Okura – the perfect place for a business lunch!

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

This week, I decided to concentrate on great places to go for a lunch meeting. I’m a busy lady and quite often I have to meet clients in the middle of the day. The comfort and ambience of a place has to be just right. Meeting in a loud noisy bar isn’t helpful, nor is somewhere where others could possibly hear confidential conversations.

Okura Robata Grill & Sushi Bar in Laguna Beach has long been a favorite of mine for a business lunch for all the reason listed above. It’s large, it’s cool, and it’s clean—a great contemporary space. With low-level lighting (but enough to see your lunch companion), the choice of being inside or outside (where you are under cover so that the weather doesn’t make a difference), and most importantly its great menu, this is the place to go.

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Yummy salad makes sushi even more spectacular

Okura had its beginnings in La Quinta, where the Japanese-fusion restaurant owned by husband and wife Sam and Jay Lee became a local phenomenon, winning first place in The Desert Sun’s Best of The Valley award for the Japanese restaurant category for over eight years

Okura Laguna Beach was opened three and a half years ago and is now managed by Jin Heo. Jim was a 2006 graduate of the Japanese Culinary School in Los Angeles. 

“Okura gives guests everything Japanese cuisine has to offer, ranging from unique appetizers to delicious Kobe steak and entrees from our Robata grill, to the delicate and freshest selection of raw fish and seafood prepared by sushi chefs,” says Jin. 

My business lunch

I decided to take my boss Chris Guziak with me for lunch. (I work in realty for Provenance Realty Group.) Okura’s lunchtime runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The full menu is available during this time: however, the $35 all-you-can-eat package is only available in the evenings.

Okura offers many lunchtime combinations, including salad & sushi, salad and sashimi, salad and roll, salad and a specialty roll or the specialty roll and sushi, accompanied in all cases by miso soup.

Okura also offers a choice of three bento boxes: the Okura Bento Box, the Robata Bento Box and the Chef Special Bento Box.

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Boxes of fish to die for….

We began our meal with the Garlic Edamame, which was very Moorish and a perfect start to our meal. Chris and I decided to go for a mixture of the choices offered. The miso soup was delicious, full of flavor and not too salty (as many times miso soup can be).

We chose the grilled kale salad to accompany our roll. This was delicious and fresh, lightly grilled with figs, sweet pepper and Parmesan cheese. The specialty roll we chose was the New Kyu and this was definitely a good choice.  The roll was a combination of hamachi, tuna and salmon wrapped in cucumber and served with tobiko and cilantro. It was a surprisingly filling roll and was very compatible with our choice of salad. 

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Amazing edamame starter promises great dishes to come!

Good looking, good tasting food

Next we sampled the Bento Box, choosing the Chef’s Special.  Even before we took a bite, we were very impressed, because the presentation of this box of delights was outstanding. So pretty, in fact, that a small part of me didn’t want to eat it! The Bento Box consisted of marinated cod with sushi, a selection of sashimi, a small salad, rock shrimp and tuna maki. It was a wonderful combination of flavor and perfect to share between two people. Especially at lunchtime!

In my opinion Jin Heo really does seem to have perfected lunchtime at Okura. The staff are wonderfully accommodating, the menu is extensive and the food excellent. The lunchtime vibe is casual but impressive, a place to which you can be proud to take clients. 

Jin really embraces and is supportive of the Laguna Beach community, often ensuring that the restaurant is available for celebrations involving different organizations, such as Stu News Laguna and nonprofits including SchoolPower and the Laguna Board of Realtors.

Okura is a place I will always go back to and always enjoy.

858 S. Coast Hwy – (949) 793-4320


Carmelita’s: A rich history results in tasty treats

Photos and Story by LAURA BUCKLE

Owner of Carmelita’s, Marcos Heredia, recalls that his grandparents were migrant workers from Mexico who came to Sacramento in the 1940s, at that time unknown to each other. During their travels, they met, fell in love, married and started a family. Heredia’s father worked on the railways and sadly was involved in an accident that affected his spine. Unable to work, he was awarded a sum of money for his care. 

