Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

Dennis Myers, Writing ChefΤΜ

The Next Great Laguna Restaurant?


Some time ago I auditioned to be a chef on NBC’s “Next Great American Restaurant” The premise of the show required individuals to compete with their idea for a new restaurant. They had to pick a chef to help them prepare their menus, test the food, work out marketing for their business, and all other activities that need to be done to open a new restaurant. The winner would be awarded money to open their restaurant in three different American cities.

I was disappointed to not make the cut, but I was really upset when they announced the three cities where the new concepts would start. Laguna Beach was not selected. I was flabbergasted. I can handle the personal rejection, but how could they snub my hometown? I called my producing agency contact to find out why Laguna lost out. I can maybe understand New York and Los Angeles winning, but Minneapolis Minnesota? All it does there is snow. Here was my conversation.

Writing Chef: Jay, what’s up with Laguna Beach not being one of your restaurant sites?

Producer Jay: Laguna doesn’t have enough national gravitas!

Writing Chef: That’s not true. We just got great national news coverage when our historic downtown flooded. We have been the host to a hit MTV show, and just recently one of our merchants won “Cupcake Wars”! That’s big time gravitas!

Producer Jay: Well you have a point, but we were told that Laguna is not business friendly.

Writing Chef: Wrong again! Downtown Laguna is like a blank canvas for any interested restaurant. Well---true the city does hold back a few of the crayolas! But we have plenty of experts in town that know a lot about businesses, especially restaurants. Our Village Laguna people have written the rules for restaurants in downtown and they know a good one when they see it. They are pretty tough on restaurants that have a formula, are chains, and serve fast food, but it’s because they have high standards demand quality businesses. I’m sure they would be a big help.

Producer Jay: That’s the point. Our winning restaurant has already been tested, and will market their formula for success all over the country! We already know it will be successful. The objective is to make money for our investment. The show has been a great success.

Writing Chef: Of course you want to be a success, but look at some of the restaurant successes we have in our downtown. We have a Mobil Mart on our busiest corner. Mobil is a chain! Right next to it we have a Food Court with a burger joint and a taco stand. They serve food fast! We had a place that had crabs, but they went bk. You could have their place in our court. It’s empty and ready to go!

Producer Jay: Well Laguna just isn’t big enough. Half the customers are fish in the ocean, and the other half come and go all the time.

Writing Chef: You cannot overlook that we have six million visitors that cover this town like mayo on Wonder Bread. True a good share of the visitors never get out of their cars because they can’t find a parking place, but come on, the city may get around to providing some parking sometime in this century! You can’t move too fast on things like this! And we have a higher resident income level that the California average. They spend money in Laguna except for the 80% that are commuters and spend where they work. Those numbers add up, don’t you think?

Producer Jay: We are gong to be investing considerable money in the design and make-up of our new winning restaurant. Mistakes are costly.

Writing Chef: Exactamundo! You could move right into this Food Court. You would save money because you can’t make major renovations! It is an old historical building with a great history. What more could you want for your new restaurant than a building that was a car dealership in the ‘30’s? It’s in perfect shape for a 75-year-old building that hasn’t been touched. What luck!

Producer Jay: I think we made the right decision to skip Laguna this time. We don’t have time to spend messing around with complications and meetings. We have three well-known chefs and one successful restaurant executive putting up the money for this project. The cities we picked have embraced our entry and gave us an immediate blessing. We are moving forward, now.

Writing Chef: OK, OK! You have me this time. How about a chef audition for next year’s show? Maybe we can talk in more detail about Laguna Beach for a future season!

Producer Jay: I’ll get back to you on that chef!

