Photo by Jeanne RiceWhat a difference a wall makes. If your stomach has a long memory, it might recall me reviewing Laguna's Vertical Wine Bar a couple of months ago, and my being underwhelmed by the high-attitude cuisine and dollhouse-sized portions. "You dummy. You should have gone next door instead," is what several Laguna-livin' folks told me afterward.
And, indeed, right on the other side of the Vertical's east wall is the restaurant known as 230 Forest Avenue. That is also their address, so if you were writing to them, it would be: 230 Forest Avenue, 230 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, which seems like a good reason not to write to them.
It's a perfectly fine place to dine, however. While their side of the wall doesn't have the warm, weathered bricks of the Vertical Wine Bar, they do have big goofy art hanging there, and the layout is otherwise similar. One wall is occupied by a bar, and the glass front wall is set back from the sidewalk to allow a patio dining area.
If 230 Forest Avenue appears smaller than its neighbor, it's probably just a trick of proportion due to the entrées being so much larger. My dining mates and I had left the Vertical Wine Bar still hungry, while we left 230 Forest Avenue with doggy bags weighty enough to contain schnauzers.
I'm not trying to pit the two restaurants against each other (though the idea of adjacent restaurateurs who despised each other would make for good sitcom fare), but they do bear such handy comparison. Irked though I was by the Vertical Wine Bar, I would have to give them a slight edge on the preparation of their foods. But one of the things I love about dining out is conversation, and at the Vertical Wine Bar, our conversation went like, "Was that a hummingbird or my entrée? Oh, well, I guess I'm broke now. Bye."
Meanwhile, the hefty portions at 230 Forest Avenue give you something to linger over, so you've plenty of time to talk about Laguna's creepy mayor, post-Napster ways of accessing MP3s, whether bin Laden operatives rigged the Florida election, how many helium tanks you'd need to go airborne in a lawn chair, and other pressing matters.
230 Forest Avenue's starter plates give you plenty to decide among, including wild-mushroom strudel wrapped in phyllo with dark garlic sauce; roasted-artichoke crab dip with warm herb-pita crisps; and salmon and mussel stew with white beans and applewood-smoked bacon, slow simmered in a vegetable fish broth. With descriptions that detailed, you almost don't need to taste them, and we didn't, instead opting for the butternut-squash soup with cinnamon apples and clover-honey crème fraiche (very nice, with the cream laced over the top in an ornate spiderweb pattern) and the Maine lobster pot stickers with wasabi buerre blanc and sweet plum sauce (also very nice but not exactly bursting with lobster).
With the four entrées we sampled, we got the impression that the kitchen does better with less complex fare. Granted, their idea of less complex is penne with rosemary-and-thyme grilled chicken, artichokes, wild mushrooms, and tomatoes in an asiago cream sauce. That was a fresh delight, with all the major players well-defined and not smothered in sauce. The same was true of the genuinely simple penne, Roma tomato, basil and garlic sauté.
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The Atlantic salmon with sweet-and-sour sake cucumbers, vegetable shrimp spring rolls, and mandarin ginger sauce, however, was a good piece of fish well-prepared and then placed in surroundings that did it little good. The spring rolls were overfried right into September, while the other tarted-up accoutrements tasted like they might once have been a good idea, but that perhaps chef Marc Cohen (who also has the Opah restaurants to helm now) hadn't tasted them in so long that they'd gone astray.
My sea bass special also seemed a little off. Again, it was a splendid piece of fish, succulent inside an almost invisible layer of breading that I suspect had some buttermilk going for it. It bestrode a potato and onion pancake, though, that was as oily and glumphy as a bar-food onion brick. That and a $7 vanilla crème brulee that would have been better labeled "pudding" make me wonder if 230 Forest Avenue hasn't slipped a notch or two over the years, but it is still largely a very good feed.
Happy side note: Chef Paolo Pestarino's fabulous Paolo's Ristorante (714-373-5399) in Huntington's Old World Village is now open for lunch, which is good both because Old World is so much less weird in the daylight and because Paolo is pretty much serving up dinner-sized portions of his fabulous Italian food at lunch prices.
230 Forest Avenue, located at 230 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. (949) 494-2545. Full bar. Dinner for two, $26-$75, food only. All major credit cards accepted.