In 1962 Heredia and his wife Carmelita decided the best thing to do with that money was to invest it in a restaurant, and so Carmelita’s, Kitchen de Mexico, was born.

The restaurant has been a fixture in Laguna Beach since September 2012 and has a location also in Rancho Santa Margarita.  

The Laguna Beach restaurant, open seven days a week, is always busy. When I ask Heredia if there is ever a quiet time, he smiles and responds, “Not really.” He says, though, that guests are more likely to get a “walk-in table” between the hours of 5 and 7 p.m. 

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French and Mexican influences are evident in Carmelita’s delicious dishes

Yet when I arrive for my 6 p.m. reservation, there is already a line of people. 

I ask Heredia what he feels is the secret to Carmelita’s success. “It’s no secret. It is all about consistency with our food and with our hospitality.  We don’t strive to be the best, we just strive to be your favorite,” he says emphatically.

His goal is to change the perception of Mexican food from street foodto fine dining. Heredia describes the food at Carmelita’s as a fusion of Puebla and Guadalajara cuisine. Puebla, said to be one of Mexico’s oldest cities, was invaded in 1862 by France, who wanted to make it part of the French colonies. The French did not succeed in winning the city, but the country’s influence resulted in a change in regional gastronomy and the sensitivity of local palates.

Meanwhile Guadalajara, Mexico’s second biggest city, was renowned for its quintessential Mexican cuisine. The combination of Mexican and French influences is evident in the subtly flavored dishes on Carmelita’s menu.

I chose to take two people with me to Carmelita’s. One is a self confessed “foodie” who would rather cook at home than go out. The other is a personal trainer, who rarely indulges in anything deemed to be even a little “unhealthy” – which is probably why she has the body of a goddess…

My food journey: to Mexico and France and back!

Our party was greeted with a complimentary basket of tortilla chips, blackened beans and fresh salsa. Next came the guacamole, which is made to order and served with fresh cucumber and chipotle. This dish was the perfect amount for the three of us, and a great start to the meal.  

As we browsed the menu to decide on our main meal, Heredia sent over a variety of handcrafted margaritas. These margaritas are made with freshly squeezed limes and a homemade agave, served in an ice-cold glass with tahin around the rim instead of salt.

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Yummy margaritas!

We tried four different flavors: pineapple jalapeno; cilantro cucumber; strawberry jalapeno; and spicy Serrano. They were all delicious: none was overly sweet and all were pretty strong! My personal favorite was the cilantro and cucumber. The drink was so refreshing, and had I not been concentrating on writing this article, I could have easily downed a pitcher!

Heredia then sent out the shrimp taquitos, with queso fresco, roasted lime salsa and alioli. The taquitos were light, not greasy and the shrimp was perfect.

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Sensational shrimp taquitos!

What I loved about our time at Carmelita’s was that we felt no rush to move on to our main course. Marcos simply told us to leave our menus on one side of the table to show we were ready. This is a nice touch, as I do feel that some busy restaurants are very quick to rush guests along to get them to order! I chose the Pollo a la Chipotle, which was a beautifully cooked butterfly chicken breast, served with a creamy chipotle sauce and topped with caramelized onions on a corn tortilla.

Foodies and a personal trainer: telling choices!

My foodie friend went for the Marisco Trio. This was a lobster enchilada, a chili relleno and a shrimp taco, all of which were exquisite and ideally cooked. The portion was large, and her sons at home were definitely going to be happy with the to go boxes!

My personal trainer chose the grilled fish tacos. The fish was halibut, served with wine roasted lemon tartar. A house favorite at Carmelita’s, it did not disappoint.

For dessert we decided to share the vanilla flan with Grand Marnier.  This was wonderful, so light and creamy yet full of flavor.

I understand why Carmelita’s is consistently busy.  The whole evening was enjoyable from the moment we arrived until the moment we left.  The staff was attentive, accommodating and extremely knowledgeable.

