Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

Dennis Myers, Writing ChefΤΜ

Dennis is off this week

Ketta Brown PhotoRoyal Hawaiian…


It definitely ain’t what it used to be

Over the years, one may be inclined to think they know the Royal Hawaiian inside and out.  Just when you’re getting comfortable with your spare ribs and Lapu Lapu, they up and bring in young chef, James Harris, to play around with the island style.

Like switching from bongos to steel drums, Chef Harris has maintained his rhythm, while stepping things up with a sense of lightness.  He has re-vamped the menu for summer with the idea in mind that their customers just might want to cool off and chill out.

Chef James Photo

With the exception of their famous “classic” dishes (full-slab Ohana barbequed spare ribs or ½ ribs with tempura shrimp), gone are the one-size-fits-all sides of soup, salad, and potato.  The new menu pairs things up with composition in mind.  “We felt the new items required complimentary sides, like the Huli Huli chicken served with Asian long beans”.  (Huli Huli, a half chicken roasted with sweet Thai chili sauce, also served with rice).

Other sides include “Wok’d Vegetables”, Napa cabbage, Bok Choy, carrot slivers and shitake mushrooms.  The creations are “composed plates”; meats and seafood paired with selected complimentary flavorings, thus balancing the savory with the sweet, crunchy with smooth.

Chef Harris has played around with much of the Hawaiian offerings, including the Diver Scallops (even if they are from the coast of New England).  They are hot-seared and served with pan-fried noodles and veggies, and splashed with a Yuzu citrus vinaigrette.

If he had to pick a favorite child, though, Harris is all a-glow over Ahi Poke.  He liked it so well that he entered a chef’s challenge, the I Love Poke Festival, held at The Beachcomber last April.  Harris competed with 15 chefs from around Orange County, big in the sushi arena, and earned Second place for Traditional Poke among a blind panel of judges.

“I got a plaque and sunglasses”, said Harris.  And he earned a place among the Musubi Maps Guide, a guide to the best of Hawaiian culture and food available in California.

The Royal Hawaiian also has introduced a Summer Happy Hour, Sunday through Friday 4-7 p.m., where you can find the beloved Ahi Poke in a smaller portion for $7.  (That is worth a calendar note for next Thursday’s Art Walk!)

Not too keen on divulging secrets, here’s what Laguna Stew gleaned about the Royal Hawaiian’s Poke:  Chop the freshest Ahi in ½ inch-sized cubes, mix with sesame seeds, Asian chili sauce, chopped scallion, diced Anaheim pepper, soy sauce, and toss with crushed Macadamia nuts.  “Compose” that Poke with a Lapu Lapu and you are smelling the plumeria!

(Okay, ssh… here’s what Laguna Stew gleaned about Lapu Lapu’s, besides that the recipe is top secret:  1. Arrange for a ride home, 2. Combine light and dark rum and mix with orange juice, Orgeat, passion fruit juice and some other stuff)


And speaking of Lapu Lapu’s…they’re not just for breakfast anymore!

Bar Area Photo

Maggi photos

Seating in the bar area

Now you can enjoy all the Royal Hawaiian’s happiest tropical drinks accompanied by a whole host of brunch items.  Starting this weekend, they will open for brunch from 11 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.  Sunday afternoons will feature live music.

Among the enticing brunch items are Hawaiian favorites like the “Loco Moco”, a layer of rice topped with a beef burger patty, spicy gravy, and two eggs over easy. The Kalua Pork Scramble is like a Hawaiian-style carnitas; bits of slow-roasted pork scrambled with eggs and Swiss cheese, green onions, peppers, and breakfast potatoes.  The outrageously decadent Gazebo Pancakes are prepared with Macadamia nuts, bananas, bacon, and coconut syrup.

The “unch” part of brunch leans toward those less-inclined for eggy things.  There is the Royal Hawaiian famous Maui Onion Soup, made with said Maui onions, scallions, Parmesan bread, and jack cheese.  The Royal Hawaiian Burger, and the Grilled Chicken Breast Sandwich should certainly be accompanied by the South Shore Fries; potatoes fried with salt, pepper, and a Mandarin chili spice with black sesame seed.

What else is Hawaii known for?  Spam!  That’s right, it’s for brunch too.  That thing that was used as rations provisions during World War II endured and has become increasingly popular in Hawaii.  Today it is interpreted at the Royal Hawaiian in their Spam and Spicy Fried Egg Sandwich, served on a sweet roll, with Swiss cheese, grilled onion, tomato, and a side of breakfast potatoes.

Main Dining Photo

Main dining area

Get ready for more surprises from chef James Harris.  He has just been named as one of the contestants in the new live competition, Sunday Night Chef Fights.  This is a live performance where Chef Harris, “The Challenger”, will face off against “Defending Champion”, Chef Nicola Bellazzi, of Enne Cucina Italiana in San Clemente, on August 21 in Anaheim.  Can we say “Go Beach!”?

