Driftwood Kitchen: Peaceful ocean-close oasis with plentiful delicious dishes

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Larry Tenney

My recent visit to Driftwood Kitchen took place shortly after hurricanes – spawned by the Atlantic Ocean and whisked into monsters by the warm tropical air – devastated Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico. 

By contrast, here in Laguna Beach, the Pacific Ocean was living up to its name, peacefully lapping the shore just yards from the table where I sat with long-time friend and social media whiz Larry Tenney, who was going to take photographs of our dinner. 

The sun slipped down the sky, settled Humpty Dumpty-ish on the horizon for a brief moment, then fell slowly from view. 

We sighed contentedly, and focused on the menu.

Would we try the grilled Spanish octopus to start, or the yellowtail carpaccio with pineapple vinaigrette?  

Instead we chose the yellowfin tuna tartare and squash blossoms, then ordered and sipped our cocktails – mine called Livin’ on a Pear.

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What to do about the leaf in my Livin’ on a Pear?

I don’t usually drink cocktails, I’m boringly Chardonnay, so this was quite an adventure for me. I had to ask Larry how to cope with the leaf floating on top of this deliciously mint-fresh drink with cucumber undertones. At least it wasn’t an umbrella. I could have injured myself.

“How lucky we are,” Larry said, “to have jobs like this.”

For a while we mused about the randomness of life – how tranquil the setting was right now, and how quickly things could change: Laguna knows tragedy, knows wildfires, knows floods, knows mudslides. What did our respective futures hold? Was this all too good to be true?

And then we forgot about all that, because our food had arrived, and we were hungry.

Larry and I both loved the yellowfin tuna tartare: the crunch and crush of the sesame taco, the cool smooth contrast of tuna on the tongue, the pop of spicy mayo, the dollop of avocado mousse (you can never go wrong in my world when you add avocado) and the colorful sprinkle of topeka caviar titillating the taste buds.

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The four tacos arrived upright in a line, rather like expectant rollercoaster riders

“What’s great about this,” Larry had commented when the tacos arrived, firmly upright like expectant rollercoaster riders, “is the way it is presented. So often poke dishes are plonked onto the plate from a circular mold. Like cat food from a can. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Indeed, though now that image is going to be hard for me to shake. But he was right. This dish looked wonderful and tasted fantastic. 

(Later I would learn from Chef Rainer Schwarz that he had once tried to take the yellowfin tuna tartare off the menu. But hordes of angry villagers had stormed the restaurant, carrying placards and torches, demanding the dish be restored, and so he complied. No, I made that up, but local enthusiasm for this particular dish cannot be exaggerated.)

Larry had chosen the squash blossoms in part because of their likely aesthetic appeal, but they also delivered on taste, he said. They were served with soft ricotta and shallots, in a tempura batter with a chunky heirloom tomato sauce.

I asked the Chef whether much had changed for Driftwood since it opened its doors not that many years ago. 

“Not really,” he said. “What we planned originally has worked out well. Of course we adjust the menu seasonally but we like to keep it simple and very good. Restaurant concepts are always changing, but for now? Why change, we are doing great and people love Driftwood.”

I can attest to that, having on many occasions tried and failed to get a last-minute reservation.

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The wild king salmon sat on a raft of carrots atop a puddle of creamy kale

Schwarz says that tourists make up 70 – 80 percent of summer diners, with the opposite in winter. Tourists love the ambiance and choose the more conventional dishes, he said, while locals are more inclined to be adventurous. (He doesn’t sell a lot of his Seared Hudson Valley foie gras in the summer.)

Well, Larry and I weren’t that adventurous, I must admit. I chose the wild King salmon. Thing is, I’m not really a foodie, I’m just an eater who knows what she likes. And I like salmon. My husband cooks it often. So I thought I’d test out a new version which he might like to emulate.

The salmon arrived, interestingly perched on a raft of carrots atop a tasty puddle of creamy kale.

Well, it was delicious! I ate it all. 

Larry’s butcher steak and pork belly joined us with an air of pomp and circumstance, unabashedly meaty, with the pink and amber colors of the steak, pork, crispy red onions and chimichurri sauce reflecting hues of the sunset. 

“This,” Larry said, “tastes as good as it looks.” 

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Larry’s butcher steak and pork belly dish came in sunset hues

Between happy bites, we chatted about a long-ago sandcastle-building event in Daytona Beach that we’d worked on during our years at a PR agency, back in the nineties. About our adventures with the Party Smart campaign, an NFL quarterback, and the Talking Pump at the 76 gas station on the Grapevine. (It’s a long story.)

Conversation flows at Driftwood; it’s the kind of restaurant where you feel very much at ease, with the noise level – at least outside – is low and the ambiance peaceful. (Except when Larry roared with laughter, sending sea gulls into panicked circles. He has that kind of laugh…)

Finally, dessert. Which I never eat, because calories, except I did, given that it was sticky coffee cake with Chantilly cream, and who can refuse that? Plus I was on assignment. I had to eat it. 

My taste buds thanked me.

Before paying the bill, we chatted to our server, JR, who loves working at Driftwood Kitchen. He told us that the staff are very close-knit and often all dive into the surf together (fortunately not while we were there, that would have been a bit of a shock, but of course they only do that in the downtime – and apparently the Chef is a very good belly-boarder, though he doesn’t surf). 

Then we found out, just before we left, that JR had worked for FEMA in the past.

Once again Larry and I contemplated the sadness of the devastation to our east, and our good fortune, to be here, in this place, at this time – because who can live in Laguna and not feel immensely grateful for the sun, the sea, the wilderness, our friends, and good food?

And so the evening ended at this magical ocean-close oasis, as the lights of Laguna homes turned the purpling hillsides into artwork, crickets began to chirp, and the ocean grew dark and secret. 

Driftwood Kitchen is located at 619 Sleepy Hollow Lane. Phone 949-715-7700.

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.

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