Marcos is a truly wonderful manager and leader, who waits tables and dresses the same way as the rest of the staff.  He is determined to ensure that his staff has everything they want and need. That they appreciate his concern is evident in the minimal staff turnover and the loyalty from everyone who works there.  

It was a very enjoyable evening and I would highly recommend you to take a visit and definitely sample a margarita or two, or three…


New Royal Hawaiian moves its opening to mid-June

The Royal Hawaiian has found new footing thanks to Laguna resident, Mo Honarkar. Honarkar once owned the Heisler building, downtown, and so briefly owned the Jolly Roger, yet another iconic Laguna restaurant. Last year he purchased the Royal Hawaiian property with the intention of bringing it back to life.

Last month, Project Manager Brian Smith, Consultant Eric Bostwick, and newly hired General Manager Carlos Godinez were putting their heads together for the final run in preparation for the grand opening, slated to be May 27.

This week, Godinez told us that the opening has been rescheduled tentatively for mid-June. He said that when a date is confirmed, a public invitation would ensue.


Maro Wood Grill: a gourmet learning adventure for owner Maro, chef Debra, and their diners

By LAURA BUCKLE

Another week, another article to write about a Laguna restaurant – and this one felt particularly special, as my wonderful mum (or mom, as you guys say) was visiting from the UK, so she got to come along and sample much deliciousness!

Not only that but this week marks my second anniversary of moving to the good old US of A. That’s right – two years ago I landed here, daunted, apprehensive and scared of how life was going to change for us all. 

Maro Wood Grill, located at 1915 S. Coast Highway, was one of the first places we visited then, and at the time we were blown away by their fabulous burger. It made sense for me to revisit the place to remind me of those days and also to see how the menu had evolved. 

Since then a few things have changed at Maro, noticeably the outdoor area, which has been beautifully renovated and decorated to create a cozy contemporary area with comfortable seating and a variety of pretty succulents on a “living wall.”

What has not changed at Maro is the staff. The same wonderful people, other than a couple of new waiters, maintain the traditional “family” atmosphere that attracts regular customers over and over again.

Maro Molteni and Debra Sims

Maro Wood Grill was the concept of Argentinian born Mariano Molteni (Maro) and chef Debra Sims. 

Maro has always worked in the restaurant industry, spending the five years prior to moving to Laguna Beach in New York, but he had never run his own restaurant.  When the company he was working for moved him to Anaheim, he went house hunting and discovered Laguna Beach. He decided to start his own business here and was introduced to Debra through a friend of a friend.

Debra, who had been in the Navy since age 18, had recently graduated from culinary school and had worked in Los Angeles for 12 months prior to meeting Maro. Debra, who hails from Colorado, has always had a very organic no-nonsense approach to food. 

“The community in which I grew up in had a very ‘co-op’ approach to food. We would all get together after church every Sunday and share our food that we grew, we hunted and we ate. It was survival, not that we were poor – it was just the way things were back then in the late seventies.”

Simplicity is the key at Maro Wood Grill. Everything that needs to be cooked is done over a wood grill. The strategy applies to modern, bold and uncommon Argentinean meat cuts as well as the finest locally sourced fish and produce. 

With fresh food deliveries everyday, Maro Wood Grill is passionate about creating and selling the freshest of food, preferring to run out of a dish and withdraw it from the menu rather than order too much and risk serving food that is not completely fresh.

As for my food journey, which was also a little celebration, we decided to start with an Argentinian “drinky” as people in England say. I’m a Sauvignon Blanc girl and my mum is a beer drinker. Luckily they had Argentinian versions of both and they were delicious.   

With a menu that is forever changing (although favorites are never removed) I decide to let Maro help me choose our food for the evening.  

Starters and Empanadas

To begin, I had a fabulous selection of three of the starters available: The Maro edamame, which is mesquite fired organic soy beans served with house pickled ginger and coarse Sonoma Sea Salt; mesquite fired shishito peppers; and a wood-grilled Temecula okra served with homemade aioli, Sonoma sea salt and burnt lemon. All of these dishes were gluten-free and tasty and complemented each other well.  

