The Durban Room: It’s very back-east-ish, as three former residents of Durban, South Africa, discover

Dining feature by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Three former Durbanites, newly introduced, met last week at The Durban Room at Mozambique Restaurant to reminisce about our lives in that city several decades ago, and to taste the South African-influenced cuisine offered at this sophisticated speakeasy, complete with piano bar and lounge singer. 

“This place has a real ‘back east’ vibe to it, doesn’t it?” observed Richelle Lavin, whom I’d first met at a book launch party a few weeks earlier. I’d been astonished to learn that she had gone to the same high school in Durban North as I had, albeit years later. 

Indeed, the rich burgundy walls, the photos of Victorian architecture (I loved seeing the picture of the old Durban railway station) the highly-polished bar, comfortable upholstery and the subtle lighting does make The Durban Room feel somewhat back-east-ish, somewhat New-York-ish – a restaurant/bar lounge that’s intimate and inviting at the same time. 

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The railway station, starting point for many adventures up and down the coast

Not to mention that Durban is very back-east-ish itself, given that it’s a port city on the east coast of South Africa, located where the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in 1497 on his way to India. Da Gama was the first European to reach India by sea, opening up the spice route and (unintentionally) ensuring a lasting Eastern influence on Durban cuisine.

In later years, Indians were indentured to work in the sugar cane fields. Their influence on the culinary culture has led to Durban today becoming the curry capital of South Africa (if it weren’t for London, I’d say the world). 

Add to that the influence of the Portuguese, then the Brits, the Boers (Afrikaners), the Zulu and the Xhosa who fought over the land in times past, and you’ll understand why the city is a place where the cuisine is as varied and feisty as its population.

Ah, yes, Durban curry… There’s nothing quite like it, Richelle, Barbara (Richelle’s mom) and I agreed, to bring back memories, and The Durban Room’s version is thoroughly authentic. The lamb, saturated with dark, mildly spicy sauce, fills the mouth with satisfying warmth and flavor without overwhelming the taste buds. 

There are certainly hotter versions on offer in Durban, but Mozambique’s flavorful, tender, fragrant dish is just right for many Americans. 

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Durban curry: there’s nothing like it, whether served with rice or as Bunny Chow inside a scooped-out half-loaf of bread

Not that curry was necessarily the dish of choice when we were growing up. In those days, it was the cheap option, often served in dives where anti-apartheid theatre or music played on Sunday nights. Serving alcohol was against the law on Sundays, unless dinner was provided – hence curry, which denizens of dark bars could usually afford – also known as bunny chow when served in a hollowed-out half-loaf of bread. 

We never dreamed there’d be a gourmet version.

Richelle and Barbara were in heaven, as was I, over the peri peri prawns, the peri peri sauce a Portuguese influence that made up part of the delicious and varied sampler plate that we ordered as an appetizer. 

“That peri peri sauce is the real thing, so authentic, spicy with a warm lingering aftertaste,” Richelle said. “And the samoosas! The pastry’s light and flaky, the perfect bite-size appetizer to wake up the taste buds.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. The Durban Room understands that samoosas should not be leathery pouches containing a solid lump of meat or vegetables, as is true in some Indian restaurants, but instead, the pastry shell should be closer to phyllo and inner fixings should complement each other in taste and texture, with just the right amount of crunchiness. Bravo, Chef Braulio Melo.

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Photo for Mozambique by Mike Altishin

The sampler plate is great, though I was tempted to eat only samoosas all night

The plump prawns in the sampler dish burst with flavor and were exuberantly spicy, setting up great expectations for the entrees, each of which turned out to be up to the task.

The boerewors (farm sausage) was good, nicely spicy, a little dry for me, but then I’ve never been much of a boerewors booster – however, those who do love boerewors should know that it is made daily on the premises to exacting standards.

Barbara chose to detour from the Durban theme (though she remained coastal) for her main course and she raved about her Chilean sea bass, served with asparagus and mashed potatoes. “The fish was light and fluffy,” she said. “The sauce was creamy and exceptionally tasty. It’s a new favorite for me.”

A word here about the wine list: South Africa, mostly in the Western Cape area, produces incredible wines. I’m not a sophisticated wine drinker: “I’ll take the house Chardonnay” is generally what I tell servers, or otherwise I tend to choose wine based on its name, rather the way I’d select possible winners in a horse race, so I asked for the Indaba Chardonnay, Indaba meaning meeting, which is what we were doing right then, we Durbanites, and the wine was perfect, light enough to pair with the curry, but tasty in its own right. 

Richelle, more knowledgeable than I about viticulture, confirmed that Mozambique offers an excellent selection of South African wines.

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Barbara took a detour from the Durban theme and loved the Chilean sea bass

Richelle enjoyed her Fleur de Cap Pinotage. “This is a lovely light drinking wine. However, a true treat would be the Rust en Vrede Cabernet Sauvignon,” she said – apparently one of Nelson Mandela’s favorites. 

