Adventures in Gastronomy

victusandvinous.com

April Steinert

Shaved Asparagus, Fennel, and Orange Salad      

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        Asparagus spears are officially in season here in CA, but for a limited time only, so get ‘em while they’re hot. Be sure and hit the local farmer’s market this weekend for the best selection and to support your favorite grower.

        This recipe will serve 2-3 as a side dish.  

        1 small fennel bulb, shaved thinly (I used a hand-held mandoline) 

10 asparagus spears, cleaned and shaved (lay flat on a cutting board and use a vegetable peeler)

2 small oranges

1/4 Cup roasted walnut pieces

1/4 Cup quality EVOO

1/3 Cup shaved – quality, aged, Parmesan cheese (use a vegetable peeler)

6 large basil leaves, julienned 

Pinch of salt

Fresh ground pepper to taste

Add the shaved asparagus and fennel to a serving bowl. Add the EVOO and salt and toss. Let this sit while you take care of the orange.

Zest one of the oranges and add the zest to the bowl with the fennel and asparagus. 

Cut off the ends of the oranges (the stem area and the nub at the bottom) and place them on a cutting board (makes them more stable). Use a paring knife and follow the shape of the oranges so you don’t lose the precious meat. 

 Hold the oranges over the bowl and remove each segment with your knife. The juice from the oranges will drip down into the bowl. Toss the segments and juice with the shaved veggies. Let this sit for about 20-30 minutes until the asparagus wilts a bit. 

Add the walnuts, Parmesan, and basil and toss again. Add fresh ground black pepper to taste and serve. Enjoy!

Eat well!

April

“Are you casting asparagus on my cooking?” – Curly Howard


Take an astounding culinary adventure through Asia at Starfish—South Laguna’s not-so-hidden gem

Story and photos by ELIZABETH NUTT

Starfish Laguna Beach did what few other restaurants can do: prove that location is not everything. The fact that the Asian fusion restaurant is tucked away in a strip mall may have been relevant back in 2011 when it opened, but it’s simply irrelevant today. 

Over the last few years, Starfish has gained tremendous momentum and a cult following of visitors and locals alike who I’m sure would venture much farther than a few miles to indulge in the restaurant’s exceptional and eclectic Asian cuisine.

 In fact, its owners and partners, Gretchen Andrews and Archie McConnell, will tell you that their location only caters today to the restaurant’s booming success; with ample parking, trolley accessibility, and proximity to Montage Laguna Beach, Starfish constantly sees a steady stream of diners, no matter the day, night, or season.

Gretchen and Archie, who took over Starfish as its co-owners and co-partners in 2012, dedicated themselves to evolving the restaurant, and to creating what would eventually become one of Laguna’s most celebrated eateries. 

Today, Starfish transcends its space, offering guests a seductive, beautifully decorated restaurant that boasts dishes from Thailand and Korea, to China and Vietnam, and where the only thing more extraordinary than the creative, tantalizing culinary experience is the friendliness of the staff that makes it happen. 

Navigating the Starfish Menu 

Once inside, it’s easy to get distracted by Starfish’s interior—its intricate details, pops of turquoise, and dim, sexy lighting. The restaurant can seat 130, which includes an outdoor patio area. The ambiance has a vibrant buzz that contributes to its allure. And the stunning marble bar has both an upscale cocktail bar and neighborhood bar feel—perfect for dressy dates and casual nights out.

“It’s standing room only in here several nights a week,” says Archie, who explained to me that his staff, such as bartenders Erin and Neil, have been there since the beginning, and that people often come in just to sit at the bar and take it all in. 

But Starfish’s décor plays only a small role in its success. It’s the menu that steals the show every time.

“We listened to every guest that walked in that door, trying to understand what people wanted,” says Archie, of his initial years with Starfish. 

The menu today is comprised of 72 items inspired by multiple Asian regions, which means that no matter what you’re looking for as a diner, you’ll find it on Starfish’s menu. 

It didn’t take me long to find the Soft Shell Crab Bahn Mi Sliders—made with house seasoned crispy soft shell crab, fresh vegetable slaw, cilantro, and an aioli trio. Unbelievably delicious—I’ll order these every time.  

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Soft Shell Crab Bahn Mi Sliders

But it’s definitely not quantity over quality when it comes to the menu here; the owners explain that they’ve spent years ensuring that every dish is consistently perfect and delicious. Moreover, customers—including myself—love that they get to try dishes and ingredients from so many regions, and that each dining experience at Starfish is unique because there are so many opportunities to try something new.

“Over the years, we’ve evolved the menu and the brand, but stayed true to what people come here for. We are constantly perfecting what our customers have been ordering over and over again,” adds Gretchen.