My mum had the empanadas. There are four flavors to choose from: spicy chicken, mushroom, beef and spinach. Debra prepared one of each for us to try. The spinach was my personal favorite, perhaps because it had a spicy kick from the pepperoncini peppers, and the feta cheese gave it a wonderful creamy texture. The pastry was light and not at all greasy.

Wood grilled baseball cut steak

Next was the entrée and it seemed only right that I go for an Argentinian steak. There were three choices of steak. Maro recommended I go for flavor as opposed to texture, so I chose the wood-grilled baseball cut steak. This steak is from a cut located at the top of the sirloin. The dish was served with roast potatoes and the house-made chimichurri.  The dish was absolutely delicious, rich in flavor but not too heavy.  The chimichurri was tangy and complemented the meat and potatoes to perfection.

Loch Duart salmon

Mum doesn’t eat red meat, so she decided to go for the fire grilled Loch Duart salmon, served with organic baby arugula, Gala apples, pecans and white balsamic. This dish was tasty, yet light. The salmon was crispy on the outside and perfectly soft and cooked on the inside. Truly mouthwatering!

It was finally time for dessert, which we were eager to try, especially as Chef Debra’s famous banana bread pudding has won best dessert in the OC three times. The dish incorporates artisan bakery brioche, organic eggs, milk, cream, brown sugar and organic bananas and is accompanied by a vanilla bourbon sauce.  It was truly a WOW! I can see why this dessert has won so many awards.  

Bread inspired puddings are pretty common in the UK and actually my mum has always made a great one, but we both agreed this was the best bread pudding we had ever tasted.

For my dessert I chose the gluten-free option of house made ice cream.  Chef Debra likes to treat homemade ice cream making as a bit of a science experiment. The flavors this week were fennel, strawberry and espresso.  I was privileged to see chef Debra’s “recipe book,” a hand written well worn book full of her most precious recipes. 

In the book were four pages full of different ice cream “experiments,” all unique in flavor. The fennel was my personal favorite and having never being a big fan of strawberry, I was really surprised at how delicious this one was. Chef Debra told me that she stewed the strawberries beforehand, which gave the resulting dish a much richer flavor.

My overall experience of Maro Wood Grill was excellent. Maro was passionate in his explanations of food choices and honest in how he talked about setting up the restaurant. Chef Debra was engaging – cool, funny, and full of interesting stories. 

What I love most of all about this place is that it has been a real “learning adventure” for both Maro and Debra, and the adventure has clearly paid off. I’ll be back.


370 Common is uncommonly good, says Laura Buckle

By LAURA BUCKLE

To say I’m excited about my new role as a weekly restaurant writer for Stu News is an understatement! But first let me introduce myself. I’m Laura Buckle.  I moved with my family to Laguna Beach in May 2014. 

I got this fantastic gig because of my love of words (one of my nicknames is Wordsworth because even my text messages have paragraphs...), my love of food – nothing, nothing is too spicy sweet heavy sharp tart light or creamy, anything goes – and most importantly my deep love for Laguna Beach, the community and my awareness of the importance of giving back. If my articles encourage you to eat, drink and support our local food and drink establishments, then I feel this will be a job well done.

Every week, I’ll take a companion to dinner to give me a more varied idea of the items on each menu. (Also, when the environment you live in dictates that more than 50 percent of your time is spent in a bikini, it’s important for me to maintain an element of control over how much food I consume!)

My first assignment was to visit 370 Common, located on Glenneyre Street.  Three Seventy Common came highly recommended by my friend’s nine-year-old son, Reid, who stated that it has the “best steaks in Laguna Beach.” 

370 Common has been open for four and a half years and is the brainchild of Ryan Adams, who - to quote his website – is a Russo-Carpathian-German middle child born and raised in Orange County.