I must mention here how conducive to conversation The Durban Room is, a rare quality in many restaurants these days where loud music or bad acoustics tend to leave one more or less speechless, unable to do much except nod or smile in response to chatter one can’t actually hear. 

On this night we were particularly fortunate to hear the accomplished Francois Dean on the piano. What a fabulous singer and musician! At the Durban Room, diners enjoy voluptuous lounge music from Thursdays to Sundays, ranging from jazz, blues, funk and R&B – the mood changing with the deepening of the night, and sometimes with the appearance of additional musicians and celebrities. That evening, Star Jones sat at the table next to ours.

So it was that our conversation covered quite a bit of ground. Barbara and I found out that we had both worked at The Three Bears furniture store way back when. We talked about the paddling pools on Marine Parade and the time the high tide engulfed them. The surfing culture, how Shaun Thomson used to come into Kelly’s Steakhouse where I worked during my vacations. 

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Richelle’s peri peri prawns were very very good 

But mostly we talked about food, from the ghastly – for example, the dry, chewy frikkadels (meat patties) my mother used to make, served with slimy overcooked cabbage – to the glorious – in my case, the fudge my Scottish father loved, my memories of those times such a comfort, recalling how at eight years old, I stood on a stool and helped my dad stir the mixture until the texture was just right. (My father would die a year later.) 

Finally, the three of us sampled the Portuguese hot butter pudding, served in a martini glass. “The sweet, warm flavor of the pudding just melts in your mouth,” Richelle said.

She also enjoyed an Amarula on the rocks, a popular South African after-dinner drink. “Sweet and creamy, this drink is the perfect sipping cocktail for after dinner, a fun dessert replacement,” she added, “or try the restaurant’s Dark and Stormy Continent coffee drink with a shot of Amarula.” 

What’s great about The Durban Room, in addition to the warm, sophisticated and yet welcoming atmosphere, and the unobtrusively excellent service, is that the menu provides a wide range of delicious choices for everyone’s taste. Certainly no diner is forced to choose a South African-influenced dish.

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Photo by Kim Hardin

The Portuguese hot butter pudding was sweet and warm 

But we three ladies, we Durbanites, we would have loved to see a few more South African favorites on the menu. Not that I expect The Durban Room to serve anchovy toast, or Marmite toast, or cheese and tomato sandwiches grilled with butter on both sides of the bread – though I’d enjoy all three – or mieliepap (corn porridge), which I wouldn’t – but perhaps more dishes with an Eastern flair, such as Indonesian rijstafel? I mean, Americans love their peanut butter…

Perhaps bobotie (minced lamb with a hint of curry, incorporating raisins and almonds, with a milk-and-egg topping)?  

Maybe desserts invented by our Afrikaner fellow-countrymen, such as melktert and koeksusters? 

Of course, many of my South African food memories are bound up with personal experiences, both happy (fudge) and sad (frikkadels), and nostalgia is not a flavor that can be added in any kitchen. 

So I’d best leave the menu decision-making to Chef Melo, who clearly knows what he is doing.

Please, do go to The Durban Room. It’s intimate, it’s inviting, the food is amazing, conversation is audible, and the atmosphere is, indeed, very back-east-ish. 

Durbanite or not, you will love it, I promise. 

Group bookings and holiday group party reservations are also welcome at The Durban Room – it seats 50 for dinner, and handles 80 in a cocktail reception format.

Mozambique Restaurant is located at 1740 S. Coast Highway. Visit the http://www.MozambiqueOC.com website for announcements of the upcoming piano lounge live music schedule.


SLICE: It’s pizza on a whole other level

Review and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

With vision and dedication to the project, an impossibly small, slice-shaped piece of property has become the commodious and welcoming Slice restaurant. 

I was happy to pop in the other night – a weeknight – and find the place abuzz with families, couples, and individuals all sharing a long table and neighboring counter. Cary and Suzanne Redfearn, firstly, designed the attractive space to include the communal seating, already enjoyed by loads of your soon-to-be new friends. 

And then there was the aroma of something delicious in the giant, authentically Italian, gorgeous, 7,000-pound pizza oven. Even better, owner Cary Redfearn was there to provide a little depth as to the whole concept that is Slice.

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Cary Redfearn happy to have opened his newest restaurant in Laguna, Slice

“I wanted to do quick service, with elevated product,” said Cary. “There’s more than I ever imagined!”

Getting started

Cary told me that the research into creating a fantastic pizza restaurant was more than being a super-experienced restaurateur for more than thirty years, more than even falling in love with Italy while taking cooking classes there. 

“I spent time at Las Vegas [a pizza purveyors convention]. There were 1100 vendors – with tomatoes, olive oil, …an oven company!” he said. “I changed because of that show.”

What you don’t want

Cary had a vision for Slice, and it started with what you don’t want.

“I didn’t want to do Napoli pizza floppy in the middle – I wanted it crispy all the way through.” He calls it “Neo-Neapolitan.”

