The California We Love: Orange County

Eateries, wine and a mission

Top-Flight Wine Seller
Merchants of fine wines and spirits since 1957, Hi-Time Wine Cellars has a little bit of everything. The shop is a bastion of California, Bordeaux, and high-end Italian wines. Peruse their web site for discount prices, and ask for a copy of their newsletter. 250 Ogle St., Costa Mesa, CA 92627; 800-331-3005, 949-650-8463; fax 949-631-6863;

The Big Orange One
Joachim Splichal, of L.A.'s Patina fame, is the first big chef to go south and open a restaurant in the Big Orange. Pinot Provence is right next to South Coast Plaza, so shoppers can stop in after hitting the Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel boutiques. Decorated with limestone, Provençal fabrics, and French country antiques, it's a glossy vision of the south of France. Chef Florent Marneau's menu mixes Provençal-inspired dishes with Splichal classics. And the kitchen here is among the most polished of his Pinot restaurants (which include Pinot Hollywood, Cafe Pinot downtown, and Pinot Blanc in Napa Valley). $100. 686 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, CA 92626; 714-444-5900.

Left Bank Bistro On The South Coast
Sometimes Troquet can feel like a mirage—a very French little bistro lost in the maze of South Coast Plaza boutiques. But the enticing scent of garlic and butter is real. And so are the posh red brocade-covered banquettes, lavish flowers, and Limoges china. The food could win the heart of any Francophile: beautiful Fanny Bay oysters on the half shell, sterling salads, wonderful soups, luscious terrine de foie gras, and inventive Asian-touched dishes. Not to mention a well-edited cheese plate and a savvy little wine list. It's no surprise, for Tim Goodell is one of Southern California's best chefs. He and wife Liza also own the marvelous Newport Beach restaurant Aubergine (entry follows). $90; $65 prix fixe. South Coast Plaza (near Nordstrom's), 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, CA 92626; 714-708-6865.

The Best Restaurant In Orange County
In a small Newport Beach cottage painted yellow and trimmed in beige, Aubergine celebrates owners Tim and Liza Goodell's love affair with French cooking. Aperitifs are served from a zinc-topped bar. Tim Goodell bakes all the breads himself, just as two- and three-star chefs in France do. And in the three diminutive dining rooms (one of which looks onto the kitchen) he offers a spectacular nine-course tasting menu each evening. Come prepared to spend three or so hours happily at table, from the first bite of amuse-bouche to the final petit four. Recently recognized by Food & Wine magazine as among the nation's best young chefs, Tim Goodell is a genuine talent. His cooking is imaginative and light, based upon superb ingredients and rare intelligence. Worth a large detour. 508 29th St., Newport Beach, CA 92663; 949-723-4150.

California Contemporary
Orange County is not the place you'd expect to find in-your-face contemporary art, but here it is at the Orange County Museum of Art: a small video screen of a man spewing insults at those who lean in close enough to hear. The curator obviously has a sense of daring and fun but also respect for the development of art in California. Apart from the rooms filled with objects to shock, there are also galleries of hauntingly beautiful paintings by the state's great artists such as Franz Bischoff and Nathan Oliveira. 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, CA 92660; 949-759-1122.

Orange County | Corona Del Mar | Laguna Beach

Hip Art
"Peter's taste is cutting-edge, well ahead of trends but not trendy. He has a great eye. He always has the best," one local art expert says of the Peter Blake Gallery, the contemporary gallery in Laguna showcasing California artists. "Artists [among them Ed Moses and Peter Alexander] love him because he's very sensitive to their needs, and collectors always come to him for advice." He's also known for throwing the best openings in town. $ 326 N. Pacific Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, CA 92651; 949-376-9994.

Savoy's Fare
Wandering into Dexter's Unique Cuisine, a tiny restaurant just south of town, on a rainy Sunday night with not a soul around makes you feel like you're dining at the chef's house. Scott Savoy works from an open kitchen so there's an intimacy about the place. If you can't figure out what to start with, he might suggest a platter of ethnically diverse tacos, including Greek lamb, Muscovy duck, and cajun fish. And then he might ply you with the grilled pork tenderloin with Asian pear-apple chutney in a curry apple brandy demi-glaze, also earthy, rich, and utterly delicious. Dessert can be a leap of faith—a lemon Napoleon constructed around toasted wonton crisps. The lemon curd is sensational; the jury is still out on the crisps. But overall, Scott genuinely loves to cook and it shows. As for the name: It's in honor of Savoy's longhaired Chihuahua, whose picture graces the bar but who now resides with his ex. Dinner only, $70. 2892 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, CA 92651; 949-497-8912.

Crispy Chinese Catfish
Five Feet is an exuberant, iconoclastic Chinese restaurant. Chef Michael Kang builds huge plates and decorates them with massive sprays of crisp Technicolor vegetables. While other dishes on the menu may falter, his signature crispy fried catfish with a hot braised sauce is everything it's cracked up to be. With the first bite you'll understand why: It's tender, utterly greaseless, with a rich sweet-and-spicy sauce that complements the fish without drowning it. Sensational. $80. 328 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, CA 92651; 949-497-4955.

Nirvana For Gardeners
Roger's Gardens features seven acres of flowers, one of the largest collections in California, including 400 varieties of roses. The garden rooms are reason enough to come here: room after room filled with baskets, chandeliers, books about the gardens you wish you could create, and one room devoted to Christopher Radko's unique, whimsical Christmas ornaments that look magical even in the middle of July. 2301 San Joaquin Hills Rd., Corona del Mar, CA 92625; 949-640-5800; fax 949-759-0619.

