I felt like I was on a treasure hunt the other night because there is a hidden gem in Huntington Beach. It’s Mona Lisa Italian Cucina and yes, there is a reason to smile. It’s slowly being discovered and I was excited to make my second visit. Once you’ve stepped through the door of this charming bistro, the sophisticated, continental décor makes you forget the rundown, old strip mall that houses this little masterpiece. Mona Lisa opened in April, is a sister restaurant to the well known Capone’s Cucina in Newland Center and it is run by head chef François Lieutaud.
Previously a broasted chicken restaurant, this small space has been maximized for style and comfort. Warm cream walls are accented with wood tables and black leather seating. A banquette runs the length of the left hand wall and accommodates seven two-tops. An additional eight can sit at the bar that faces the small yet extremely efficient kitchen. Since I was with the girls this night we chose to sit at the bar and chat with François while we enjoyed the culinary ballet performed as François and his sous chef pulled together the dinner tickets. While the menu is not extensive, it’s very well rounded. Using simple ingredients, they create all the Italian classics, but it’s François culinary expertise and French flair that make his dishes shine.
Warm, toasty slices of ciabatta were immediately brought out and I thought the crunchy bread was a nice change of pace that tasted wonderful with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt (my preference to balsamic vinegar). We also chose an excellent and reasonably priced Tuscany Chianti, Melini "Borghi D'Elsa".
To start, we had the Funci Chini, Sicilian stuffed mushrooms. Mushrooms caps were filled with a breadcrumb stuffing that was seasoned with basil, oregano and garlic and then baked. Had the chef stopped there, this appetizer would have been pretty typical Sicilian style stuffed mushrooms, but François used his culinary talents to raise the bar. The baked mushrooms were placed on thin slices of Roma tomatoes and topped with a Marsala reduction. Served with a small mound of field greens, the dish combines the warm, savory flavors of the stuffing with the fresh tomato and bitter greens. The slightly sweet sauce pulled everything together and created a taste explosion.
My friends both decided to have the evening’s special pasta, Rigatoni al Forno. This was a hearty dish made with rigatoni pasta and tossed with Bolognese sauce, mushrooms, black olives, sausage and chunks of mozzarella. The Bolognese sauce was rich and meaty and the whole dish was baked to melty perfection.
Already on my radar for dinner was the Ravioli Arragosta. This choice was reinforced when François proclaimed it one of his favorites. The large ravioli were stuffed with a generous lobster filling and dressed with a light lemon cream sauce with peas. A gentle hand was used to add the lemon and the result was a tangy cream sauce that hinted of lemon but didn’t overpower the delicate lobster taste.
Of course, we had to sample a side of sausage. While I prefer more spice, this mild version was excellent, well seasoned, and made from high quality ingredients. Sadly, the origin of this sausage will remain one of the chef’s secrets.
One secret François would share was that the homemade dough for both the pizza and the ciabatta is made at Capone’s and baked fresh. On my first visit, we shared a Margarita pizza and it was delicious. Pizza snobs can say what they want, but I loved the thin crispy crust and the fresh toppings. As we watched the dinner service, we noticed that Mona Lisa has a fairly busy take out business and a lot of pizzas were going out the door. To finish the meal, we shared a cannoli. This was a good enough ending to our dinner, but it certainly was not the stand out when compared to our appetizer and entrees.
I love finding neighborhood bistros that are casual, classy and serve up four-star cuisine. Add to that a charming host and a comfortable environment and you’ve got the ingredients for a winner. As for my dining companions, Lillian said, “I love the place,” and Mary agreed saying, “The food is great.”
Because of its small space and growing reputation, you might need to wait when you show up at the dinner hour. We arrived at five minutes to six and, because we wanted to sit at the bar, we waited about 40 minutes. Mona Lisa is open for lunch and dinner and offers gourmet dishes and very reasonable prices.
Mona Lisa Cucina is located at 9017 E. Adams Ave. in Huntington Beach. (714) 965-9900.