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Slice’s custom order bar and 7,000-pound Italian pizza oven

Ever the able student, Cary found a school in LA teaching about such things. “The instructor said, ‘You need to come to my restaurant.’” 

It was South End, in Venice. Cary went, and knew it was exactly what he wanted to create in Laguna. “Mario,” Cary told the instructor, “that’s what I want to do.”

So Mario headed south to impart his expertise. “After two days [teaching],” Cary says. “It’s like a light went off!”

It’s about the dough

“I’m 24-hour fermentation, augmenting the dough – 24 hours ahead,” Cary says, clearly excited about the dough process. The flour used in the dough comes from one of the oldest mills in Italy. This is a man who cares about the product. 

“Dough has a look, a feel, and a sound – I know how it’s supposed to be,” he says with a laugh. “My life has been run by dough lately! 

“I didn’t want to let people down by not serving great pizza. I wanted to get the dough right – just the way we wanted it.”

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Here in sophisticated Laguna Beach, we value that authenticity. We can be pretty picky about our pizzas. I found the pizza dough absolutely on point – crispy, with bits of char, still chewy and full of fresh, properly risen yeast and wheat taste. 

And the other stuff

All the ingredients were chosen by Cary’s exacting standards.

Take the tomatoes, used for the base. Bianco Dinapoli tomatoes, from California’s Central Valley, won out because they are super-fresh, not pre-cooked, they are organically grown and steam peeled – and because they are the least acid of any tomatoes Cary tried. And he tested a lot! The cheeses – mozzarella, ricotta, burrata – are all fresh, made by Angelo Franco, in LA. 

And then there are custom options of all the freshest variety. One of the delicious concepts at Slice is that you can create your own custom pies.

Signature pizza or customize?

I met a couple there, Mark and Kobea, who had just received their favorite pie. “We came here once, and we were hooked,” Mark said. Theirs had olives, tomatoes, fennel, zucchini, prosciutto and burrata. It looked amazing.

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Kobea’s favorite pizza

We tried two pizzas from the menu, and I have to say – no hyperbole – I was a little weak in the knees! The first was the “Shaw’s Cove,” a combination including shrimp, pesto, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, fresh oregano, and topped with wild arugula. I loved the way all the different flavors worked together, and the rustic, natural appeal of whole shrimp, curled while cooking in the oven, and the cool, fresh arugula added at the end so it stays nice and crunchy.

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The Shaw’s Cove pizza

The other pizza we tried actually had me coming back for more the next day. Called the “Lolita,” it looked innocent enough, all smooth and white, dotted with green olives and topped with egg. But, one bite into that creamy garlic ricotta sauce countered by the zingy castelvetrano olives and I was swooning. I seriously woke up the next morning, planning to head out for another Lolita pizza.

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The Lolita pizza

Wait, there’s beer!

The signature pizzas are all 11-inches, perfect for sharing. Meanwhile, to wet your whistle there is a whole other universe happening at Slice. It’s like you travel into the future and, looking back, think why didn’t this exist before? 

Here’s what you do for adult beverages: you get a wristband. The wristband has a magnetic thingy on it that knows your bill (attached to your credit card). You swipe the wristband at the dispenser of your choice (some 14 different beers, and 14 different wines), and pour away. You get charged only the amount that you pour. So, say you want to try a little of the Session IPA, but just a bit because you’re eyeing a different microbrew, you just get charged that little bit. All the info about the varietals, as well as the prices are listed at the tap.

Photo by Shaena

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Beer and wine taps at Slice

Meanwhile, over at the soda station, there’s another world going on as well. Out of a soda machine, unlike any I’ve ever seen before, you can dispense away – up to 160 varieties of soda combinations (as well as other Coke products, like Vitamin Water)! Tech savvy kiddos can even check it out on the computer or phone beforehand, and the machine will identify you and your preference when you’re there. Whoa. Someone from the future dropped off a Coke machine at Slice.

Slice is open daily from 11 a.m. Learn more at slicelb.com

477 Forest Avenue, Order ahead at (949) 715-3993


Harvest Restaurant’s growth reaps bountiful new menu items

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” 

Mark Christy would tell you he’s been planting so many seeds at The Ranch since its inception that he should be driving one of those giant John Deere tractors with a matching hat on his head. 

As golf course, hotel rooms and spa have all matured, the resort’s primary restaurant, Harvest, seemed to be on its own gestation schedule. 

But now, Harvest is – as an old church hymn sings – “bringing in the sheaves.” 

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Photo courtesy Diane Armitage

Harvest: A perfect finale to a hard day’s work

By far one of the most stunning restaurant settings in Laguna Beach, Harvest is a feast for the senses. I love sitting at the tables on the windows, especially when said windows have been rolled back into the walls. It’s a soothing place where you can come alone to regenerate your soul, or carry on a low decibel conversation with your dining partner without the need to holler. 