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Chef Ryan Adams of 370 Common and yours truly, food writer

In speaking to Adams, it was clear to me that his passion for the restaurant is what keeps his restaurant at top of the food chain here in Laguna. Adams sources the vast majority of the restaurant’s food from farmers markets, tailoring his menu to accommodate what is in season while keeping himself educated on current trends in the food industry.  

“We are constantly changing and evolving the menu,” says Adams. He gives me the example of his much loved pork belly (a favorite dish of mine), which has undergone fine-tuning over the past few weeks with the addition of a house made Kimchee sauce.  

Adams mentions also that he is currently working on a dish inspired by cherries, now in season. “A friend of mine found some beautiful cherries at the Farmers Market in Santa Monica,” he explains, “so I am working on a chocolate duck breast mole with a cherry jus.”

Adams’ enthusiasm and excitement is reflected by his staff, most of whom have been with him since Three Seventy Common opened in Laguna, some longer. Monica, our server, actually the restaurant manager, has been working with Ryan for the past 13 1/2 years.

It is not only the staff who are so loyal to Ryan, but his customers too.  Regulars occupied more than half of the tables on the evening I was there, and Adams knew them all by name.

So now for my food journey…

370 Common offers a variety of different menus. We dined on a Wednesday, which means that instead of selecting from the regular menu, we could have chosen from the “Wine Wednesday” menu, which costs $40 per person for three courses and includes a glass of paired wine with each course.

As my friend and I were not drinking we decided to stick with the regular menu and we were not disappointed.

To start we chose the Chorizo devilled egg with pickled chili from the light bite menu. It had the perfect bite to pique our taste buds. We also ordered the Shishito peppers, which were cooked in a gluten free tempura, served with goat cheese and cheddar. This, for me, was the perfect starter for sharing! 

Our third dish was the Kampachi. Featuring shallots, chili, orange, avocado, cucumber, radish onion and Ponzu, it was seriously “melt in your mouth” delicious and the combination of orange and chili gave this dish a spicy yet sweet kick.

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Are you longing for a short rib?

For my main dish I chose the Short Rib served with Polenta, vegetables and a salsa verde. The meat was so tender it melted in my mouth and the polenta was perfection. I was slightly worried that the dish would be too heavy but the polenta and salsa turned this into a surprisingly light dish with an intense flavor.

My friend chose the tuna, which Chef Ryan explained came from Fiji. The tuna was served with Shitake, sesame, herb, radish, carrot, cilantro rice and Ponzu. It was wonderfully light and tasty.

At this point I was struggling to even contemplate a dessert, but then I saw the menu and I found I had no willpower to resist.

I went for the seasonal crumble, which was a gluten free dessert served with a vanilla ice cream. The seasonal fruit was a selection of peaches, which were delicately stewed to perfection, without becoming “mushy.”

My friend decided on the crème brulee French toast. This was not on the regular menu but on the Wine Wednesday special. However the staff was very accommodating to our needs. This dessert, served with a scattering of almonds, lemon curd and a raspberry sauce, was very tasty.

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An unusual take on crème brulee with French toast piques the taste buds

My overall experience of 370 Common was outstanding. The food was incredible. The décor and ambience, was chic and sophisticated yet comfortable. What really resonated with me was the passion Chef Ryan clearly feels for his food, his customers and his staff. I have already booked to go again!


Breakfast at Heidelberg Café & Bistro

Story and photos by ELIZABETH NUTT

Heidelberg Café & Bistro has been a Laguna Beach breakfast staple for over 20 years.

The original ‘Café Heidelberg & Bistro’ was established by an Austrian chef, Ferdinand. No one knows the exact year it was first opened, but I know the café has rich history behind it,” Manager/Partner Sun Park says. “Not much has changed since it was opened. We still have [the] same kitchen staff here for more than 20 years, and since I took over in April 2011, we strive to maintain as the ‘Favorite Breakfast Spot’ in Laguna Beach for locals.” 

