Studio may set the standard for culinary luxury in Orange County.
Montage Laguna Beach is located on a cliff-top perch overlooking the Pacific, capitalizing on stunning surroundings. The massive complex houses a more casual restaurant called The Loft, but it’s the stand-alone Craftsman-style restaurant known as Studio that’s the real culinary draw.
With Studio since its 2003 opening, chef James Boyce shepherds a compact, luxurious menu. Premium ingredients are showcased, and ocean views carry a premium, so Studio’s prices are notably high. Starters often top $25, and entrees hover around $50 per plate. Surprisingly, in some cases, the exorbitant cost is actually worth it. In other cases: not so much.
Studio features a clean, wood-focused interior and plenty of vibrant floral accents.
Studio offers two roll varieties: whole wheat oat and white ciabatta.
The evening’s Amuse Bouche paired frozen asparagus parfait with smoked salmon, pistachio cream and fennel. The flavor was pretty good, but the texture of the frozen asparagus parfait was jarring. This was my first two-amuse meal. But not for a reason I expected. Steve Sinn, a friend to my dad and step-mom, is morally opposed to amuse bouches. The way he sees it, since he didn’t ask for it, he doesn’t want anything to do with it. Puzzling, but fine by me.
My father started with a Napoleon of Smoked Sturgeon, Trout and Salmon ($32) featuring a spoonful of California Alverta caviar, chive crème fraiche, shaved fennel salad, caper vinaigrette and a sliced egg crown. For fish lovers, this is a piscine bonanza.
Several people ordered the Warm Salad of Gaviota Strawberries and Spring Hill Farm Teleme Cheese ($24), featuring shaved rocket onions, Poilâne crisp, baby field greens. The outstanding cheese came dotted with pine nuts, and the strawberries were especially succulent, but a $24 salad is pretty outrageous.
My Maine Lobster Risoto ($26) starter featured Oregon porcini mushrooms and celery leaves. The cheese-folded risotto was luscious, and the mushrooms were meaty, but for $26, I expected more lobster meat.
Caramelized Maine Diver Scallops ($43) were gargantuan, but the preparation wasn’t thrilling. Sure the basmati rice was flavored with kishu (a tiny tangerine) and pomelo, but the salad of shaved breakfast radishes was bitter, and while the baby bok choy was crisp, the lemon mosto oil was too subtle.
As it turned out, both my starter and entrée centered on seafood that originated in Maine. Come to think of it, Studio imported many ingredients from other states. Curious, considering California produce is so diverse and revered.
Herb Crusted Rack of Colorado Lamb and Osso Buco ($52) centered on super-premium lamb. The rack had a terrific outer char, and the osso buco was rich without being heavy. Explosive cherry tomatoes were a surprisingly good partner.
Allison ordered Tenderloin of Brandt Natural Beef ($50), and after tasting it, I was jealous. The beef was wonderful, not fatty in the least, with a deep flavor reservoir. As with other dishes, the plate held well-sourced produce, including a tiny twice-baked potato, dime-sized Brussels sprouts and heirloom turnips. The sauce: roasted shallot red-wine sauce.
Pan-Seared New Brunswick Arctic Char ($46) is a cold-water fish in the salmon family. The juicy fillet featured crispy skin and sat upon grilled Salinas treviso (a variety of radicchio), fava beans and rucola pesto – a pesto made from a lettuce called rocket.
Intricate desserts cost $15 apiece. Steve ordered a Napoleon of Spiced Banana and White Chocolate , which included haute versions of Boston cream and malted milk. The dessert was certainly stylish, with geometric twists of chocolate and banana, and the flavor was good, though it wasn’t the table’s best.
Top honors went to an Organic Madagascar Vanilla Soufflé that came with brandied fig newtons.
Or did the title go to the Pumpkin and Candied Pecan Tart with gingersnap crumble and pumpkin ice cream? Candied pecans were a nice counterpart to silky pumpkin, and the dollop of pumpkin ice cream was a nice touch. Of course, I’ve never found a pumpkin dessert that was too pumpkin heavy, so I’m not the most objective taster.
With the check, Studio treated us to two trays of Mignardises, highlighted by mixed nut brittle, a tiny strawberry macaron, and chocolates.
The ingredients were undeniably top-flight, and there’s something to be said for not interfering with such natural advantages, but for such high prices, I expected more innovative preparations. On a couple of the dishes, I got the scary feeling that with practice, I actually could have even recreated what was on my plate. For a person with such limited culinary ability, that’s not reassuring. If the food was truly delicious, my mind wouldn’t keep wandering to the cost. For that reason, it’s difficult to imagine returning to Studio, but I’m happy to have eaten there once.