One such order is the Chilean Sea Bass—a bestseller and unlike any other dish I’ve tried. The sea bass is steamed in banana leaves, and covered with a Thai green curry sauce after it simmers for hours. This dish is a must-try. 

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Chilean Sea Bass with Thai Green Curry

And then there are nearly a dozen options under the Rolls/Raw Bar section of the menu. Starfish has two full-time sushi chefs to keep up with the popularity of those mouthwatering items, which include classics such as the Crab California Roll. 

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Crab California Roll

But here you’ll also find innovative additions, such as the Crispy Lobster Spring Roll, which I couldn’t turn down. It’s a sizable portion—perfect for sharing—and it’s bursting with flavor and chunks of fresh, mouthwatering lobster. 

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Crispy Lobster Spring Roll

“The diversity of the menu, with its approachability, creates the perfect combination for people to try off-the-beaten path items coupled with those tried-and-true Asian favorites,” explains Gretchen. 

But even those tried-and-true classics get a little extra love at Starfish. Each day, for example, prep cooks hand roll every single dumpling on the menu’s Dumplings and Wontons section. I tried the Chicken Pot Stickers, which taste homemade. They’re pan seared, and made with shiitake mushroom, ginger, and sesame, and served with a garlic scallion soy dipping sauce.  

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Chicken Pot Stickers 

It’s amazing to me that I could dine at Starfish a couple dozen times and still experience something new—a new ingredient, a new combination of small plates, a new side or cocktail. And the restaurant will always keep on me toes, as it rolls out a new menu almost quarterly. 

So what’s next for Starfish Laguna Beach? A second location, for one. According to Archie, the restaurant is in the process of working on opening a Newport Beach location. 

“I never anticipated Starfish being the way it is right now,” says Gretchen. “But this is what happens when you give people a beautiful space, consistently delicious food, and a staff that’s just nice.” 

Starfish Laguna Beach is located at 30832 Coast Highway. It’s open for lunch every day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and for Happy Hour from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week. Dinner is served nightly from 3 p.m. on. 

For more information, visit starfishlaguna.com


The top 5 restaurant patios for dining with your dog 

Story and photos by ELIZABETH NUTT

Laguna Beach is known for being dog friendly. You can’t venture anywhere in town today—beaches, parks or shops—without seeing the tail wagging of a four-legged friend. And this is especially true of Laguna’s restaurants; nearly every restaurant in town with a patio boasts a “dog friendly” mentality. Because there’s nothing better than people watching and relaxing outside with your loyal sidekick. 

But, if you’re like me, you’re also wary of dining out with your dog. I have a four-year-old retriever mix, Barbie, who weighs 70 pounds and who I’m sure would much prefer to romp on the beach than to be carted out to a restaurant. 

Nevertheless, I went ahead and “dog-tested” some of Laguna’s dog-friendly patios to see if they met my requirements for comfortable canine companionship while dining out. The criteria? First and foremost, a pleasant outdoor area with a good view is necessary. Next, a restaurant that’s spacious enough for a large dog to stretch out without bothering fellow patrons is a must. And, finally, I love a restaurant whose staff is truly happy to see customers arrive with a dog in tow. 

Of course, there are many restaurants in town that meet those requirements. But these five locales also serve delicious food that I love and that’ll keep me coming back time and time again—with Barbie, of course. 

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Barbie Waits For Pizza at Gina’s Pizza 

Gina’s Pizza: Located at the corner of Oak Street and S. Coast Highway, Gina’s offers some prime people watching and views. There’s plenty of outdoor space and shade, as the restaurant offers three patio areas. I love bringing Barbie along as I sit and enjoy a cold beer and a slice of pizza and watch the beachgoers and sunset. 

Try: the House Special, a mouthwatering Gina’s original and bestselling pizza made with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, roasted peppers, red onion, freshly made pizza sauce and mozzarella. 

Gina’s is located at 1100 South Coast Highway and is open Sunday-Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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Avila’s El Ranchito 

Avila’s El Ranchito: Avila’s is a perfect, slightly tucked away place for dining out with your pup. Spacious but cozy, the patio area has plenty of heaters and a fire pit for optimal warmth on chillier nights. The staff is incredibly friendly, and if you get lucky, you just might be seated at a table with an ocean view. 

Try: the Shrimp Tacos. It’s a sizable portion, but you’ll eat the whole thing, as they’re some of the best tacos in town. The dish comes with two heaping tacos, made with Mazatlan shrimp sautéed in Avila’s “special garlic butter sauce”, cabbage, and pico de gallo on flour tortillas, served with rice and beans. 

