Let it be known that Legado Bar + Kitchen in Laguna Niguel is a restaurant that tries very hard to please. It offers a “Choose Your Size” menu, on which nearly every item is offered in either a small or a full-sized portion. It may not seem revolutionary, but in a business where margins are paper-thin, giving customers the option to pay less for a dish that takes the kitchen as much time and labor to prepare is a big deal. Though the size difference in the portions is not significant, the savings are. For a typical meal, you can potentially save more than 40 percent on the bill.
Legado makes other choices that might affect its bottom line. One night, I opted for the baked potato as the side for an entrée. What I got was a Yukon Gold rather than the usual Russet. And atop it, there was grated cheese, sour cream, butter and chives. No, not green onion—actual chives. Never mind that the potato was barely warm enough to melt the butter; when a restaurant gives me chives when it could’ve easily gone the cheaper route, it increases my propensity to forgive.
And, gentle reader, there were other things that needed forgiveness. The three-cheese potatoes the waiter recommended as the best side for the baked sole was anything but. It tasted so gluey it reminded me of the au gratin I had at Golden Corral, which ain’t a compliment. And the green beans that accompanied this and all the other entrées took on a gray pallor and a texture that ranged from crisp-tender to limp-mushy.
It’s safe to assume both the potatoes and the green beans were made in large batches. The kitchen staff is already tasked with executing a voluminous menu of more than 60 items, so it’s hard to blame them for the shortcut. But I found issues with some of the made-to-order dishes, too. The beef stroganoff arrived with the cream sauce already broken. As I looked down at the tape-wide noodles wading in a pool of grease, I knew I had to send it back.
When the new bowl was delivered, I was afraid to move, jostle the table or breathe. Never before has a cream sauce seemed as unstable as nitroglycerin.
“Keep it together, stroganoff!” I said, rooting for it. “A food critic is watching!”
Thankfully, most of the cream sauce did manage to stay emulsified all the way to the end. Though the last dregs of it broke apart into an oil slick, the stroganoff was still a good dish—tangy, creamy without being rich, and blessed with mushrooms and plenty of filet mignon strips to justify the $13 cost.
There was less suspense with the salads. The pear and brie was particularly good—a well-balanced, nicely constructed hill of thinly sliced pears, candied walnuts, brie cheese and cherry tomatoes piled over greens dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette. But I’d argue there’s no better dish for the summer than the salad that contains juicy watermelon, honeydew and cantaloupe cubes topping arugula and feta cheese. It may sound like another spin on the old watermelon-and-feta trope, but when chef Manuel Lopez’s sticky honey-citrus dressing meets the bitterness of the greens and freshness of the fruits, magic happens.
The salads are, by the way, also offered in the small and full sizes. As with everything here, ordering the small is sufficient. You need only get the small meatball appetizer, which comes as one tennis ball-sized orb. It’s enough to get the idea that it’s slightly mealy, possibly from too much breadcrumb as filler. And I’m not sure anyone needs more than the smaller serving of the not-quite-chilled ahi tartare with mango, cucumbers, onions and avocado. It’s served with a strange-tasting tuile.
In fact, skip everything and focus on the meatloaf—Legado’s best dish. Again, opt for the small, and then ask for the mashed potatoes. What you get for your $11 is a meal that’s as good as the $27 Allen Brothers New York strip, but with a gravy that’s tangier, more addictive and tastes of wine.
It’s this dish—and especially its low price—that distinguishes this restaurant in a town that, quite literally, has Ritz-ier options. Legado is very much just a casual neighborhood joint. Most customers are from the 40-and-older crowd. In Legado, they’ve found the middle ground between chain restaurants and the more extravagant places closer to the beach. Legado is their kind of eatery: a place where a middle-aged guy with a synthesizer performs on weekend nights accompanied by his partner, a woman who belts out a pretty good rendition of “Just the Way You Are.” No, not the Bruno Mars song; the Billy Joel one.
Legado Bar + Kitchen, 30065 Alicia Pkwy., Ste. A, Laguna Niguel, (949) 215-2020; www.legadobarandkitchen.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Meal for two, $25-$80, food only. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.