Stonehill Tavern: The Start of an Incredible Dinner
There’s good food and there’s amazing food. There’s deconstruction and reconstruction. There’s a chef’s interpretation of a classic, or a chef’s brand new creation. Put all of that together – amazing food, deconstruction and reconstruction, twists on classic favorites, and creations of brand new flavors – add in a little bit of creativity, whimsy and humor using new age molecular gastronomy techniques, and you have what my husband called, quite possibly “the best food experience ever!”
Stonehill Tavern, one of 19 restaurants from the acclaimed chef Michael Mina, is a contemporary American cuisine restaurant located on the grounds of the beautiful St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point, California. Open only for dinner, the restaurant uses “season ingredients and contemporary twists on classic tavern dishes.” The restaurant, whose immaculate, modern, and intimate interior was designed by international decorator Tony Chi, features both indoor and outdoor seating and gorgeous decor.
As you enter the restaurant, you’re greeted by large standing columns housing a multitude of wine bottles. This presentation of wine creates a great centerpiece for the restaurant and a terrific presentation for the 400-500 bottles of wine that the restaurant stocks. Under the direction of its Wine Director, the Stonehill Tavern focuses on boutique wine producers in the various California wine regions.
Inside the restaurant is a small, but beautiful bar, a large open area seating area that spills out onto a wonderful terrace that is used (weather permitting) to allow guests a wonderful floor-to-ceiling glass view of the St. Regis’ grounds, the 18-hole golf course, and the beautiful Monarch Beach and Pacific Ocean beyond that. However, hidden near the front entrance of the restaurant are also 2 beautiful, intimate and secluded booths, which is where we had requested to be seated. These private booths allow for an intimate dinner setting away from the other guests. Comfortable and spacious, the seating is made up of 2 long, and comfortable couches accented by a throw pillow all situated inside a glass enclosed booth. The perfect setting for a nice, quiet dinner.
Before I get to the food, I have to say, bar none, that the service at this restaurant was hands down the best service I’ve ever had during a dining experience. Everyone from the hostess who greets you when you walk in the door, to our amazing waitress to the restaurant staff who brought our food to our table and cleared our dishes away, were just amazing. It’s the kind of white glove treatment you expect, but often never receive, at a fancy, stuffy 5-star restaurant, except that Stonehill Tavern is neither stuffy or snooty. It’s a casual and contemporary eatery that serves up exceptional food in a terrific atmosphere with some amazing service.
Once seated at our booth, my husband and I perused through the menu to make our selections, after having discussed it a bit back and forth, I thought I had my mind made up until our waitress told me what the chef’s special “butcher’s cut” meat entrée was, and after that I had no choice but to change my mind because the meal sounded too good to pass up. My husband also went with something a bit out of the box from what I’ve seen him order previously when we’ve dined out by going with the chef’s tasting menu, essentially opting to taste small dishes of specially prepared food that accentuates the chef’s cooking style and use of ingredients combined with creativity. Before we could even get to the food we ordered, we were treated to some standard restaurant fare which turned out to be phenomenal, and some chef’s compliments which were even more amazing.
After placing our order, the traditional, but not traditional, bread and butter came to our table. Except at Stonehill Tavern, what you’re presented with isn’t just sourdough bread and some whipped butter, it’s actually a presentation of grilled semolina bread served with a side of whipped ricotta cheese combined with honey, dried rosemary and rosemary grey salt (we’ll get to this later). It was A-MAY-ZING! The grilled semolina bread was flavorful and delicious, and once you spread some of the ricotta, honey and rosemary spread on the bread it took the bread into another atmosphere. The ricotta and honey combination was creamy and smooth and spread easy, just like butter. The flavor of the spread was incredible, it was delicate and light, and the sweetness from the honey was just the perfect amount of sweet to cut through the creamy ricotta which actually tasted more like whipped butter than ricotta cheese. This was the best bread tray I’ve ever had a restaurant. This was the beginning of an outstanding meal.
Next thing we know, we have a bunch of chef’s compliment dishes coming to our table. These are small, little bite-sized appetizers that the chef has prepared with his compliments for us to share at our table. These chef’s compliments feature some of the chef’s best dishes, and playful ideas that show off the chef’s skill and creativity. We’re first presented to a bowl of kale chips with what I believe was togarashi. The kale chips were super crispy and light, which is much different than the very leafy and heavy greens you get if to saute kale. The kale chips were then seasoned with a spice mix which I think was Japanes togarashi which contains, among other things, assorted chili pepper. The chips had a nice texture and crunch, but left behind a bit of a spicy bite from the togarashi. A little too spicy for me, but then again, I don’t like spicy at all.
Along with the kale chips, we were presented with 2 delicate blinis served on this terrific slate serving dish. Blinis are essentially a type of pancake that lacks levening. Blinis are hugely popular in Russia. At Stonehill Tavern, the blinis were served with creme fraiche, topped with trout roe and dill. The play of the light brown blini topped with the white creme fraiche and the bright orange trout roe and the little sprig of dill to offset the saltiness of the caviar was a work of art. The flavors of the blini were even more incredible. The light and fluffy blini wth the tangy creme fraiche and the saltiness and brinyness of the trout roe. A great two-bite appetizer. How luxurious is that to be presented with caviar on a dish with chef’s compliments?!?!
Before we could even finish these two chef’s compliments dishes, we were presented with a third dish of ahi tuna tartare presented on rice paper crackers. The ahi tuna tartare is also made with bosc pear, pine nuts, and habanero-infused sesame oil. The sweetness of the bosc pear helps to offset the heat from the habnero-infused sesame oil, the pine nuts create texture and crunch, and the rice paper cracker also creates a nice mixture of texture and crunch without infusing flavor that detracts from the incredible ahi tuna. The tartare was so flavorful, creamy and rich. Absolutely delicious!
As if all of this wasn’t enough, we were then given yet another chef’s compliment dish of comte gougeres. After it was presented at the table, I had to ask the waitress again what exactly it was, then I had to look it up to make sure I had gotten it correct. What we got were comte gougeres. When I asked the waitress, she explained it to me as comte cheese puffs. Comte is a type of cheese also known as Gruyere de Comte from the Franche-Comte region of France. It’s a cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk that has a great nutty flavor. A gougere is a French, baked savory choux pastry often made of choux pastry and grated cheese. Choux pastry is the light, flaky pastry often used to make eclairs or profiteroles. The grates cheese mixed in with the choux pastry is often Gruyere, Comte or Emmentaler. At Stonehill Tavern, the comte gougeres are made with comte cheese, black truffle, pepper, and chives. Not only are the ingredients luxurious and rich, the taste is heavenly. These little cheese puff balls. You can taste the pastry dough mixed in with the nutty cheese flavor and a bit of the bite from the black pepper with the fragrant and rich black truffle. When you bite into the gougere, you understand immediately that it’s a pastry that’s flaky and hollow inside. I’ve never tasted anything like this and immediately fell in love with it. I only wish that I had a whole bowl of these gougeres, I absolutely loved them!
After all of this, you thought we were done with the chef’s compliments? Oh, no no no. Unbeknownst to us, we still had 3 more chef’s compliments dishes to come. Wow! I couldn’t believe this. All these chef’s compliments were like having a meal all on it’s own that we didn’t even order. How amazing is that?
To find out what else we received as chef’s compliments as well as what we actually ordered for our meal, you’ll have to check back for the next edition of Ducky’s Always Hungry where you’ll see how the rest of our incredible meal at Stonehill Tavern turned out…