Avila’s is located at 1305 South Coast Highway, and is open Monday-Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

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Sapphire Laguna 

Sapphire Laguna: Sapphire’s patio is relatively expansive, by Laguna Beach standards. And while you’re dining there with your dog you also get a view of the ocean and some excellent people watching—not to mention close proximity to Laguna’s ‘Greeter’, Michael Minutoli, who waves at passersby from the same corner. Though Sapphire is more on the upscale side, the staff remains very friendly to dogs of all sizes. 

Try: the unique and supremely flavorful Jamaican Curried Black Cod in Banana Leaf, served with tomato-okra stew, roasted plantains, and tamarind chutney. 

Sapphire is located at 1200 South Coast Highway and is open Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday for brunch from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Friday and Saturday for dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.  

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Zinc Café 

Zinc Café: Zinc is a fantastic place for dining with your dog because there’s not only plenty of room, but also plenty of shade in the restaurant’s covered patio area. And there are almost always a handful of other friendly dogs there ready to greet us when we stop in for breakfast or lunch. I also love that the restaurant is partially bordered by lush hedges, which make it feel less like a patio and more like a garden—definitely dog friendly. 

Try: The Thai Salad—it’s hard to believe this is a vegetarian dish. It’s filling and tasty, but it’s also light and healthy. This salad is made with brown rice, shredded Napa cabbage and carrots, bean sprouts, braised tofu, spicy peanuts, fresh basil, mint and a Thai ginger dressing. 

Zinc Café is located at 350 Ocean Avenue, and is open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. 

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Lumberyard Restaurant

Lumberyard Restaurant’s patio overlooks City Hall on the corner of Forest and Forest, the perfect location for a quieter meal out with your canine pal. Though the patio area’s on the smaller size, it’s quaint and intimate. And it’s always fun sitting on the outside of Lumberyard’s stunning historic building. A plus? Naked Dog Bistro, a pet store, is located right next-door, and it’s known for its freshly made dog treats.

Try: the Dungeness Crab Cake Salad, served with fresh asparagus, baby greens, pears and blue cheese. These are some of the best crab cakes in town. This dish is hearty, fresh, and perfect for lunch or as an appetizer at dinnertime. 

Lumberyard is located at 384 Forest Avenue, and opens daily at 11 a.m.


Taverna is now open on Ocean Avenue, serving authentic northern Italian cuisine

Story and photos by ELIZABETH NUTT 

Though it opened only 13 days ago, on Mar 5 to be exact, Taverna has seen a steady influx of curious diners looking to try Ocean Avenue’s newest addition. The chain restaurant first opened in Dallas, Texas nearly 40 years ago, and now has multiple locations in the US and in Mexico. Taverna is an authentic Italian restaurant that’s celebrated for its pizza and risotto—which have, apparently, already earned a few regulars at the Laguna location. 

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Taverna, Located On Ocean Avenue, Is Now Open

“So far, so good, especially because the locals seem to love it, and they’re our bread and butter—we don’t want to disappoint them,” says Vittorio Homberger, general manager of Taverna’s Laguna Beach location. “We have a few people who have been in every single night since we opened,” he adds. 

If you visit the restaurant, you’ll understand why. First, it’s a fresh, clean, well-lit space, whose design calls to mind a rustic countryside kitchen, but with modern light fixtures and artwork, which is purchased from local galleries. It boasts 125 seats, which include a sizeable patio area’s outdoor dining space. But you’ll still want to make a reservation—even on a Wednesday evening, hopeful walk-ins were added to a waitlist. 

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Taverna’s Patio

Of course, the real draw is the restaurant’s seasonally inspired menu. From focaccia and pizza, made in the restaurant’s Wood Stone Oven, to risotto and homemade pasta, everything is fresh and made in-house daily, following traditional Italian recipes. Even the prosciutto is cut to order. 

“From the feedback I’ve heard so far, people are saying, ‘Wow! We’ve been looking for something like this for years.’ There’s a lot of excitement around Taverna here,” says Vittorio.

The Taverna Taste Test 

Though there were many enticing options on the menu, I decided to go straight to the risotto and pizza. Risotto is the restaurant’s flagship dish, and it’s made with Carnaroli rice—the only rice fit for the Italian comfort food, according to Taverna. 

The particular characteristics of the Carnaroli rice, such as its firm texture, help it maintain its shape during the long, slow cooking process. 

Taverna has clearly nailed this dish. 

I tried the Risotto Al Parmigiano Con Salsa Tartufata E Funghi—creamy and delicious, made with Parmesan cheese, wild mushrooms and a black truffle sauce. It was so flavorful and rich, and yet it wasn’t an overwhelmingly heavy portion. 

