Though its Open Table page says Selanne Steak Tavern's dress code is casual, you'd feel severely underdressed in anything less than a collared shirt or the latest couture. Despite being called a tavern, the restaurant is not one, nor is it a sports bar. If you didn't know Anaheim Ducks legend Teemu Selanne owned it, you'd assume it's merely the latest place where the Laguna Beach elite gather to drop a hundred or so bucks on dinner. There is, in fact, no obvious Ducks memorabilia on the walls, and no jerseyed fans sit at the bar. Selanne's presence is limited to his very florid signature, which exists only on the sign outside and on the printed bar napkins. What you curious hockey fans should know is this: The restaurant is nothing less than one of the fanciest, most expensive places to eat in Laguna Beach right now. Weekend reservations need to be secured at least a week in advance.
I'd been here when the building housed French 75 during a period of turmoil that eventually led to its demise. There was desperation in the air then, as well as a cheesy lounge singer who banged away at a synthesizer in what, at the time, looked like a hobbit's house crossed with the worn, Victorian grandeur of Disney's Haunted Mansion. The place looks nothing like that now. The walls have been whitewashed, the whole space updated to this century and surprisingly bright. And for the first time in years, every room in the sprawling property—the secluded upstairs loft, a tented patio, even the bar—was at capacity.
Depending on your luck, one might get a table lined with white linen, a bare wooden tabletop or a cold metal surface upon which your elbows are in real danger of getting frostbite. There seems to be no reason other than randomness determining where you'll be seated. We were relegated to one of those metal tables directly underneath two very large TVs near the bar—this despite reserving a week before. Was it because we were dressed as though we couldn't afford the place? Probably not. But the thought did cross our minds.
Selanne Steak Tavern, 1464 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-9881; www.selannesteaktavern.com. Open for dinner, Sun.-Thurs., 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $60-$120, food only. Full bar.
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It was best I sat below the TVs anyway. A hockey game was on, and other than what the menu listed as the Lord Stanley Cut—a 32-ounce $98-per-plate hunk of cow meant for two people—it was one of only a few reminders that a hockey player owned the place. The other was the well-done but otherwise unremarkable macaroni and cheese named for Selanne—the only dish that seems to have the player's tacit endorsement. But does it say something that none of the steaks get such a distinction? Again, probably not. But I would've ordered it if it did.
Instead, I asked for the other steak in the Wagyu category that didn't cost $98: the flat-iron, a relatively inexpensive cut from a breed known for being expensive. But when it was served, I was disheartened at the sight: It was pre-sliced and bled out to a gray pallor closer to well-done, even though I asked for medium. What's more puzzling was how the two slices on the ends were still inexplicably rare. It didn't matter, though—every piece I ate had a taut chewiness that made me question whether the cow needed more massaging like its coddled Japanese cousins reportedly receive. Maybe a deep-tissue rubdown around the shoulders might have helped to work out the knots?
The short rib was better, a boulder of beef braised with wine, which, unlike the steak dishes, comes with not just the few cipollini onions and sautéed mushrooms that seem standard, but an actual starch in its white polenta mound imbued with the sharp stench of gouda. You will, however, still need to order the vegetables à la carte. The creamed spinach might be a safer bet than the asparagus, which was overcooked to shriveled limpness on our night.
But you know what turned out to be the best dish of the evening? It wasn't the chef's signature appetizer of a pair of sautéed scallops with pickled chanterelles. Nor was it the signature soup of Maine lobster "cappuccino," which sipped thickly like an ultra-buttery white bisque. And it wasn't the raw oysters whose deliciousness can't be credited to anything other than the pristine currents of Malpeque Bay. No, it was a salad—yes, a salad. And a great one at that: A beet is sliced thin, and then used like pasta to pocket creamy goat cheese, an inspired reinvention of a classic, with bits of hazelnut, spinach and a warm vinaigrette. Finally, a hat trick courtesy of executive chef Joshua Severson, in a restaurant that has very little to do with hockey or Teemu Selanne.