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Photo courtesy The Ranch/Harvest

New Chef, new mojo – executive chef Kyle St. John

In September, with the announcement that Chef de Cuisine Kyle St. John had been elevated to Executive Chef status, our soothing restaurant’s menu began to stir with signs of life, new ideas rustling in the wind.

Although Harvest’s restaurant menu had, to date, offered some memorable items, it hadn’t reaped the giant fanfare that had been expected. 

Now, that’s all changing. (In other words, it’s harvest time, baby!)

In my estimation, a Chef de Cuisine or Sous Chef is often the most innovative and talented cook in the kitchen. (This might have something to do with the fact that the Executive Chef has to become more of a business executive of the kitchen with P&L statements, food cost predictions, labor and scheduling, and the comparative price of fresh orange juice in six states.) 

Chef Kyle came on board as Chef de Cuisine at the Ranch exactly one year ago, undoubtedly dreaming up new innovations for the menu all along. While a few changes were made under the most recent Executive Chef, Chef Kyle is finally enjoying a run at the menu on his terms. 

And that run, folks, is looking mighty fine.

What a difference a few changes make

When I sat down for lunch this week, I arrived unannounced with a girlfriend buddy. It was only a matter of minutes, though, before Chef Kyle was introducing himself at our table. He’s a happy guy, producing a happy menu – no better place for a chef to be. 

He served up a number of fun dishes on the current menu that bear his signature, including a revamped Caesar Salad, a giant bowl of creamy Pimento Mac ‘n Cheese, and a crazy-good Fried Chicken Burger. 

The Caesar was created true to form, shaken (never stirred) with a very light touch on anchovy mixed in. 

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Creamy Pimento Mac ‘n Cheese

Although we talked with Chef more than 20 minutes, when we finally dug into the creamy mac ‘n cheese, it was still steaming. It’s noted on the menu as a “side dish,” but this can easily feed a family of three (but you might have to fight over it). 

The Fried Chicken Burger was a masterpiece. You’re going to need help with a knife and fork as this is a giant with a hefty chicken breast, fresh tomato, mini haystack of arugula and house-made bread and butter pickles. The menu claims Thousand Island dressing for added goo, but there’s a hint of curry somewhere in this mix, whether in the breading for the chicken or the dressing itself. Whatever the case, it makes for a perfect meld of savory goodness. 

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The fried chicken burger is a masterpiece

After all that comfort food, Chef sent out the final piece de resistance, “The Last Piece of Apple Pie.” A single wedge in an empty pie pan, this is a heap of Grandma-like love with freshly peeled and baked apples, a perfect flaky crust and ice cream drizzled in caramel sauce. It has all the guilty trappings of finding that last piece of homemade pie stuffed behind the leftover turkey from Grandma’s holiday meal…and stealing away with it like some kind of Christmas Grinch.

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Photo by Diane Armitage

“The Last Piece of Apple Pie”

While Chef Kyle is happy with item changes and additions he has inserted into the existing menus, he loves the new changes coming down the pike. Complete menu changes for both lunch and dinner will be debuting before Thanksgiving.  

For starters, let’s start with starters

Chef Kyle is innovating several new small plates and shared appetizers for the new menus. That info is enough to get an ovation from me. This is exactly what Harvest has needed, as this is the kind of restaurant that speaks to relaxing and lingering with friends. 

He’s also creating a “legitimate” soup and salad section with classic French Onion, soup du jour and a lineup of salads that include a Harvest Garden salad made of “whatever comes out of our garden,” he says with a grin. 

And then it’s on to even bigger changes with a bigger picture in mind.   

Sustaining delicious sustainability is a commitment

Chef Kyle was raised in Montana on a 1,200-acre farm that produced just about everything on the family’s dinner table. His love for cooking firmly established, he moved to be near his next love – ocean water – first on the East Coast, and then broad jumping everything in between to land in South Orange County. In SoCal for 18 years, he moved to Laguna Beach four years ago, and now lives with his new bride, Laura, in North Laguna. 

With the combined farm background and local love for Laguna and all things surfing, Chef Kyle is a perfect fit for The Ranch’s significant commitment to sustainability 

Chef Kyle has taken the initiative into his kitchen with continued efforts to maintain the restaurant’s rare award, Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly Restaurant Certification. This means, in part, that some fish menu items are wholly local, caught that very morning in the waters off Dana Point. 

Further, Chef Kyle is working hand in hand with San Juan Capistrano’s Ecology Center to boost his own harvest out by “Scout Camp” at The Ranch. It’s an acre-sized garden of completely organic herbs, root vegetables and leafy greens.

Debuting delicious new menu items is an art form

As Chef talks about the new entrées and dishes he will be debuting shortly, every item connects back to the sustainability and organic theme. 

His new Beer Braised Short Rib, Bone-In Ribeye for Two, and Half Chicken (done Coq au Vin style) will be sourced organically. 

Chef’s debut of Whole Fried Branzino, Bacon-Wrapped Scallops, and mussels and oysters will be arriving fresh daily. 

Even new share and small plates such as Pork Belly Bites, done banh mi style, and the Confit Duck Wings will be loyally and thoughtfully sourced. 

