Studio at Montage Laguna Beach, where harmony is the key to sensational unique dishes

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

It was an exciting week this week, as my time came to review Studio at Montage Laguna Beach and quite brilliantly it happened to be the week that my parents were in town from the UK to celebrate my dad’s birthday. So who better to take to one of Laguna Beach’s most celebrated and acclaimed restaurants?  

That’s right - my dear dad, David Kirkham, who looks about 45 but actually turns 60 on June 30.

I consider myself to be very lucky to have such a wonderful father. A carpenter since the age of 15, he has been the most inspirational person to me. His passion for his craft has always driven me.  

He’s the guy that can make anything out of anything, he’s the “wood guy” that can look at a piece of wood and tell you its age its origin and more. He’s also the guy that spends way too long in the DIY store (insert eye roll). 

And he is a great chef! He uses cooking as a way of chilling out after a busy day at work and makes the most beautiful food, experimenting with anything and everything. So I knew that an experience eating Chef Craig Strong’s phenomenal and imaginative food would be such a treat for him.

About Chef Craig Strong

Chef Strong has been executive chef at Montage Laguna Beach for nine years. He is known for his modern French cuisine with California influences. His love of cooking was developed at an early age. One of eight children growing up in San Diego, he was inspired by his mother and grandmother to first experiment with tomatoes and zucchini grown in the family’s vegetable garden that was his to manage.  

At age 19, he attended L’Academie de Cuisine near Washington DC, where he studied under some of the most respected chefs in the area, including Chefs Françoise and Pascal Dinot. From that moment on Chef Strong’s career took him all over the USA and then on to Europe, specifically Barcelona, before returning to California, where he gained many high accolades including Michelin One-star ratings in 2007 and 2008; Gourmet magazine ’60 World’s Best Hotel Dining Rooms,’ Los Angeles Times 3 Star Rating, Food & Wine ’50 Best Hotel Restaurants’ and California Homes magazine ‘#1 Hotel Restaurant.’ 

Strong was named runner-up Chef of the Year by Angeleno magazine and was a semi finalist in the 2009 James Beard Foundation Awards for Best Chef/Pacific.

Whether yoga, biking or food artistry: Studio’s chef is a “strong” believer in harmony

Over the past couple of months, I have been lucky enough to have a few encounters with Chef Strong. I’ve written a feature about him for another publication. I also attend the same yoga class as him and his beautiful wife Lisa. 

Anyone can Google Chef Strong and find out all of his accolades, but to know him is to really love him. I have been blown away that such an accomplished, well-traveled, successful chef could be so humble, so calm, so accommodating, and such a gentleman. He is a keen mountain biker – he bikes most mornings before work – and, like my father, he is a devoted father and family man and is passionate about his craft.

He is also a great believer in harmony: in his kitchen, his restaurant, his life and on every plate. 

With this in mind I knew that this dinner was going to be very special.

Our Food Journey at Studio at Montage Laguna Beach

Studio at Montage offers tasting menus including a vegetarian option as well as a regular menu. The tasting menu is also available with wine selections or a grand wine tasting. 

Chef Strong had arranged for me and my dad to try a selection of dishes from both tasting menus while sitting at the communal table overlooking the Montage grounds and the beautiful ocean. He came to greet us and as I imagined, he and my dad got on famously. 

Peter Koehlinger and Dylan Cloughen were our servers for the evening and they brought out a selection of amazing hors d’oeuvres. Delicious caviar tacos, which melted in your mouth; a dehydrated rice chip with a madras curry paste, garnished with micro greens and wasabi; a short rib croquet with a horse radish puree; and lastly a duck confit spring roll with orange jelly and micro cilantro – the one-bite size hors d’oeuvres were all spectacular, interesting and so full of flavor, the perfect way to start our evening.

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Wagyu beef, harmony on a plate: this would be our last “main dish”

It was then on to the first course and we were presented with Seared Ahi Tuna from the tasting menu. This is served with a fava bean puree, pickled radish which injects a little spice and heat to the dish, and it is topped with a Focaccia Tuile (tuile is a baked wafer) strawberry powder, mustard greens and micro greens. 

Alongside this dish is a beautiful and unique gazpacho. Chef Strong uses a combination of red and green strawberries to make the broth instead of the traditional tomato base and the results are astounding. This was a light dish, with the combination of flavors blending together beautifully. 

Molecular Gastronomy: when science meets food

The next dish seriously blew me away. This dish can be found on the vegetarian tasting menu and is called Crimson Beet Tartare. Crimson beets are molded onto the plate with a delicious horseradish puree and then on top is a perfect yellow yolk, except it’s not a yolk (this is a vegetarian menu after all) – it’s a faux yolk created using molecular gastronomy and golden beets. This is outstanding. 

Peter, our server, encouraged us to cut the “yolk” and allow the liquid to fall over the crimson beets. This was not only beautiful to look at but also delicious to taste.

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Beet tartare with egg yolk? Actually, no…it’s a delicious faux yolk

In between this and the next course we were presented with a variety of delicious breads, brioche, multigrain and rye, and butters including a goat milk variety, a traditional, and a lemon and garlic flavored version. Bread is one thing I tend to avoid, but I tried them all and all were exquisite.

The next dish was New Caledonian Prawns, which were pan seared and served with egg noodles tossed in a basil and garlic emulsion and served over a shrimp reduction which had been infused with Meyer lemons from Chef Strong’s garden – it should be mentioned at this point that many of the vegetables, fruits and herbs come from Chef Strong’s garden or from the gardens at Montage Laguna Beach. This dish was topped with a dehydrated black olive and orange powder – yet again another imaginative and impressive combination of flavors.

The next dish was seared Maine scallops, served with a Romanesco puree, a cauliflower salad, beurre blanc sauce and bonito-yuzu koshū butter. This was topped with a fried cracker dusted with Nori powder. The combination of the Asian flavors and the tenderness of the perfectly cooked scallop was incredible. 

The celerini alfredo was next, celery root noodles with garlic cream, brown butter crumble and dehydrated porcini mushrooms. I am a big fan of using vegetables as noodles yet have never tried celery root noodles. This was really good and the crumble in this dish really made it pop.

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Celerini alfredo topped with dehydrated porcini mushrooms

The final ‘main dish” to try was the A5 Japanese WAGYU beef. A5 is the highest grade given only to the finest beef. This was served with a Bordelaise sauce, a creamy mash and delicious micro vegetables. I’ve never had meat so tender in my life, it literally melted in my mouth, it was so rich and delicious.

To our surprise we were then presented with two delicious desserts, a banana cake lovingly decorated with a happy birthday and candle for my dad, and a dark chocolate sphere. Our server poured hot chocolate sauce over the sphere to melt it and reveal handmade salted caramel ice cream - it was decadent, rich and creamy.

Chef Strong and his people at Studio together make the best team I have ever encountered in a fine dining establishment. They work together with equal respect for each other, they create an environment that is not superior or stuffy, but elegantly comfortable for everyone to enjoy. The flavors on every plate of food that they serve are harmonious, which is how Chef Strong approaches everything: in perfect harmony.

Studio at Montage Laguna Beach is located 30801 Coast Hwy. www.studiolagunabeach.com (949) 715 6420

Kya

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