For the ideal mix of comfort and innovation, few can match the creations of David Wilhelm, the man behind such Orange County buzz bistros as Chimayo by the Beach, Chat Noir, Rouge and French 75. Each of his eateries is a combination of luxury and familiarity, of dishes easily found throughout the county but made with a flair and ingredients that can only originate from the fevered palate of genius.
But of the members in Wilhelm's Culinary Adventures empire, none impresses me as much as one of his oldest: Savannah Steak and Chop House in Laguna Niguel. This is the type of place where you could imagine regal old men enjoying a quiet game of pinochle alongside foodies and men conducting business over meat and martinis.
It is also a place for l'amour, so I recently visited with my amie du jour Emily. A hostess led us to a magnificent patio, with a fireplace large enough to serve as a funeral pyre and a view of both the ocean and the mountains; it's as precious an Orange County viewpoint as the sagebrush hills of Crystal Cove. A mountainous silhouette lined the dark plum hue of the dwindling daylight. Infinitesimal house lights glimmered from the tiny residential landscape below.
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Nate, our British waiter who punctuated each sentence with "Excellent," "Splendid" or "Fantastic," took our drink orders. He returned with our bread—the fluffiest I have ever had, with a crust that slipped off as if made of butter—and appetizers. I asked for the grilled romaine salad, a mix of a creamy lemony zest, hints of onion, "tomahtoes" (as Nate called them), all colluding with a slightly brackish seasoning; this grilled romaine was a magical arabesque. Emily's glistening baked potato, meanwhile, arrived with a full plate of hollandaise-drenched asparagus. We eyed the starters other tables enjoyed—a crisp, chilled, slightly peppered iceberg salad; billowy Maryland blue crab cakes garnished with corn relish; grilled artichokes with leaves as soft as the bread and just as easily torn—and vowed to try them next time.
The appetizers were enticing enough, but Savannah's entrées are not simply meals, according to the restaurant's website, but a "symphony of pleasures." I debated ordering the grilled sea bass, filet mignon stroganoff with mushrooms and mustard fettuccine, or the tasty double-cut pork chops, but finally decided on a New York strip. The 14-ounce strip, cooked rare, was festooned with airy fried onion curls. The plate was ascetic and simple, but absolutely massive. Imagine a thin slice of shiny, crimson meat, silky like a satin pillow, warm juices dripping down your awaiting throat, each nibble more enticing than the next. One forkful of the yellowish scalloped potatoes speckled with jalapeño seasoning added the flair the spartan steak lacked. A sip of Savannah's house merlot, a light and well-balanced Red Diamond from Washington, and life rocked.
For dessert, I ordered a lemon sorbet that burst with tart zeal. None too sweet, the refreshing delight came in a glinting almond bowl that made for a delicious spoon when broken into sticky shards. Puffing on my postprandial Romeo & Julietta cigar, I glanced around the modestly sized restaurant to find a cross section of mostly young thirtysomethings with the same smile Emily and I shared—born of satisfaction at robust flavor and a relaxed ambiance, a culinary adventure that nevertheless was as comforting as a baby blanket.
SAVANNAH STEAK AND CHOP HOUSE, 32441 GOLDEN LANTERN, LAGUNA NIGUEL, (949) 493-7107; WWW.CULINARYADVENTURES.COM. OPEN SUN.-THURS., 5-10 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 5-11 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $30-$70, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.