Ginger chicken meatballs in thai peanut sauce on sweet 'n' sour cucumber is one of the popular appetizers at 230 Forest Avenue in Laguna Beach. (DON LEACH, HB Independent / September 18, 2012)

It's always a pleasure to dine with an old friend and 230 Forest Avenue is one of our favorites. No matter how many times we visit, the food is always reliably good. With occasional changes in the menu, there is always something new to try, if that's your pleasure (or if you're a restaurant reviewer). Chef Marc Cohen has managed to maintain a consistent level of quality.

It's almost always buzzy but not so noisy that you can't have a nice conversation. On a warm summer night, the sidewalk patio is especially agreeable but the contemporary design of the space indoors is equally pleasant. Rotating modern art exhibits adorn the wall and an eat-in bar area with tall stools fills one corner.

We were pleased to see tempting new appetizers on the menu and decided to compose our dinner based on these new choices. One of our guests was very disappointed that the burger was not served at dinner because he had heard great things about it. Our very accommodating waiter said, "The chef doesn't do that," but he would ask. Perhaps, because it wasn't too busy at the time or he guessed we were writing a review, we got our burger. But if you want one, better go there for lunch.

New to us were the chicken meatballs. Five good-sized, plump, well-seasoned meatballs with a sweet glaze on the bottom were skewered on thick rounds of marinated cucumber slices. Between the cucumber and the meatball were shavings of Japanese sweet pickled ginger. The finishing touch was a dollop of Asian style peanut sauce with a scattering of finely chopped peanuts. They were layered with flavor and absolutely delectable.

A great take on fried spring rolls is stuffed with duck confit. They were mostly tender, slightly salty, leg meat with a bit of crunch from slivered carrots and leeks. The crispy but not greasy rolls were great on their own but the sweet hot gingery sauce was hard to resist. Hoisin sauce that was painted on the plate provided yet a new taste for another bite. A fresh crunchy little salad was a refreshing accompaniment.

Three little racks of three little ribs of lamb were slow-cooked until the meat was meltingly tender, yet the surface was deliciously browned. A small bowl of a mild pureed romesco sauce (red peppers, tomatoes and almonds) was provided for dipping.

We had completely missed the sign behind the bar that advertised the soup of the day — onion. Luckily, we noticed it mid-meal and gave it a try, minus the cheese. Made from good beef broth, it had a wonderful sweet underpinning. When we complimented our waiter on the excellent soup, he said that the chef uses sweet Maui onions, which make all the difference. The soup was finished with big crunchy croutons.

The burger arrived and lived up to its reputation. It was a straightforward, large, juicy beef patty with lots of flavor on its own, classically topped with lettuce, tomato and onion. Only the choice of cheese veered from tradition. We opted for the havarti (mild and buttery) over the blue. The slightly sweet bun was golden brown on the outside and had been grilled on the inside. The pile of shoestring fries that came along side it were thin, crispy and made with good potatoes.

We so rarely have a really wonderful dessert but that night was a delicious exception. The salted caramel budino is not to be missed. This rich, luscious pudding accented with crunchy salt crystals was topped with a generous layer of caramel and a dollop of whipped cream. The marriage of sweet and salty was a match made in heaven. Digging down through the layers, each spoonful returned a creamy reward. The hazelnut biscotti offered the perfect crunchy accompaniment.

Other dishes on the menu we love but did not taste this time are the chopped seafood salad and the cioppino, but we look forward to returning.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

If You Go

What: 230 Forest Avenue

Where: 230 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach

Information: (949) 494-2545 or 230forestavenue.com

When: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; dinner: 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Satuday

Prices:

Appetizers: $9 to 14

Entrées: $17 to $36

Desserts: $9 to $11

Wine:

Glass: $8 to $18

Half carafes: $15 to $35

Bottle $30 to $190

Corkage fee: $15