Granted, we all admire and support any chef’s efforts toward sustainability. From a foodie standpoint, though, it’s just darn exciting to see so many enticing new menu items in the “winter harvest” at Harvest

Look for menu changes in about two weeks. Lunch menus will be the first to debut the largest number of small plates and shared appetizers but, in short order, we will be seeing them migrate to bar and dinner menus, too. 

Breakfast at The Ranch is served 7 – 11 a.m., Lunch from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Bar menu runs interference from 3:00 – 5:30 while the kitchen preps for dinner. 

And dinner menu plays 5:30 – 10:00 p.m.


Okura is unique for “Ishiyaki” - cooking on hot stones – and offers dishes from the far past to the present

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL 

There’s only one restaurant in Laguna Beach that offers the ancient Japanese cooking method, Ishiyaki, the ancient Japanese method of cooking on smooth hot stones, right at your table, and that’s Okura Robata Grill and Sushi.

And there’s only one person I know whose eating adventures rival Anthony Bourdain’s, and that’s my fellow-writer Marrie Stone. 

On occasion, when travelling, she’s been known to order dishes few people would even consider (one that arrived with hair, so it’s not unusual for her to ask if a certain dish requires a comb). However, on this particular evening, we were sure that inquiry wouldn’t prove necessary.

The combination of hot stones and Marrie Stone made for a fabulous evening of fun and food. 

The history behind Ishiyaki comes from Akita, Japan. “When fishermen went to catch a fish or shellfish by diving into sea, it was a custom to provide a stove in the boat. At noon, they boiled fish and shellfish in a wooden bucket heated with hot stones from the stove. On shore, where wooden buckets or pans were not provided, they cooked in a hollow of a rock. This cooking is also called ‘ishiyaki,’ baked with hot stones,” I learn.

Chef Jin has transformed this tradition into cooking on a hot stone tableside, or on the table, which we did. (More about the delicious food that preceded this later.)

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Ancient Japanese method of cooking on hot stones, Ishiyaki

The oval stone is heated to 450 degrees (it can be heated up to 1,000 degrees), which lasts for 15-20 minutes, then it will be reheated. This method, which involves no oil, is used for meat, fish, and vegetables. The hot stone grill arrives with three condiments: a soy garlic based sauce, rock salt and pepper, and a homemade ponzo sauce of soy vinegar, dried bonita, and citrus infused oranges. 

As she applies a slice of meat to the stone, and then tastes it, Marrie raves about the tenderness. “The Ishiyaki was an incredibly unique experience. The hot stone perched over hot coals was lovely. I enjoyed both the control over the cooking, and the fun of cooking a meal together without the hassle. The meat was amazing – buttery, melt in your mouth, marbled quality that I haven’t experienced before,” she said.

As an expansion of the original Okura in La Quinta, opened by Chef Jin Heo from South Korea and his sister, Chef Jin has been in this location for three years (and cooking in the US for 12 years, since his arrival here in 2005). 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Chef Jin Heo

Instead of always dreaming to be a chef, as some chefs do, Chef Jin majored in aerospace engineering in college, and his goal was to be a pilot. However, that ambition was dashed when he had surgery, and luckily for his patrons, he decided to go to culinary school. He successfully translated that engineering precision and creativity into his cuisine.

Chef Jin considers his style Italian-Japanese fusion, which is also reflected in the clean and sleek décor of the restaurant, but with a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere. 

After culinary school, Chef Jin learned much of his craft while at the La Quinta location, increasing his knowledge through reading and experimentation. In recognition of his talents, he has received top nods from Best Chefs America. 

Before the Ishiyaki adventure, Marrie and I had been greeted by Christina, the manager, who settled us in a cozy corner area of the lounge to scan the menu for a few sushi rolls to start. Prior to assuming the role of manager, Christina worked here part time, and has now been in her new position for three months, a move for which she seems superbly suited. We decided on the New Kye, Protein Roll, and the Salmon Carpaccio. These are specialty rolls, but, we soon found out, with an added twist.

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Photo by Dianne Russell

The New Kye roll with a burst of tobiko

The three rolls arrive at once, and Marrie and I jockey for position with our chopsticks. These rolls incorporate unexpected flavors and ingredients that meld together nicely. The Protein Roll consists of salmon, tuna, yellowtail, spicy crab, and jalapeno. The jalapeno is surprising and provided a tangy peppery taste with the freshness of the fish. 

Marrie says, “The presentation feels like a work of art. From the vibrant colors of the fresh fish to the crisp greens of the cucumber and jalapenos, it’s as much a feast for the eyes as it is the palate.”

The New Kye roll is also a delight, using hamachi, tuna, salmon, cucumber, tobiko, and scallions. The colors are spectacular, and the tobiko (flying fish eggs) explode in little pops with each bite. 