Laguna Stew Exclusive

Broadway by Amar Santana set to open here in August


Chef Santana PhotoI can’t wait until late August. That’s when Chef Amar Santana, former Executive Chef of Charlie Palmer at South Coast Plaza, will be opening his new restaurant in Laguna Beach. A foodie’s dream, Broadway by Amar Santana will feature an inventive menu with seasonal items that will jump off your plate – like Lobster and Shrimp Corn Dogs with Tarragon Emulsion, Pan Roasted Sea Scallops with Sea Urchin Risotto and Passion Fruit, Bacon Wrapped Braised Pork Cheek with Roasted Garlic Grits and BBQ Honey, Slow Poached Organic Chicken Eggs with Chicken Livers, Chicken Wings and Crispy Chicken Skin, Lavender Honey Glazed Duck Breast with Caramelized Salsify and Cassis Duck Jus, Chorizo Crusted Dover Sole with Boudin Noir, Purple Potato, Catalan Spinach and Piquillo Pepper, Crispy Cod Fitters with Japanese Mayo and Lime Gel, and Foie Gras Stuffed Quail in Celery Root Puree with Pumpernickel and Truffle Jus. Salivating yet?

The new restaurant will seat 88 people total – 60 in the restaurant and 28 in the bar/lounge area. It will also be open late – very late – serving food and drinks until midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. Hush Restaurant ex-compatriots, meet your new “home”.

Santana 1 Santana 2

According to Chef Amar, the former Five Feet space is being transformed architecturally to take on an “Industrial New York vibe” with a “modern and simple look”. The restaurant will feature an open kitchen with six chef’s tasting/reservation only seats around the kitchen. Chef Amar will feature a new tasting menu daily – with “8 or so” signature items, each paired with a compelling “small drink” (liquor, sake, cocktails, and wine).

“The show is the food,” smiled Amar’s business partner and restaurant GM Ahmed Labbate. The cost for the tasting menu will be $120-$150 per person.

But don’t let the tasting menu prices scare you away – the rest of the menu will be affordable. “Our goal is to create a budget minded restaurant – fine dining but not with the price,” explained Labbate.

Broadway will offer small plates from $4-$10, appetizers from $10-$14, and main courses from $18-$30. “Everything will be under $30,” he added. Additionally, Chef Amar will also be offering “small cocktails” for around $7 each. “People don’t want to commit to a martini for $15 anymore. At Broadway, guests will be able to sample smaller, more innovative drinks – to match the food.”

On the food side, expect smaller,better portions with fresh and seasonal produce. “Our philosophy is one of quality over quantity,” explained Chef Amar. “If tomatoes aren’t in season, we won’t offer tomatoes. If peas aren’t in season, we won’t offer peas. We are committed to using the best ingredients available.”

Santana 3 Santana 4

Chef Amar has earned a reputation, both locally and nationally, for being a culinary visionary and pulse-setter. While at Charlie Palmer, he introduced chicken liver, bone marrow, and pork belly onto the menu. He also initiated a wildly successful late night dining campaign, extending Charlie Palmer’s dining hours to 1 a.m. on weekends.

“Nobody had the courage to do it before Amar,” proudly exclaimed Labbate – who was also the GM at Charlie Palmer during Amar’s tenure. “Charlie [Palmer] was hesitant at first,” added Chef Amar. “’Do you really think Orange County is going to eat pork belly’, he questioned. ‘Yes,’ I affirmed. And they did.”

Chef Amar is also receiving national recognition as of late for his prominent role in the NBC restaurant reality competition, America’s Next Great Restaurant. He and partner Joseph Galluzzi are one of three finalists in the competition with Joseph’s “Saucy Balls” concept – the winner of which will be announced on Sunday night’s finale.

As for their new restaurant, Chef Amar and Labbate said they had their eyes set on Laguna Beach from the start. “We believe in Laguna,” gushed Labbate.

But the building had other suitors – lots of other suitors, including high-powered restaurateur David Wilhelm with his proposed high-end Mexican concept, Diabla, a year ago.

“We came across the space for the first time at the end of January. The realtor told us we had a 5% chance of getting in – and that he had three other outstanding offers,” explained Labbate. But the next day, Chef Amar and Labbate received a call from the owner of the building, who is also a foodie. “We explained to him our concept over the phone. A week later, we signed the lease. Clearly, it was something meant to be.”