We can’t wait to see what James Harris, his new menu, and the summer light shines on this longtime Laguna destination, the Royal Hawaiian.


Ketta Brown’s


Ketta Brown Photo

Tomato Couscous Salad

Serves 4

1 c. couscous

2 c. boiling water

1T. olive oil

1 basket cherry or grape tomatoes

½ c. chopped, fresh parsley

3 T. fresh lemon juice

3 dashes Tabasco

1 c. Metro Bis Dressing (recipe follows)

Freshly ground pepper


Bring salted water to a boil.  Add couscous and oil and remove from heat.  Cover and let stand for 10 minutes.  Fluff with fork.  Add tomatoes, parsley, lemon juice, Tabasco and dressing.  Stir.  Check seasonings and adjust.  Cover & refrigerate for at least 2 hour.



1 c. tomato juice or bloody mary mix

¼ c. red wine vinegar

1 small onion, chopped

1 T. Dijon mustard

1 t. sugar

½ c. olive oil

Salt and pepper

Combine all in a blender and whir until blended.

The Public Trough


Heard on the street…

Katsuya is coming soon…very soon!

Katsuya by Starck, the sbe-owned sushi hot spot going in to the old Hush building at 858 South Coast Highway, will open to the public shortly after Independence Day.

Construction is expected to wrap up early next week – just in time for a slew of invite-only pre-opening events.

The new Laguna Beach location marks the first Katsuya restaurant outside of the Los Angeles area – which currently includes locations in Brentwood, downtown L.A., Glendale and Hollywood. Known for its sexy, lounge-style interiors by internationally-famed designer Philippe Starck and its diverse menu of Japanese fusion cuisine, Katsuya will go a long way in helping catapult Laguna Beach to new (national!) culinary heights.

I have had the great pleasure of dining at Katsuya at least a dozen times – in Brentwood, Hollywood, and the L.A. LIVE Center before Lakers games. The food is beyond outstanding – my personal favorites include their Crispy Rice with Spicy Tuna, Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeño, and Spicy Albacore Sashimi with Crispy Onion. The ambience is super sexy and chic too – great for people-watching. I even dined next to Janet Jackson once! In addition to their sushi, I’m also a big fan of their Robata Bar menu, which includes charcoal-grilled skewers like Bacon Wrapped Asparagus, Chicken & Onion with Yakitori Sauce, Prime N.Y. Steak with Onion Sauce, Shrimp with Garlic Soy Butter, Yellowtail with Ginger Sauce, and my guiltiest pleasure…Chicken Meatballs!

Claes Restaurant to re-open as Claes Ovation and begin offering “small bites” and “small plates”

Claes Restaurant, one of Laguna Beach’s most historic restaurants within one of its most historic hotels (Hotel Laguna), will be re-opening next week as Claes Ovation. The conceptual makeover of the restaurant is part of a larger renovation (“facelift”) plan for the hotel by owner Georgia Andersen – which will include the introduction of artwork from the Pageant of the Masters as design accents in public spaces and in the hotel’s rooms.

The re-design was initiated by owner Georgia in honor of her late husband Claes, who passed away last summer, and is scheduled to be completed by early Fall. Georgia and Claes purchased the hotel together in 1985.

Claes Ovation will feature a brand new menu with small bites, small plates, entrees, and “Festival Fare”, three course pre-fixed dinners to be enjoyed before heading off to the Art Festivals and the Pageant of the Masters.

The new menu, created by Executive Chef Paul Bauer (who was recently inducted into the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs), will feature inventive items like Halibut Cheeks ($14), Bone Marrow Risotto with Asparagus Tips ($13), Heirloom Tomato Tartare ($10), and “Chicken and Waffles” (Sonoma Valley Duck Breast, Potato Gaufrettes, and Brandy Maple Gastrique – $14).

Claes Ovation will be unveiled next Tuesday, June 28th. For more information or to make a reservation, call (949) 376-9283.

The Rooftop now serving breakfast daily

Set atop the historic La Casa del Camino hotel, The Rooftop has long been a local hot spot with its vibrant cocktails and gorgeous sunset views. Now, those sights can be enjoyed in the morning, too, with a new breakfast menu available from 9 to 11:30 am daily.

The Rooftop’s new breakfast menu includes Huevos Rancheros ($12), Whole Grain Pancakes ($9), French Toast ($9), Breakfast Burritos ($10), a Smoked Salmon Plate ($16), and seven different “Scrambles” – including the Veggie Scramble ($11), Corned Beef Hash Scramble ($11), Italian Scramble ($11), and Shrimp Ranchero Scramble ($12). Fresh-squeezed juice and specialty coffee drinks are also available along with $7 Mimosas and $9 Bloody Marys. Reservations are not accepted for breakfast; seating is first come, first served.

