The first thing I saw when I walked up to Hendrix—the new Laguna Niguel restaurant by the group that also owns the Deck and Driftwood Kitchen—was the rotisserie. It resembled a vending machine, or at least the heavy-duty version of the “Set It and Forget It” contraption that made Ron Popeil famous. It had big knobs, glowing heating elements and wheels. Hendrix puts it up front as a not-so-subtle suggestion of what you should be ordering.
The appeal of it is undeniable. Whole chickens twirled and dripped juices onto trays of peewee potatoes. Beneath them spun porchetta and a whole leg of lamb on a spit. At random times, a worker walked out to tend to it or take off what was done, then return to a carving room visible from the hostess podium. And it’s in that room that he slices, chops and plates these roasted meats into three of the restaurant’s best dishes.
The chicken was the cheapest at $19, but only a fool wouldn’t spend the extra $2 for the porchetta or $3 for the lamb. The porchetta is served as a giant, center-cut slab sitting atop the aforementioned potatoes. It is marvelous—a thoughtfully composed dish, complete with a savory, herbed jus that sloshes around the plate and pickled root vegetables that I could eat by the jarful. The tender meat, surrounded by melting fat, is moistened by that jus and balanced by the tang of the pickles.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed this dish. In fact, before I actually had it, I was expecting something different. I thought it was going to be like what I saw online—just a bunch of meat piled on a cutting board as a do-it-yourself platter with the pickles and potatoes on the side, the jus contained in a gravy boat. But it turns out those pictures were of the sampler platter, which I’m glad I didn’t get. Not only would it have cost me $50 (the restaurant requires a two-person minimum for it), but I also wouldn’t have been able to smash the potatoes with my fork tines to soak up every drop of that precious jus.
The leg of lamb was even better than the pork. It’s brought out in a warmed dish, the meat sliced and stacked, dolloped with yogurt and a minty chimichurri. As with all the rotisserie meats, it’s served with the same potatoes and that ambrosial jus, which I learned is actually the nectar captured from the dripping chickens.
It was after I licked the plate clean that I decided what I had wasn’t just the most rustic and honest meat-and-potatoes dish I’ve ever eaten, but it may be OC’s best lamb dish outside of Anaheim’s Little Arabia. Added to this, it was priced rather fairly, which I don’t have to tell you is a rare thing in Laguna Niguel, what with the Ritz-Carlton and Monarch Beach Resort just down the road.
Having it here, however, did afford me the perks of eating out in a town where a majority of its residents roll up in BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. Perched high atop a hill, Hendrix boasts an interior design that looks like Frank Lloyd Wright meets IKEA. There’s a stunning bar at the center and a lounge/dining room set around the periphery, where big windows swing open during warm afternoons.
Those customers who think nothing of spending a hundred bucks on dinner can get a bone-in New York steak for $42, but there’s also a slew of small plates for the bar grazers, too. The crispy-fried fritters made from the rotisserie chicken meat and prosciutto had a creamy filling that tasted eerily similar to the chicken croquettes I bought at Porto’s last week. And to my surprise, the chef actually used yuzu kosho to amp up what would have otherwise been a prototypical seared-tuna-and-avocado appetizer.
To balance the rotisserie offerings, there are five seafood main courses, including a well-cooked Icelandic cedar-plank-roasted salmon shellacked in mustard and served with quinoa and citrus-fruit segments. On another night, I ate gigantic New Zealand mussels that came with crusty epi bread to dip into its Thai coconut curry broth—a broth that was so good and spicy I made another meal from its leftovers and some rice the next day.
I’ve also heard that Hendrix puts out a nice brunch. But when I go back, it’ll be to answer the call of that rotisserie lamb. I’ve never been less inclined to settle on Costco’s $5 chickens than now.
Hendrix, 32431 St. of the Golden Lantern, Laguna Niguel, (949) 248-1912; hendrixoc.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 4-10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4-11:30 p.m.; for brunch, Sat.-Sun., 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner for two, $60-$100, food only. Full bar.
Edwin Goei was born on the island of Java, grew up in La Habra, studied in Irvine, and eats everywhere. Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, he went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.