With Marc Cohen's culinary empire expanding, we were curious to see if his first venture, 230 Forest Ave., has been able to maintain its quality, as many restaurateurs these days have been stretching themselves too thin, like Wolfgang Puck and Daniel Bouloud. With Opah in Irvine and Aliso Viejo, and now Watermarc in Laguna to claim his attention, he's got a lot on his plate. Yet, he still seems to be cookin' with gas.
Mark Singer's contemporary architecture still retains its hip, cool vibe. Starting with the welcoming sidewalk patio and the glass wall that reveals the happening scene inside, one is tempted to enter and enjoy. The sleek décor with its cement and wood elements is accented with a rotating exhibition of art.
David Flores has been cooking with and for Marc since the restaurant began in 1994. Since our last review four years ago, the menu has had only a few changes. What hasn't changed is the warm crunchy baguette served in a paper bag with olive butter. However, on the night we dined, it tasted better than ever, punchy with olives and particularly "buttery."
The nightly special appetizer, which really isn't a special because they have it all the time, is the bang-bang shrimp, lightly battered rock shrimp in plum sauce. The generous mound of fresh, juicy "popcorn" shrimp, drizzled with sweet sauce, came in an attractive bowl. What was hidden below was a salad of shredded red cabbage, carrots, green onions and thin, crispy rice noodles. Unfortunately, we were halfway through before we uncovered this nice accompaniment. The presentation in a deep bowl hides the rest of the goodies.
Truth to tell, we were getting bored with the one-note shrimp but once we tossed everything together, the combination of flavors and textures was quite delightful.
If you like your dishes spicy, do as we did and request their excellent house-made chili oil (actually a zippy puree), which adds gentle heat and also makes a great dipping sauce for the shrimp.
Ahi tuna tartar is a layered construction of flavors and textures. The beginning is a foundation of sweet chopped papaya, the second layer is chunky, creamy crabmeat salad followed by a layer of very finely chopped ahi tuna and the finish is a film of wasabi infused caviar. Perched on the very top are shavings of pickled ginger and micro-greens.
Surrounding this tower are six crispy fried wontons drizzled with a sweet balsamic reduction and red hot sauce, then sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. These yummy "crackers" were perfect scoops for eating the multilayered extravaganza.
A word of advice, pickled ginger is a palate cleanser in Japanese cuisine. If you eat it with the other elements it will dominate, so use it with discretion.
Dinner salads are a nice feature at 230 and most can be ordered as a half portion as well as a full. The field green salad comes with pine nuts, apples, romas and Gorgonzola and can be enhanced with sesame grilled chicken, buttermilk fried calamari or chilled shrimp. These proteins can also be added to their classic Caesar with its giant asiago cheese crisp.
Our favorite is the chopped seafood salad, which is seriously chock full of shrimp, crab meat, bacon, avocado, egg and Gorgonzola, all in a delicious, slightly spicy, chipotle ranch dressing. A close second is the rare ahi tuna Niçoise with olives, green beans, egg and tomatoes in a non-traditional balsamic dressing, drizzled with whole-grain mustard vinaigrette.
Entrées include pasta bowls like: tenderloin stroganoff with white truffle and chive egg noodles or rosemary thyme chicken with penne in asiago cream sauce; land plates feature: two steaks, a double cut pork chop, and their famous baby back ribs with an onion haystack, but "seafood rules here…" they boast.
Hazelnut-crusted Alaskan halibut has always been one of the most popular, served with papaya relish, a duo of sauces and a trio of chips: sweet potato, yam and taro.
Pacific Northwest cioppino is brimming with seafood and fish in a seafood tomato broth.
Opting for something new, we ordered the evening's special crab-stuffed trout. The whole fish (minus its head) was coated in a heavy cornmeal crust and deep-fried. To be honest, we couldn't find much more than a tablespoon of crabmeat inside.
The heavy crisp crust was dry and overwhelmed the delicate fish, which seemed to have no flavor of its own. There were a few shreds of shiitake mushroom, and leeks, a little chopped tomato and a sprinkling of micro-greens. The caper butter sauce was good but it was in short supply and as such couldn't provide the much-needed moisture or flavoring…better to stick with the trusty old standbys. We requested asparagus for our side dish rather than mashed potatoes. As this is springtime, they were perfect.
Chocolate croissant bread pudding has been on their menu forever and is rich and hearty, one of their most popular desserts and practically a meal in itself. Lighter appetites might prefer mixed berries with crème anglaise and whipped cream or a trio of sorbets. Serious chocolate lovers must try the half-baked chocolate soufflé cake. We were tempted by the profiteroles, done here with a delicious pistachio gelato in the cream puffs. The puffs themselves were not thin enough and lacked the nice eggy flavor one expects but the intense, dark chocolate sauce imparted a delicious chocolaty goodness to everything.
Service is consistently top-notch. Our waiter, Max, was particularly attentive, charming and knowledgeable, although we admit to being prejudiced as he was once briefly an employee of ours.
We are happy to report that Cohen and his staff are managing the juggling act of multiple restaurants with aplomb.
If You Go What: 230 Forest Ave. Where: 230 Forest Ave. When: Lunch: 11:30 a.m; dinner: 5 p.m. Prices: Appetizers: $9 to $15 Entrées: $17 to $34 Desserts: $9 to $12 Wine: Bottles: $26 to $90 By the glass: $7 to $15 Corkage Fee: $15 Info: (949) 494-2545 or www.230forestavenue.com