Ironwood Brings Great Cuisine and a Killer Chicken Schnitzel to Laguna Hills

I did a double-take when the Jidori chicken schnitzel at Ironwood landed on our table with a thud. It's covered end-to-end in golden-brown breading and has a surface area so large you could pick it up and wear it as a scarf. “Do chickens have breasts this wide or this flat?” I asked my dining companion.

We tried to imagine what kind of reverse origami the kitchen staff did to accomplish it. I determined it was butterflied at least twice and involved a light pounding with a mallet. Whatever it was, the result was a masterpiece: the perfect ratio of crispy breadcrumb to moist meat in every bite—as good as a piece of white meat chicken could ever be.

At first, I set out to eat only half of it. But I realized when I was done with the first half that I needed to finish the second. The crispness wouldn't survive the trip home. At least that's what I told myself. Before long, I licked the plate clean. For something that should've been as heavy as a piece of deep-fried, county-fair decadence, it was extraordinarily light. Perhaps it had something to do with the veritable farmers' market worth of vegetables also on the plate: the romanesco with its Fibonacci spirals, the glistening pearl onions, the earthy mushrooms. Or maybe it's because the starch in the curiously chewy nubs of spaetzle answered the acres and acres of protein nicely. I decided it was the sauce—a preserved-lemon-and-basil emulsion—the chefs spooned atop parts of the chicken. I left no trace of it on the plate. I squeegeed every drop.

After I destroyed the chicken, I took my phone and looked up the menu at Vine, Ironwood's sister restaurant in San Clemente where I first encountered Jared Cook's food. I didn't remember the dish the last time I ate there. But there it was: the schnitzel was the first thing listed, served with the same sauce. There was one major difference, though: Vine's version uses pork, not chicken. I decided I probably had the better of the two renditions here at Ironwood. And parking in this leafy Laguna Hills shopping mall is easier than at downtown San Clemente.

Vine also doesn't serve what I consider the second-best thing I ate at Ironwood: the giant meatball, an enormous boulder that looks as if it could chase Harrison Ford down a dark tunnel. We spent the evening chipping pieces off it with our forks. In our mouths, the meat melted as though pudding, soft and thoroughly flavored with the marinara it absorbed while it simmered. The meatball could've stood by itself, but the kitchen served it with pasta—a made-from-scratch pappardelle that we had to cut into swatches after realizing the wide-as-duct-tape noodles couldn't be twirled around a fork.

It wasn't the only homemade pasta we encountered that night. There were thick, ravioli-like dumplings stuffed with English peas, topped with fresh goat cheese, then drowned in a pistachio brown butter I'm not ashamed to say I spooned up as though it were soup. The dumplings are, by far, a better appetizer than the “signature” crispy duck wings the restaurant shows off in a framed picture hanging in the dining room. Chewy, dry and fibrous, the wings aren't much different than reheated leftovers from Buffalo Wild Wings. Each piece took me about three minutes to masticate and swallow.

On a second trip, I discovered what's possibly its best appetizer: the jumbo lump crab with sea salt heirloom beets. Refreshing and full of contrasting textures that change by the forkful, the dish lies in the sweet spot somewhere between a crab Louie and a sushi-bar appetizer.

But truthfully, we could've skipped the appetizers since the entrée portions here are always generous. The pan-roasted Greek sea bass we ordered was split onto two plates without having to ask. And if you saw our plates, you would've thought they were full-sized meals, each serving a whole fillet—my half with the tail, hers without—pan-crisped skin still attached to snowy meat. And there were Russian banana potatoes, cara-cara oranges and other vegetables I don't have the space to list here, as it took three lines to describe on the menu. But I think you get the point. You want this dish and everything Ironwood serves, especially the ones that exceed your expectations of what a normal-sized piece of chicken, meatball or fish should be.

Ironwood, 25250 La Paz Rd., Laguna Hills, (949) 446-8772; Open Mon.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $35-$75, food only. Full bar.

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