The restaurant was approved by the Heritage Committee on Monday night and is slated to open in late August, if not earlier.

Fasten your dining seatbelts, Laguna. We are about to embark on a culinary adventure together.

The Public Trough


Heard on the street…

sbe makes it official

sbe made it official on Wednesday, issuing a press release to confirm that Katsuya is coming to town – and to elaborate on their plans for the new restaurant.

“The expansion of Katsuya by Starck to Orange County has been years in the making and answers an overwhelming demand from the local community,” said sbe Founder, Chairman and CEO, Sam Nazarian. “It’s an honor to share the Katsuya by Starck dining experience with Laguna Beach residents and we’re looking forward to being an active member of the community for years to come.”

Katsuya by Starck Laguna Beach will occupy the former Hush building at 858 S. Coast Hwy.

“The goal is to enhance what’s already known as one of the most culturally engaging communities on the West Coast,” added Behzad Souferian, Vice President of sbe Real Estate.  “After an extensive market search, we discovered a location ideally suited for Katsuya by Starck that brings an entirely new dining experience to Laguna.”

The Katsuya by Starck restaurants comprise a collection of top Zagat rated sushi restaurants, offering a menu of innovative sushi and Robata dishes uniquely adapted for the American palate.  Special for Laguna Beach, the restaurant will also offer a unique kids menu.  Complementing the cuisine, Katsuya by Starck’s award-winning cocktail program focuses on balanced and approachable drinks made from the highest quality ingredients.

“The addition of Katsuya by Starck to the Laguna community is a very natural fit and underscores the undeniable popularity of the brand,” said Matt Erickson, Vice President of the sbe Restaurant Group.

“And to honor Laguna, Chef Katsuya has created a couple of signature menu items inspired by the community and its distinct culture.”

Katsuya by Starck Laguna Beach is set to open in mid-June.

More on Broadway by Amar Santana

Sources close to the new Broadway by Amar Santana have indicated that Amar hopes to open as early as late summer. Santana describes himself on his official twitter page as “Chef/Owner of soon to open Broadway by Amar Santana in Laguna Beach CA” (

Amar Santana Photo

Chef Amar Santana

Plans submitted to the City on March 10 include the construction of an “exterior sign with façade letters with decorative only mini-lights built into the face of the letters…a special type of period lighting that [will promote] the significance of the building style.”

The building on Glenneyre formerly occupied by Five Feet is zoned as a historic “K-rated” building and thus requires additional approval from the Heritage Committee. Local architectural firm Lance Polster & Associates will present plans to the Heritage Committee on April 25; a Planning Committee Hearing is set to follow May 11.

French 75 Grand Re-Launch on May 2

French 75 Bistro has extended an invite to the community of Laguna Beach to its Grand Re-Launch on Monday, May 2 beginning at 4:30 p.m. – and going ‘til close.

A complimentary selection of hors d’oeuvres from Chef David Shofner will be showcased throughout the evening in the lounge and patio and Chef Pascal Olhats will be providing a live cooking demonstration. Drink specials featuring Agave Underground brand tequilas and Happy Hour will be offered all evening long.

Live music will be performed on The Garden Patio as well as inside French 75’s historic building featuring the musical stylings of Michael Hamilton and Johnny Hawthorn.

“The Ambassador”, Mark DePalma, will be mixing and mingling with guests – and Stu and I will be in the house!

The Public Trough


Heard on the street…

New steak and seafood concept to be launched in former Five Feet space

Executive Chef of Charlie Palmer at South Coast Plaza, Amar Santana, plans on launching a new steak and seafood concept called Broadway by Amar Santana in the former Five Feet space. Architectural and design plans have been mapped out and submitted – but the project is still pending approval from the City.