Orange County | Laguna Beach | San Juan Capistrano | Dana Point

Power Breakfast And Free Parking
Part clothing boutique, part restaurant, Anastasia Cafe and Boutique is where the Laguna intelligentsia meet for breakfast. (The house favorite: ciabatta French toast slathered in caramel and sprinkled with candied walnuts.) Besides the camaraderie and the food, the special feature of this place: owner Ami Garavi's cache of quarters for customers' parking meters. A very considerate touch. 460/470 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, CA 92651; 949-497-8903; fax 949-464-1191.

Right On The Beach
"Are you staying in a motel?" might be the response when you say you've checked into the Surf & Sand Hotel. Clearly this isn't the most elegant name, and from the outside it looks like a prefab modern apartment building. But the name describes the hotel's appeal: modern, breezy, white-and-beige rooms directly over a 500-foot stretch of beach. Tower Building corner rooms ending in 0 and 9 treat guests to wraparound views of the ocean and rocks and the surround sound of crashing waves. Within the hotel is also one of Laguna's best restaurants, Splashes, which features a daily-changing Mediterranean menu and even more intimate contact with the waves—you might get the urge to surf. Dinner, $60. Rooms, $240-$1,000. 1555 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, CA 92651; 800-524-8621,
949-497-4477; fax 949-497-1092.

On A Mission
Each year the famous swallows return to the truly historic Mission San Juan Capistrano, dating from 1776. Much of it is undergoing restoration, performed in fits and starts due to funding inadequacies. But one perfect exception is Serra Chapel, now the oldest continually run building in California. Private tours available: $100 per person (contact Electa Anderson, 949-493-4244). At the intersection of Camino Capistrano and Ortega Highway; 949-234-1300.

The Cultivated Eye of Cindy Messick is responsible for the selection of ceramic and furniture artisans' work you'll find at Artisánce. Among the best: hand-painted ceramics by New York artist Denise Ford ($50-$3,500), handcrafted jewelry, and brightly colored dressers with an Alice-in-Wonderland feel. 276 Beach St., Laguna Beach, CA 92651;

Puttin' On The Ritz
The Ritz formula of oil paintings, antiques, and crystal chandeliers shouldn't really work here, on a 150-foot-high bluff overlooking the Pacific. But amazingly, at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, it does. Room to get: 4022, a corner suite that is surrounded on two sides by water, with a wood-burning fireplace. Stay in for dinner; Executive Chef Christian Rassinoux and The Dining Room o chef Yvon Goetz create exquisite classical French-Mediterranean dishes. Rooms, $395-$3,700. 1 Ritz-Carlton Dr., Dana Point, CA 92629; 800-241-3333, 949-240-2000; fax 949-240-0829.

Orange County | Orange | Santa Ana | Old Town Tustin

A Bow To The Bowers
It was the ultimate expression in East meets West—the exhibition Secret World of the Forbidden City, artfully displayed in vintage California Mission-style buildings. But even without this spectacular show, which closed in September, the permanent treasures housed by the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art are well worth a visit. Among the best: vestiges of the 19th-century rancho period, such as silver spurs from 1840; and early-20th-century Native American baskets and weaving. 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, CA 92706; 714-567-3600;

Best Bottles
Though you wouldn't know it from its low-key Orange County mall setting, The Wine Exchange sells the best selection around of wines from the Rhône Valley, the Loire, Spain, and Australia, besides being strong in Bordeaux and Burgundy. The shop is known for its variety and its discount prices. The owner and wine buyer work hard to secure wines from these regions' superstar producers. The shop also has the best prices in southern California on Riedel glassware from Austria. Get on the mailing list for their handwritten newsletter. Shop either by phone or by signing onto their Web site. 1 2368 N. Orange Mall, Orange, CA 92865; 800-769-4639, 714-974-1454;

A Taste Of Sweden
Another shopping mall surprise, the coolly sophisticated Gustaf Anders restaurant turns out wonderful Swedish-California cuisine. The breads alone make you swoon: limpa redolent of orange and anise, and jagged shards of handmade knäckebrࣆd. The gravlax is a revelation, buried in masses of fresh dill. And during crayfish season, chef Ulf Anders Strandberg sends out huge platters of the sweetwater crustaceans. He cures his own Icelandic herring, too, most notably in a lemon-spiked brine. And who could resist Strandbergs' sugar-and-salt-cured North Atlantic salmon? Sliced especially sheer and dished up cold with warm creamed dill potatoes, it is subtly sweet, pleasingly salty—and superb. $80. South Coast Plaza Village, 3851 Bear St., Santa Ana, CA 92704; 714-668-1737.

Mediterranean Meals
Rick and Diana Boufford are passionate about the Mediterranean, having traveled extensively there and eaten their way around the various countries of that region. That passion is distilled in their idiosyncratic menu at Black Sheep Bistro. On one side: a 20-course tasting menu for the strong of appetite and stomach (although you can pluck out individual plates at will). On the other: a selection of classics such as grilled duck breast with honey-lavender sauce, mussels Catalana, grilled loin of lamb with a choice of seasonal sauces, Spanish sausages with potatoes, rich lamb chops with mushrooms sautéed in a garlicky herb butter, and parellada, Rick Boufford's exuberant paella. $64. 303 El Camino Real, Old Town Tustin, CA 92670; 714-544-6060.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.