern.
Stonehill Tavern appears boring from its website description—"modern American cuisine in a relaxed and sophisticated environment," which is a fancy way of saying you'll spend $30 for a Kobe beef burger. But you'll buy into this concept thanks to Michael Mina, Bon Appetit's 2005 Chef of the Year. He was at the St. Regis in 2001 to open Aqua but left shortly after to create a high-dining empire; Aqua's quality suffered. Mina's return is epic, more MacArthur returning to the Philippines than Napoleon embarking on his 100 Days.
My dining partner and I shivered in excitement when we finally visited Stonehill Tavern one chilly night. Our expectations grew when we actually entered the restaurant—it's the most beautiful Orange County structure I've seen in my years as a food critic. Tall glass doors greet diners, and pretty young hostesses lead them past the exposed wine cellar, past the executive dining room, past private booths and to the main dining room, which overlooks the Versailles-like gardens of the St. Regis. You can tell Mina spent hundreds of thousands on the design, but it's not ostentatious at all.
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We were further impressed with an unannounced pre-appetizer: a quarter-sized tuna tartare disc dusted with sea salt, a sharp, beautiful snack with a maritime warmth that seeped through our palates. We followed with appetizers. Mina's signature dining flourish is to offer an entrée three ways. We eyed his rendition of tuna paired with greens, prepared as sashimi topped with a dollop of Osetra caviar, and as that same tartare except topped with a pear and chile-infused sesame oil. But a trio of savory breads had already blunted our appetite, so we chose a solitary order of lobster fritters wrapped with bacon and shiso. They shone as brightly as a carnival snack, but the fritters maintained a clean, sweet taste, and the marbled bacon snapped with quality. The accompanying side of chive-spiked sour cream added a refreshing note.
Since Stonehill Tavern specializes in comfort cuisine, the menu consisted mostly of meats and fishes. My dining partner settled on the prime rib, so soft she didn't need a knife to fork through it. We feared it would be a small portion, but it was large enough for the both of us, and its Worcestershire glaze was biting but sweet. She could've done without the accompanying potato purée, but that was my favorite part—buttery, salty like a shaker, as smooth as a shake.
We shared my black bass fillet, which sat over scallion-almond rice. And then dessert: a root beer float and a peanut butter cake. We scoffed—why would Stonehill sell desserts we could get at 7-Eleven for 1/20th of the cost? But we had underestimated Mina again: a dark-chocolate scoop floated above the dusky root beer, and the peanut butter cake enlivened us with the double wallop of dark chocolate and a peanut butter Peter Pan could never hope to produce. I won't take sides between Restaurant 162' and Stonehill Tavern—let them fight for my gut forever.
STONEHILL TAVERN, LOCATED INSIDE THE ST. REGIS RESORT, ONE MONARCH BEACH RESORT, DANA POINT, (949) 234-3318. OPEN WED.-SUN., 5:30-11 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $40-$100, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.