A wild mushroom and goat cheese pizza with mozzarela cooks in the wood fire oven at the Wine Gallery in Laguna Beach. (Don Leach, Coastline Pilot / January 10, 2013)

The popular Wine Gallery in Corona Del Mar has opened a beautiful second location in Laguna Beach. The large room is centered around a spacious, U-shaped, marble-topped bar that faces the white-tiled, open kitchen featuring a wood-burning oven. The atmosphere is both sophisticated and cozy. The décor is contemporary and warm, with soft lighting emanating from a fascinating ceiling composed of long wooden slats separated by fire-resistant crushed black paper. Facing the street are floor-to-ceiling windows, with pulled-back curtains made of wine corks.

As expected, there is an extensive wine menu with bottles, glasses and flights, but we were there for the food. The Wine Gallery offers a variety of options from cheese and salumi to small plates, pizzas and large plates for you to enjoy with your wine or beer. The very gracious and helpful servers are a cut above the usual and can guide you through the wine list.

Bruschettas come in three flavors: traditional, fig and date, or the daily special. We had one of each. Atop a slice of toasted baguette, the tasty traditional version boasted sweet grape tomatoes, basil, garlic and a healthy drizzle of balsamic reduction. Fig jam, dates and whipped goat cheese also had a balsamic reduction, but there were too many sweet elements and not enough cheese to provide balance. The special of the day was a delicious mélange of mixed mushrooms married to some creamy brie. The advertised truffle oil was undetectable and unnecessary, as is often the case.

From the small-plate menu, we had some of the very best short rib tacos around. The meat was very tender, juicy and nicely seasoned, served in crispy corn tortilla shells. Piquant pickled red onions added crunch, guacamole added creaminess and Fresno chilies added a kick. A light sprinkling of cotija cheese and micro-greens provided the finishing touch.

The butternut squash soup de jour was very rich and creamy, and was topped with a dollop of apple-and-pear chutney and one lonely, soggy, sweet-potato chip. It had a very pleasant flavor but was too rich to finish. The "chutney" tasted more like cooked fruit but went nicely with the soup.

Some of the other small-plate options include seared ahi with Asian slaw and peanut sauce, or spinach salad with apples, red onions, pomegranate seeds and candied pecans.

From the wood-burning oven, we had the fungus pizza, which has no tomato sauce, but the house-made mozzarella and goat cheese made a luscious bed for the same variety of mixed mushrooms that we enjoyed on the bruschetta, along with garlic and a little hint of truffle oil. The dough itself was just all right, lacking distinctive flavor or a bit of char.

The roasted chicken dish consisted of two small airline breasts (boneless breast, with the first wing bone attached), which had been nicely seared and roasted to a juicy finish. They were well-seasoned and accompanied by a light mushroom risotto that was a bit flat and needed salt. A little red wine decorated the plate, along with sautéed cippoline onions that needed a little more time in the pan, as they were quite hard.

The other large plates are steak frites, scallops and shortribs.

There are only two desserts — lemon rosemary cheesecake and baked apple crumble. We chose the latter, which was made with delicious, crispy pink lady apples and seasoned with cinnamon and buttery caramel. We often find that so-called crumble toppings aren't crunchy. They get soggy from the juices of the fruit, which was the case here. However, the house-made vanilla ice cream was a standout. Although it did not have a lot of vanilla flavor, it was incredibly rich, smooth and creamy, almost like frozen whipped cream.

This lovely new venue, with its warm and welcoming atmosphere, extensive wine list and tasty menu options, is destined to become a favorite.

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: Wine Gallery

Where: 1833 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach

When: 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Prices:

Cheese, salumi and bruscetta: $13 to $23

Small plates: $11 to $16

Pizza: $12 to $15

Large plates: $16 to $30

Desserts: $7 to $8

Wine:

Glass: $10 to $20

Bottle: $37 to $395

Corkage fee: none

Information: (949) 715-8744 or winegallerylaguna.com