For more information and to receive a special breakfast offer, visit the restaurant’s website at

An unexpected dining surprise in Costa Mesa

As a general rule of thumb, Stu and I limit our editorial scope to stories and events taking place within Laguna Beach. We are, after all, a hyperlocal Laguna Beach online newspaper – hence the name, Stu News Laguna.

Every once in a while though – about 15% of the time for me (see my May Dining Out Diary for explanation) and 0.01% of the time for Stu if you don’t count Angel games (no explanation needed) – an opportunity so great jumps out at us that we find it our duty to venture out of the bubble, experience an out-of-town adventure, and report back to the homeland with our findings.

Such was the case Wednesday night, as we found ourselves unexpectedly invited to an intimate media dinner hosted by restaurant and hospitality PR giant Wagstaff Worldwide at Leatherby’s Café Rouge in the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa (next to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, formerly known as OCPAC). Stu and I had no idea what to expect – neither of us had been to a dinner like this before – and felt honored to even be included. The 6-person media dinner included food critics from Coast, Riviera, and Gayot, along with Laguna Beach Foodies’ writer Chris Trela.

What followed was a three hour culinary adventure – featuring six specially designed courses from 27-year-old Executive Chef Ross Pangilinan, an artist amongst chefs. From tomato and grilled watermelon with balsamic spheres that exploded in our mouths; to hiramasa “spring rolls” with yuzu soy gelee, jalapeno, and green apple; to house made fettuccine with fresh summer truffles; to king salmon with red wine foam reduction; to “Mamma Mia” - inspired entrees and desserts...Stu and I were both blown away!

The dinner was hosted by Wagstaff’s Ty Bentsen and Brenda Urban, who were as impressive as Leatherby’s Café Rouge and just “rogue” enough for Stu.

So impressed we were, Stu has commissioned me to write a follow-up piece for the Front Page for next week…so stay tuned!

Maggi H PhotoCafé Zoolu…


Everything’s Happening at the Zoo

Once upon a time there was a little village called Laguna Beach.  You could live in a trailer by the waves and go out diving for abalone to grill over a driftwood bonfire with your toes in the sand.  Your VW van was filled with surfboards, and your friends would come over when they were hungry because you were the only one who knew how to cook.

Such was the life of Michael Leech, long before Café Zoolu was the destination of savvy seafood lovers in-the-know.  Today, come they do, hungering for the same wood-fire grilled seafood, even if abalone is no longer abundant for the pickin’.  The VW van and the waves are still present, but Michael devotes most of his 24/7 catering to the lifestyle of a restaurateur.

Think about food, cook, sleep, repeat.

Maggi’s Photos

Maggi Photo 1

“In 1965 I got my first job at the Jolly Roger on Balboa Island, and I’ve been in the restaurant business ever since”.  Michael and his wife, Toni, launched the first of their four “Quiet Woman” restaurants back in 1973 in Corona del Mar, and had two in Laguna Beach before selling the final one in 1990.  When they opened Café Zoolu, they also opened one in Lahaina, Maui.  Michael lamented, “It was a tough commute”.  Happily ensconced only in Laguna now for 18 years, Michael is still excited about the day’s catch.

“We are famous for our swordfish.  We always get only the freshest available, and right now that’s Mexico”.  When the waters warm off Laguna’s shore, he can’t wait to get the local harpooned fish he cuts into “baseball cuts”; one pound of thick, ball-sized chunks.  Swordfish only releases its sweetest succulence when it is thick enough to remain juicy over an open flame, and Zoolu does it right.

Maggi Photo 2Café Zoolu offers mesquite- grilled swordfish three ways:  with a Lemon-caper sauce, slightly tangy; a Macadamia nut sauce, slightly sweet; or with Cajun blackened seasoning, slightly spicy.  Can’t decide?  You can order the Sampler plate, including pieces with all three flavors.

Zagat guide called it “The best swordfish on the planet”.

One of a very few places offer fresh Chilean Sea Bass now, Café Zoolu serves it up Asian style, with a slightly spicy coconut milk-based Red Thai Curry sauce, Asian Slaw and Wontons, all served atop Coconut mashed Sweet Potatoes.

Also fresh right now are the Maryland Blue Soft Shell Crabs.  Crunchy, crackling outsides with flaky, tender insides, soft-shell crabs are a rare, briny delight, available only at this time of year.  They are coated with crispy Panko breadcrumbs and sautéed in butter and olive oil.

Alaskan Copper River Salmon has just arrived upstream and into Zoolu’s kitchen.  Fired up and served with a lemon, dill, and pea-butter sauce, it’s paired with asparagus for a Spring-has-sprung combo that can’t be beat.  Well, maybe Hawaiian Ahi could be a contender.  It’s seared rare, with sesame seeds, drizzled with soy-ginger sauce and speckled with Tropical fruit salsa.