Local architectural firm Lance Polster & Associates will present plans to the Heritage Committee on April 25; a Planning Committee Hearing is set to follow on May 11. Santana is hoping to open his new restaurant by next winter…

Katsuya set to open in June at old Hush location

Currently under construction at the former Hush location is the newest project by hospitality, restaurant, and nightlife mega-brand sbe, owners of such landmark LA haunts as XIV by Michael Mina, The Bazaar by José Andrés, Gladstones, Cleo, SLS Hotel, The Abbey, Hyde, and of course, Katsuya. The Laguna Beach outpost will be the first foray by sbe into Orange County.

Image courtesy by sbe

Katsuya ImageThe new Katsuya by Starck Laguna Beach represents the sixth collaboration between sbe, world-renowned designer Philippe Starck and Master Sushi Chef Katsuya Uechi.

While the sbe brand of restaurants and nightclubs in LA is often associated with the young celebrity lifestyle, sbe will aim to create a neighborhood atmosphere in Laguna Beach with an expansive, family-friendly indoor-outdoor dining space – more similar to their Katsuya concept in Brentwood.

Katsuya by Starck Laguna Beach plans to open in mid-June.  A formal announcemen from sbe will be forthcoming shortly.

Maggi Henrickson

Construction of Asada Laguna, upscale Mexican restaurant, ramps up

The old El Callejon space (more memorably – the old Javier’s space) is being converted to a new upscale Mexican concept, Asada Laguna. It will be headed up by restaurateur Scott McIntosh – former founding partner of Nick’s (with Nick Nickoloff) – and will feature fine Mexican cuisine, prime steaks, and a vibrant tequila bar.

Construction is currently underway by ITX Construction and local architecture firm Morris Skendarian & Associates.

“We are gutting the whole inside,” commented ITX Construction President Tom Penna. “The space will undergo a complete transformation.”

La Sirena to expand in South Laguna, begin serving margaritas

La Sirena in South Laguna is taking over The Photo Lab space next door to expand its indoor and outdoor seating, and install a full-service bar. The restaurant’s new CUP will allow for the service of beer, wine and Margaritas. It will also allow the restaurant to stay open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Construction is anticipated to be completed by end of summer.

Chipotle wants to come to town in Food Court!

Chipotle has submitted plans to take over the former Crab Shack store in the Food Court on Broadway near Main Beach and install a 97-seat (61 interior and 36 on a private outdoor patio) “fast-food formula-based” restaurant that will include the service of beer, wine and pre-mixed Margaritas.

The Denver-based company’s concept is to offer a simple menu of fresh, healthy, organic Mexican fare with natural, quality ingredients. Proposed operating hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Cucina Alessá

Maggi H PhotoMaggi Henrikson


Cucina Alessá may be the fastest opening restaurant ever.  With the help of a big family, it took six and a half days to remodel and re-open in the old spot of Pomodoro, on Forest Avenue.  What evolved was a melding of the designs from their two other locations, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, and a continuation of a family restaurant tradition that began in Naples, Italy.

Chef and Owner, Alessandro Pirozzi, trained under the guidance of his uncle’s restaurant in Naples and brought the authentic flavors of that region with him to Southern California.  The stunning décor and lighting create an atmosphere of Old World meets new.  There is a Sorrento mosaic fountain bubbling on the front patio where diners can people watch along Forest Avenue, Laguna’s version of a piazza.

Alessá Laguna Beach opened five months ago, with traditional Italian dishes in six courses; Per Iniziare (appetizers), Dal Giardino (salads and vegetables), Pizze (pizzas), Primi (First Courses), Paste Fresche (Fresh Pastas), Secondi (Second Courses).  It is a feast for the senses.

Alessa Photo

In addition they have introduced a “Prosciutto and Mozzarella Bar”.  Flown in fresh from Italy, sliced on their own dedicated slicer and served on small cutting boards are Salamis, Speck, Sopressata, Tartufotto and Parma Prosciutto, accompanied by a variety of Mozzarellas and olives.

Alessandro’s nephew, Giovanni, is helping to manage the restaurant.  He shared with Laguna Stew some of Alessá’s favorite dishes, “Everyone loves the ‘MamaMia’. It’s three meatballs served with focacetta, and covered with Burata - a mozzarella with cream in the center.  We melt it over the top and it is so delicious.”  Another popular dish is the Pappardelle al Sugo D’Annello, hand-made ribbon shaped pasta, with braised lamb and a salted ricotta sauce. And Giovanni is quite sure they make the best Tiramisu in the world.