The Salmon Carpaccio leaves both of us in awe. Thinly sliced salmon in a shallow layer of clear and citrusy sauce (we both love lemon) is topped with flash fried baby arugula. The crunchiness of the arugula combined with the silky salmon couldn’t be more perfect.

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Photo by Dianne Russell

A surprising and delicious topping of flash fried arugula

And then the Ishiyaki was served. Chef Jin is especially proud of the quality of the meat. He shows us a Certification of Authenticity that verifies it is 100 percent Japanese Wagga Beef, the highest quality grade in Japan, which Okura imports. It requires no oil in the cooking process. 

For his fish dishes, Chef Jin also uses only fresh fish, utilizing all of the parts in his cuisine. They even have fresh Toro in an aquarium.

Okura also offers Robata Grill cooking, which involves grilling skewers of fish or meat over charcoal in a Konro grill. We’ll have to save this one for our next visit.

Although I’ve left the libations for last, they are certainly not the least. Okura offers an impressive list of new specialty cocktails with tantalizing names like Dragon Bite, Ginger Rita, and Pacific Rim Bellini. And the selection of sakes won’t be found on any other menus. We tasted Dewasanan, which is infused with green apple. It’s crisp and smooth with no acrid alcohol taste.

So far, we’ve covered the past (Ishiyaki) and the present (specialty rolls) contained in Okura’s menu. 

In the near future, they will have even more excitement for local residents. Late Night Happy Hour has already been added, Friday and Saturday nights, from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m., perfect for those wanting to grab a bite after normal restaurant hours.

Christina also plans to open up the space for events and weddings. More variety of meat selections, such as short ribs for Ishiyaki, will be added to the menu, and Chef Jin’s ongoing enhancement of his dishes will no doubt continue to delight and surprise patrons.

With its unique presentation of Ishiyaki, Okura brings a bit of ancient Japan into modern day Laguna Beach, well worth a visit to taste this exclusive example of Japanese cuisine.

Okura Robata Grill and Sushi is located at 858 So Coast Hwy, 949-793-4320.

Hours: Mon-Thurs, 4-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.- 1 a.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. For questions, go to: http://www.okurasushi.com/


Bounty dinners at Bluebird Canyon Farms: A unique dining experience at a magical place you won’t want to leave

Story and photos by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

So when I was about ten years old, I read a book called The Faraway Tree by author Enid Blyton. Every week, a new land would arrive at the top of the Tree, and three lucky children would climb up the trunk and enter a new dimension. 

Some of the lands were magical and some of the lands were terrifying – but in every case, the children had to leave before the land moved on, or they’d be stuck within that world forever. 

For different reasons, some lands were harder for the kids to leave than others. 

This was the experience that awaited me at Bluebird Canyon Farms. 

My Uber climbed the short but steep driveway off Bluebird Canyon Drive. I emerged from the car and looked around, breathed in the scents, heard the soughing of leaves in the breeze. 

And I knew immediately that I had arrived at a truly magical place, a serene and wildly lovely oasis floating a mere ten minutes above Laguna’s downtown. 

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The tables are set with beautiful flowers

After a tour led by Farmer Leo, aka Ryan Goldsmith, it seemed to me that the bees danced more giddily here than most bees, the chickens were happier and cluckier here than most chickens, and the vegetables more saturated in color here than most vegetables.

Soon I was to enjoy a dinner that would taste more delicious than most dinners I’ve enjoyed in my long eating life. 

During the spring, summer and fall, the farm hosts twice-monthly Bounty Dinners of five to six courses, each of which is true to the season and exquisitely prepared.

Ninety percent of the vegetables served are grown on the farm. Farm to table is a literally true here – the distance between the two minimal.

Farmer Leo and Chef Jen Alvarez espouse a philosophy about food that echoes the Native American belief that every part of an animal that has given its life to provide sustenance for others, should be used as completely as possible.

Chef Jen recalls, “Recently we served slow roasted duck, freshly brought in from [a place in] Lake Elsinore. We rendered the fat to cook dumplings; we made stock from the heart, liver and bones and served consommé; we even created crackling that we sprinkled on the salad.” 

(Maybe there’s also a new down pillow or two on the farm? I forgot to ask.) 

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Welcoming cocktails in a genial atmosphere

Dinnertime. We sit at beautifully decorated tables under a string of lights. A guitarist plays in the background. Stars sprinkle the night sky. Candles glow.

After a pink cocktail incorporating grape jelly, mint soda and vodka, which started a gentle buzz that I happily maintained throughout the evening by imbibing wine brought by guests and willingly shared by all, we were served our first course.

Lusciously plated, the corn squash tortellini was accompanied by creamy sage butter, a perfect accompaniment to the rich texture of the squash and satiny pasta.

Conversations began among strangers, commonalities found. “You too?” “Oh, I agree.” “No, really, how funny.” 

A dreamily good arugula and pea shoot salad with pomegranates, persimmons, spiced walnuts, Nicolau Farm goat cheese, and honey then arrived. The dish made my mouth strike up a band, the peppery arugula a great contrast to the sweeter ingredients, harmony on a plate. 