And it’s easy to understand why the restaurant is one of the favorite breakfast spots for locals. With an extensive breakfast menu, made-from-scratch pastries, impressive offerings in the way of coffee and espresso drinks, and an outdoor patio, it’s the perfect spot for a leisurely weekend morning meal.

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Heidelberg’s Patio—The Perfect Breakfast Spot

With nearly 30 items on Heidelberg’s breakfast menu, ordering can get a bit overwhelming, but you can’t go wrong. Everything on the menu—from the California Omelet to the Eggs Ahi Tataki—is delicious. 

Start your meal off with a latte, a freshly squeezed orange juice or a coffee as you people-watch and wait for your order to arrive at your patio table—Heidelberg is located on the corner of Brooks and South Coast Highway. Or, if you’re feeling a bit more celebratory during Saturday or Sunday brunch, Heidelberg also offers mimosas, Bloody Marys and a selection of red and white wines.

Best of Heidelberg

Heidelberg makes an unbelievably good chai tea latte, which they whip up with your choice of milk—including almond and soy. It’s not too sweet, and it’s the perfect pre- or post-breakfast treat. 

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Heidelberg’s Chai Tea Latte

The restaurant uses Illy Caffe beans for its espresso drinks—which Sun says the locals love for their top-class quality and freshness—and a coffee roaster for drip coffee that is also a crowd-pleaser. 

And then it’s onto breakfast, which always presents the question: savory or sweet? It’s always hard to decide between eggs and pancakes, for example. The best strategy at Heidelberg is to bring along a couple friends so that you can try several of the restaurant’s breakfast offerings, which will satiate any craving. 

The Eggs Benedict is particularly enticing. The dish comes with two perfectly poached eggs served over a generous portion of grilled ham atop a grilled English muffin, with Hollandaise sauce and roasted potatoes. 

 

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Eggs Benedict

Nothing complements Eggs Benedict like the sweetness of blueberry pancakes, and Heidelberg’s spin on the classic is also perfection. The silver dollar buttermilk pancakes can also be made with chocolate chips or banana. 

The blueberries are fresh, and the pancakes come with butter, whipped cream and maple syrup on the side so you can top them as you like. You can also opt to order fresh berries as a side.

“We are small, but we are also very flexible and adoptive to what is right for customers,” Sun says.

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Blueberry Pancakes

Of course, Heidelberg’s breakfast menu also boasts an impressive selection of house-made, croissant-based options—from a Smoked Salmon Croissant to a Bacon Croissant—that are worth trying. 

If you have room after breakfast, or want to take a little bit of Heidelberg home with you, the restaurant also offers house-made pastries like muffins, scones and Danishes—and everything is made from scratch. 

“The most popular pastry item, Healthy Harvest Muffin, which contain walnuts, raisins, apple slices, pineapple, and oats, has been so successful for so many years, and we try not to change recipes or what goes in it. As I have said, we listen to our customers carefully,” Sun says. 

And though breakfast is served all day long at Heidelberg, the restaurant also has a café style lunch menu that’s also extensive. Lunch offerings include everything from soups, salads and sandwiches, to quiches, quesadillas and a ‘California burger.’

Heidelberg has been successful for decades, but according to Sun its team is always thinking about improving. “We are trying to introduce more organic dishes in our menu nowadays as they seem to be the trend in the nation and [a] healthy option for many customers. We have organic eggs and gluten-free to substitute with commodity eggs and regular bread upon request,” he says. “Recently, we have started to bake gluten-free pastries as well, and we are very excited to hear positive feedback from customers.” 

Heidelberg is located at 1100 South Coast Highway, and is open Monday-Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit heidelbergcafe.com 

Kya

 

Shaena Stabler and Stu Saffer are the co-owners. Shaena is the Publisher and Stu is the Editor-in-Chief.

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Allison Rael, Barbara Diamond, Diane Armitage, Dianne Russell, Laura Buckle, Maggi Henrikson, Marrie Stone, Samantha Washer and Suzie Harrison are staff writers.

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