By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Even the six-week-old Laguna Grille, with its less-than-Italian appellation, was presented to me in this fashion. "What's it like?" I asked my in-laws. "Oh, you know," they said, "home-style Italian."
Truth is, Laguna Grille, located in Lakes Plaza on Indian Trace Road, is far from being just another family-oriented Italian restaurant. Sure, it used to be the site of Sal's Italian Ristorante, a chain establishment that saw more kids than most schoolteachers do. And, sure, owners Matt Lambert, Tim Rooney, and James Christmas (who is also the chef), didn't even touch the decor: faux-brick walls, big wooden booths with roof-tile overhangs, a pressed-tin ceiling, and glass-covered tables. Heck, they didn't even change the phone number.
But Laguna Grille is no pizza-party joint. Lambert and Christmas met at Max's Beach Place, a popular Dennis Max restaurant, where Lambert was general manager, Christmas a chef. What they learned there they've brought with them, because although Laguna Grille's menu is Italian-based, it's dressed up like a debutante. Even the New York-style pizzas, available in twelve- and sixteen-inch sizes, are decked with toppings like grilled chicken, sauteed shrimp, and goat cheese.
A homemade sausage pie was terrific, the thin, crisp crust accessorized by roasted peppers and tomatoes. It was properly presented by the wait staff, which introduces and explains each dish as it's set down. So instead of a "Yo, here's your caesar," which would suit your typical casual restaurant, our server said: "And this is our classic caesar salad with roasted-garlic dressing and a gorgonzola crouton." Despite reports that El Nino has virtually wiped out this year's romaine crop, the lettuce was fresh, sweet, and plentiful and cloaked in a rich, lemony dressing that hinted at anchovy. Our only complaint was the crouton, which was actually a large, toasted wedge of the focaccia bread that was also served at the beginning of the meal. Drizzled with blue cheese, the "crouton" was too big and solid to dismantle. Sticking with the focaccia is OK, but I'd suggest smaller chunks of bread.
We fared better with an herb crostini garnishing in a bowl of littleneck clams. Served in their shells, the clams were doused with white-wine sauce and accented by garlic and chunks of Roma tomatoes. A less traditional starter was the portobello mushroom stack, which looked more like a leaning tower of portobello. Fresh leaf-spinach, goat cheese, and roasted peppers were piled so high that even Rapunzel would have thought twice before suggesting that someone climb aboard, no matter how long her hair. A giant mushroom cap, glazed with balsamic vinegar, wobbled on top of the construction, which delighted us with its many textures and flavors.
Just about every chef has his or her favorite ingredients, and Christmas clearly likes combining balsamic vinegar and spinach. (Perhaps the red and green coloring has something to do with it.) He paired the two once again in a chicken-breast entree, which offered a grilled, boneless breast coated with the sweet, aged vinegar. Because sugars tend to burn on the grill, the poultry was a bit charred on the outside. But fresh spinach and a huge wave of sage-infused mashed potatoes propped up the chicken.
Quite a few main courses, including filet mignon wrapped with basil and pancetta and baked-veal meat loaf stuffed with roasted peppers, are accompanied by the fragrant potatoes. A veal chop offered a variation on the theme, with horseradish-flavored potatoes boosting the meat toward the ceiling. Christmas needs to offer a variety of starches. Sliced widthwise and stuffed with goat cheese and julienne sun-dried tomatoes, the veal chop in particular was filling enough without the mountain of spuds. A tangy red-wine sauce undercut some of the richness, which would have otherwise been overwhelming.
Veal is obviously a valued staple at Laguna Grille, even when it comes to pastas. The kitchen makes a veal-and-wild-mushroom Bolognese (meat sauce) and bakes it with penne. Meatballs, also composed of veal, are served over linguini with San Marzano marinara sauce. (San Marzano tomatoes are lauded in Italy as the best for pasta sauces.) I was more intrigued by the lasagna, a dish that usually features red meat. Here, boneless nuggets of roasted chicken were blended with mozzarella, ricotta, and Romano cheeses, which exploded from the curly noodles. Like gold in a stream bed, whole button mushrooms embellished the cheese, and a pomodoro (fresh tomato) sauce gave the baked pasta an edge.
Porcini pappardelle in an asparagus cream-reduction sounded about as fattening as the lasagna, but it was actually much lighter. Coated with a peppery cream sauce, the wide, wavy noodles were mixed with wild mushrooms and chopped pencil asparagus, which were a little lost. As a garnish on the main meat courses, however, the asparagus was fully appreciated. Grilled to a crackling finish, it also enlivened a swordfish main course, which didn't really need much help at all. The succulent, flat steak was dripping with juice as it lay atop citrus-spiked white rice. The rice was countered by a yin-yang of sauces -- red pepper on one side, lemon-thyme on the other.