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Lynette’s iPhone cannot possibly convey the fabulous look and taste of each dish: hence the salad will be the only food photo you will see in this article

The arugula reminded me of the aquaponics system we’d seen earlier, and the chicory, among other vegetables, it was nurturing. Chicory, the farm believes, may be the next trend after kale.

Aquaponics was a new term for me: it combines aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soil-less growing of plants) into one one integrated system.

Back to the dinner: the soup was rich and tasty and earthily good, incorporating free-range chicken broth and farm greens with new onions and crème fraiche. 

The chatter grew louder, with more introductions made across and around the table, without any of the acoustic issues that happen in the best of restaurants.

“Each dish is so good, I feel that we should be standing up and applauding after every course,” said the diner across the table from me, Don Meek, formerly a top executive with the Tribune media company, dining with his wife Summer Meek.

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Summer and Don Meek, fellow diners, were great conversationalists

Founders of The Soul Project in downtown Laguna, the Meeks explained the goal of their company, which started as a way to build a sustainable company that could support their family while also making an immediate and positive contribution to the world around them.

Well, they made an immediate and positive contribution to my enjoyment. Several anecdotes about cousin Sli Dawg and his tendency to steal spoons were hilarious. I guess you had to be there, though…(so go!)

And then I was served my very first rabbit. (I have eaten a Patagonian hare, I have to confess, or at least part of one.)

After walking the trails that very morning, and seeing bobtail bunnies happily be-bopping in the brush, I was a little more conscious than I normally am about being a meat-eater, especially with a vegetarian sitting to my left. (She was served an amazing squash dish instead, and was reassured that none of it had touched the rabbit or vice versa. She said her dish was “amazing.”)

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Chef Jen loves her kitchen – I get a preview of the magic to follow, though I did not personally see the rabbit

The Da-le-Ranch rabbit was good, very good indeed, the flavors of the dish encouraging each other to be their very best selves. The meat was braised with wine, mushrooms and thyme, served with baby turnips and dandelion greens. 

“Is it wrong to lick the plate?” someone asked, rather longingly.

By now, conversations had grown funnier and funnier – time, wine and good food tend to have that effect – and I was enjoying myself immensely. The evening felt like a Thanksgiving dinner but with new stories instead of the usual oft-told anecdotes (which of course have their own charm).

The evening was topped off with a Kabocha squash cake with cocoa nib cream, cinnamon meringue and chocolate ganache sauce. 

Guest Kim Narel said, “This was like a lava cake marrying a carrot cake (with chocolate too). Not too sweet, and the ingredients mixed together so well,” she said. “Yet they could still be individually tasted and savored.”

A hot toddy ended the evening and warmed the stomach as well as the soul. 

To stay or to go?

Then I had to leave. Given the choice, I might well have wanted to stay in that happy land forever, but that would not have gone down well with my husband Bill and family (or with Shaena, most likely). And the truth is, I was happy to be transported to home by Uber, with no climbing down a Faraway Tree required.

Because that’s the great thing about Bluebird Canyon Farms. The Farm is not moving on. It’s here to stay. I can go back, and I will.

Bluebird Canyon Farm’s next Bounty Dinner will be on October 26, the final dinner before a winter break. Dinners will resume in spring. Visit www.bluebirdcanyonfarms.com for more information. They’re also available for private functions.

Be warned, Bluebird Canyon Farm is not an easy place to find…do not take that first steep driveway on your right, take the second steep driveway to find this magic land.


You have guac to be kidding me: Avocado toast was harder to find in Laguna than we thought 

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL and LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Dianne’s musings…

An avocado a day keeps the doctor away, well, not really – although maybe they are better for our health than the proverbial apple: according to the California Avocado Commission, one-third of a medium avocado (50g) has 80 calories and contributes nearly 20 vitamins and minerals, making it a great nutrient dense food choice.

 Wouldn’t matter anyway, I just love them, and truly do eat them every day, in any way, shape, or form. Once during a party mixer game, in which the guests wrote down the one thing they couldn’t live without, I scribbled avocados, (unfortunately not my husband, kids, or dog, though the dog would have come in a close second). 

But then my family loves avos as well, so much so, that my 22-year-old grandson has an avocado tattooed on his arm. That’s a life-long commitment. 

So, not surprisingly, when given the scrumptious assignment of sampling some of the avocado toast offerings at local restaurants, I was giddy with anticipation.

Although Lynette’s love affair with avocadoes began on a different continent (South Africa), we share a similar passion for this tasty fruit, which is sometimes called an alligator pear, so we decided to put our heads together, prime our taste buds, and collaborate.

Lynette’s musings…

Way back in the seventies, before avocado toast was a thing, I loved hot buttered toast (slightly burned) upon which I’d place avocado, mashed with a hint of vinegar and sprinkled with a decent amount of salt. 

Little did I know I was ahead of my time, and that avocado toast would become a gourmet breakfast of choice in the 21st century. 