On a starter note, the Calamari “Asian Style” is their most popular appetizer.  “Like with abalone in the 70’s, I pound it to tenderize and then sautee it”.  It is prepared with a Thai peanut sauce and served with a sesame seaweed salad.

Michael is looking forward to local lobster season.  “Between October and March, we get them right off our shores.  We get big one and a half to three-pounders”.  Boil first, mesquite grill finish them, dip in warm butter and you’re in seafood heaven.

One of Café Zoolu’s devoted fans happened by while Michael was sharing his story with Laguna Stew.  Patty Keohane couldn’t resist singing their praises, “They have absolutely the best FOOD anywhere - period!”

In this neo-bohemian café Micheal Leech has struck a note of home.  While there was a simpler time before the fancy hotels and name-brand recognition came to Laguna, there still exists a place today for friends, fresh seafood, and fire.

Café Zoolu, it’s what you do.

Maggi Photo 3

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

Dennis Myers, Writing ChefΤΜ

Dennis Myers PhotoThe Evil of Toys


You may have missed the announcement that Jack in the Box has ended their practice of including toys in kid’s meals. There is a growing effort by the nutritional advocates in the country seek to ban all toys offered to children. They feel toys contribute to the country’s childhood obesity problems. Conversely they are encouraged that the same food purveyors are also offering healthy meal alternatives that are intended to turn the tide of the “War on Fat”.

Trade carrots for toys and youth will be served!

Now the paradoxical question—if the toys entice kids to eat bad fast food, what will entice them to eat so-called “healthier” food? I ask this because in my opinion the parent with the money, not the minor child will decide. If such adults made the decision to purchase the “bad” food because of the toy, then is there hope that they would choose the “healthy” food?

I would be so bold to suggest the presence or absence of a toy will have little to no impact when it comes to healthy or unhealthy food choices. Parental control has lost it way, right along with the people that think up these inane bans.

As a history lesson, toys packaged inside food offerings are not new. Cracker Jack began to package free toys in their offerings as early as 1912…almost a century ago. This ploy in particular had some positive impact upon culture, but it wasn’t in the field of nutrition. The term “came in a Cracker Jack box” was used to refer to something of little or no value. This led to the favorite belittlement regarding engagement rings, which would send brides-to-be into hysteria.

The string of “something for nothing” continued on through the years with all sorts of games, toys, cards, and prizes. Topps Chewing Gum’s introduced trading cards in 1950. TV and film star Hopalong Cassidy and “Bring ‘em Back Alive” featuring Frank Buck were two favorites. Then came baseball trading cards, which actually out-lived the chewing gum it was packaged with. By the 80’s they were sold alone, collected, traded, and became valuable collector’s items.

I spent the last two paragraphs not to entertain you with my knowledge of trivia, but to make a point about eating habits. None of these old marketing ploys had anything attached to the concept of encouraging obesity. The companies just wanted to sell more of the product and were partly deluded thinking that loyal purchasers really liked their product. We did not have a national obesity crisis regardless of the enticements used to purchase and eat a box of caramel corn to get a prize.

Why? The obvious answer is that these were items purchased singly, not with other meal items. Less obvious what that kids had little to no money to spend on such frivolity. The money had to come from the parents, who were very accustomed to saying “NO”! Usually the observation that it would rot teeth was used as a reason. In earlier times that was the end of the discussion. Further enforcement would be a very firm pat on the ass.

Also fast food dining establishments were limited. People ate at home as a family. Parents actually knew how to cook nourishing food, and usually provided no alternatives or enticement other than “eat this or go hungry”! Finally, there were no electronic devices to entrap kids into a stupor of inactivity other than moving their thumbs. We were not “encouraged” to be part of non-contact activities where there were no winners or losers. You played hard and long with the knowledge that Mom would have a great meal waiting for you at the end of the day. And maybe, just maybe after dishes were done, and homework was finished you could have an hour in front of a fuzzy black and white screen called a TV.

Eliminating toys from food items will not solve obesity in the country. If that were possible, why not insist that toys be supplied with the “healthy” options? Would that not fix the problem?

Returning part of our society that is losing at an ever-increasing rate will answer the nutritionist’s wishes. Parental supervision, a family unit with someone who can cook, re-introduction of competing for things that are important rather than receiving entitlements, and the will to not be controlled by electronic devices 24/7 would be the path to a healthier public.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Lynette Brasfield is our Features Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

Maggi Henrikson is our Contributing Editor.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster.

Katie Ford is our Ad Designer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Cameron Gillespie, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Laura Buckle, Marrie Stone, Samantha Washer and Suzie Harrison are staff writers and/or columnists.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are the staff photographers.

Stacia Stabler is our Account & Instagram Manager.

We all love Laguna and we love what we do.

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