The bar area has a corner seat with a small plaque on the wall dedicated to its frequent patron, “Lucky Lippa”.  Says Lucky, “I am Italian, and this is, by far, the best Italian restaurant I have ever known.”

Lucky was also on hand after the mudslides swept down Forest Avenue this past winter. The Pirozzi family raced to the restaurant before dawn and started cleaning the mud and debris that threatened their space.  By the afternoon they had it all cleaned up, but no customers.  Lucky came in and bought gift cards to give out to local charities. “Now you’ve had your afternoon business”, he told them.

While you wait for your table to be ready at Alessá, you may stroll about town too.  Cleverly, they take your cell phone number and ring you when your table is ready.  Who doesn’t love walking and browsing the shops and galleries, or heading to the beach for sunset?  You have the freedom to roam while Alessandro Pirozzi and his staff prepare your place at the table - on the piazza.

Alessá has an extensive wine selection, and will have a full liquor license next month. 234 Forest Avenue – 497.8222

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

Dennis Myers, Writing Chef

“Fast Food, Formula Based” - The Curse


Last week I was fascinated reading Shaena Stabler’s notes about new restaurants preparing to locate in Laguna Beach. In particular, the Chipotle submission for a CUP at the Food Court on Broadway caught my eye. Really? A company with an award-winning menu, a reputation for quality locally grown fresh ingredients, and outstanding service wants to locate in Laguna Beach? OMG!

Are they crazy? They want to spend $250,000 to open a restaurant on sacred ground within Downtown Specific Plan territory? These Chipotle people must have fallen off their SUV and hit their collective heads as they passed by the location.

And the location they picked is a hot bed for culinary dining. We already have two fast food markets disguised as gasoline stations. Also a Healthy Chinese fast food establishment, a fast food burger and fries plus pizza shop that also sells beer and wine, and a fast food taco stand. Oops, I didn’t mean fast food, because the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) specifically says that fast food is not welcome within the territory – only slow food.

They also must not be able to read, because the DSP specifically states: “The business offers merchandise and/or services that serve the current unmet needs of the resident population.” Here’s a news flash Chipotle people, I have already pointed out that we have plenty of fast food in the Food Court! Well, most of the time – a few recent failures, well maybe years of failed businesses. Regardless of the facts, we can still get a sub sandwich at the gasoline station. Our needs are met – get out of here with your fancy ideas about quality locally grown ingredients! Local is our middle word.

Now that I think of it, you Chipotle big shots probably have some sort of plan worked out, including marketing. Well, let it be known that we don’t want people with plans. Just check the DSP. Rather we would take someone with no plan and no marketing experience, along with no idea how your store might look or how your merchandise would display, décor, signs, and employee uniforms might look. We just want you to show up with money to pay the fees and a willingness to move into some wrecked, termite infested building that was never built to code where a dozen or so tenants milked it for years trying to eke out a living.

Also, before you bring it up smarty pants executives, we will tell you how many tables you can use to seat your customers, not to mention how much service you can provide. No fast food, just like it says in the DSP. Slow food, slow service, limited employees and restricted hours of operation are what it takes. Employees can’t wear matching uniforms, just street clothes. Plenty of examples walk by on Broadway every day. We can show you real style.

That’s what it takes to get by us here in Laguna, you Chipotle outsiders. Success is not important – just get by. Besides, you are way too much in a hurry to get this deal done. It is not the Laguna Beach way.

So chill out. Take a couple of years to think on it while we push papers and have meetings to work out the details! In the meantime, take a look at our sister city Detroit – I hear they have plenty of deserted real estate available cheap! And, if you fail there, the government will bail you out. You cannot beat a money back guarantee, something you will not get from Laguna Beach.

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Shaena Stabler is the Owner and Publisher.

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