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Photo by Lynette

Zinc serves it lavishly and chunkily

Turns out there are many varieties of avocado toast. Each has its own style, appealing to purists and innovation-seekers alike.

For my son Dylan, an avocado junkie (I was addicted while pregnant with him), I’ll be recommending Zinc Café when he next comes west for his fix. The avocado is lavishly and chunkily served on a bed of julienned radishes and topped with chives. 

A poached egg (if desired) is served in a separate little bowl. This prevents any yolk, no matter how delicious, from invading and compromising the integrity of the perfectly toasted base. 

Mouth-fillingly marvelous, is all I can say.

Those who prefer their avocado as a palate-pleasing accent rather than a full-on avalanche of taste may wish to visit Jan’s Health Bar. Here, the presentation of avocado toast is so stunning, I considered framing my breakfast instead of eating it. 

The avocado is generously applied to the toast, but in a much more understated fashion, and, if ordered with a boiled egg, the dish arrives with pretty ovoid ovals topped with chili flakes. This breakfast will appeal to those who like a bit of spice in their lives. 

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Photo by Lynette

I considered framing my breakfast at Jan’s instead of eating it

Kitchen in the Canyon serves avocado on a toasted brioche topped with jalapeno-cilantro aioli, avocado spread, sliced avocado, tomato salsa jam, topped with an egg, poached or fried.

“What?” I exclaimed upon reading the menu. “Avocado spread and avocado slices?” Talk about heaven!

And it was good. The jalapeno and tomato salsa jam contrasted interestingly with the smooth coolness of the avocado. The cilantro-averse should avoid this dish, though. 

I must admit I’m mystified as to the difference between mashed avocado with added ingredients, and guacamole. Why don’t we call it guacamole toast? It’s a puzzle. 

But anyway, now I am feeling the urge to make some guacamole just in case guests should drop by. (You never know!) Back to Dianne.

Dianne continues to muse…

Unlike Lynette, I didn’t have an egg at Zinc, although the dish was a delight without it too. Served on sourdough toast with a slight slathering of butter, then sprinkled with lemon tinged radishes, and finally topped with more than ample mounds of creamy avocado, this serving is so generous that part of this offering ended up in to-go containers. 

Jan’s Health Bar also offers a bagel with avocado, and this has a more down-home appeal. The bagel was a great alternative. The perfectly seasoned avocado was a nice change from the traditional cream cheese, more health conscious, and an option for those who love bagels, but must avoid dairy. 

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Photo by Lynette

Bagel with avocado is a great alternative for those who must avoid dairy

And yes, the age-old guacamole versus avocado question! With the presentation at Kitchen in the Canyon, we got a taste of both – we hit the mother lode. The brioche was a nice touch, lighter and a bit sweeter than toast, and the tomato salsa jam and jalapeno-cilantro aioli added a tasty blend of sweet and spicy to the richness of the avocado. An interesting twist. 

Evidently, the popularity of avocado toast has been overstated, because on Wednesday morning, Lynette and I walked the streets downtown trying to find another version to sample. No luck. We tried The Grove, Anastasia, Moulin Bistro, and C’est La Vie (all of which have delightful breakfasts, some of which incorporate avocado but none that gives it star billing). The White House and The Cliffs were closed. 

After a brisk walk, we agreed that at least we were getting some exercise, an unexpected benefit for adamant avocado-seekers. Then, starving, willing to give up the Great Avocado Chase and just eat whatever else might appeal, we ended up at The Greeters, which has a spectacular view of Main Beach. 

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Photo by Lynette

Build your own avocado toast…

Although they too didn’t have avocado toast on the menu, we decided to Build Our Own Breakfast, and each ordered an avocado with an egg (Lynette had bacon on hers) and a side of toast. This wouldn’t be the first choice if a diner were looking for a more gourmet version, but it had the vital ingredients, half an avocado, egg and toast. 

In sampling the Avocado Toasts available in Laguna, there was such a variety, it is difficult to compare them – each had its unique attributes destined to please someone somewhere.

And now, bring on the Super Bowl – just five short months away … the king of guacamole events.

According to the Haas Avocado Board, fans eat an average of 278 million avocados that day. With the politically divided state of the country these days, it’s good to know that so many of us have at least one thing in common: a deep and abiding love of avocados. 

Or is it guacamole?

Kya

Shaena Stabler is the Owner and Publisher.

Lynette Brasfield is our Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

The Webmaster is Michael Sterling.

Katie Ford is our in-house ad designer.

Alexis Amaradio, Cameron Gillepsie  Allison Rael, Barbara Diamond, Diane Armitage, Laura Buckle, Maggi Henrikson, Marrie Stone, Samantha Washer and Suzie Harrison are staff writers.

Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Laura Buckle and Suzie Harrison are columnists.

Mary Hurlbut, Scott Brashier, and Aga Stuchlik are the staff photographers.

We all love Laguna and we love what we do.

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Email: Lynette@StuNewsLaguna.com with news releases, letters, etc

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