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Parmesan, Wild Mushroom and Black Truffle Risotto 

It’s the perfect dish to share, or to enjoy as a complement to one of the restaurant’s secondi menu items, such as beef tenderloin, grilled Hawaiian tuna, or veal chop. 

Next, I sampled the Margherita Pizza—another classic. The pizzas are made in a Wood Stone Oven, which, according to Vittorio, ensures an even temperature that cooks to perfection each thin-crust pie. It’s a simple pizza—tomato, mozzarella, and basil—but it was perfect. 

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Taverna’s Margherita Pizza 

Of course, it wouldn’t be a quality Italian restaurant without an impressive list of Italian wines. And Taverna ensures that guests get to choose from the cream of the Italian crop when it comes to its wines. 

“I’ve never seen a company like this, they choose the best wines—they want it to be right,” says Vittorio, who is also a sommelier. 

The restaurant also offers bottled and draft beer, aperitifs, and a selection of bourbon, tequila, cognac and scotch and single malts. 

Locals will delight in Taverna’s daily, evolving specials, Happy Hour on Monday-Friday from 3-6 p.m., and weekend brunch offering.

Taverna is located at 222 Ocean Avenue, and is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 

For more information, visit http://www.tavernabylombardi.com.


Every hour’s happy at Big Fish Tavern—especially through March Madness 

Story and photos by ELIZABETH NUTT

In my opinion, the recipe for a good Laguna Beach happy hour is simple: throw in a few reasonably priced drink specials, a sizeable selection of menu items under $10, a view of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean—and voila.

Laguna’s Big Fish Tavern has mastered this recipe, but taken it to a whole new level with a happy hour menu that’s comprised primarily of entrée-sized portions of mouthwatering, freshly caught seafood. 

Big Fish’s vibe is casual and easy. It’s the perfect location, complete with nautical-inspired décor and sweeping views of the ocean from its many windows, for a real happy hour. 

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Laguna’s Big Fish Tavern

“We are a casual seafood house—your local, friendly tavern,” says Louie Feinstein, who co-owns Big Fish with Jim Walker. “Our motto is, ‘The answer is yes. Now, what was the question?’”  

Feinstein and Walker purchased the restaurant’s space—which was formerly known as The House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer—in late 2014, and they’ve made some pretty significant changes and improvements to their restaurant thus far. Which include a happy hour that’s more like a happy day; throughout the winter, happy hour has run from 11:30 a.m. all the way to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. 

If you somehow missed this memo, worry not. Big Fish will kindly keep those hours through the month of March and into April—at which point happy hour will return to its regular 4-7 p.m., Monday-Friday.

 So, whether you’re gearing up to watch some basketball throughout March Madness, or you just love great food and an even better deal, head to Big Fish (which, by the way, still has ice cold beer).  

Low Prices, High Quality

When you order from Big Fish’s happy hour menu, you do not sacrifice quality or size. Take, for example, the “Peruvian Style” Crab and Shrimp Ceviche. It’s a heaping serving of fresh shrimp and crab, tossed with chile, onion, corn, sweet potato, avocado, cilantro and Peppadew. And everything’s been marinated in a citrus sauce so it’s tangy and flavorful. The dish is Louie’s favorite, and it’s a bestselling, signature item. 

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“Peruvian Style” Crab and Shrimp Ceviche

I also tried the Hawaiian Ahi Poke—another popular item at Big Fish. In this dish, the spicy soy, ripe avocado, wontons and onion perfectly complement the fresh ahi. 

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Hawaiian Ahi Poke

You can also get dishes like Chilled Shrimp Cocktail ($7), Oysters on the Half Shell (4 for $7), and Smoked Salmon Carpaccio ($6) from the happy hour menu. 

On the drink side of things, you can grab a well drink, a glass of house red or white wine for $6, a craft cocktail for $8, and you can choose from a selection of draft beers (Stella Artois, Prohibition Ale or the Mission Hefeweizen are available right now) for $5.50. All happy hour specials are available at the bar and at the bar area’s high-top tables only. 

Beyond Happy Hour 

Big Fish offers much more than just a good happy hour deal. Over the last year, the restaurant has brought in live music—primarily local musicians—three times a week, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, from 7-11 p.m. 

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There’s Always Something Fun Happening at Big Fish

And then there are Big Fish’s nine TV screens. The restaurant is the perfect place to watch the March Madness games, because no matter where you sit, you’ve got a view of a flat-screen TV. And Big Fish will be offering drink specials throughout the tournament, too. 

The menu is also expansive, and there’s so much to try beyond the happy hour options. My personal favorite dish is the Thai Glazed Calamari—by far the best calamari I’ve had, because of its unique, robust Thai flavors. It’s served with peanuts, carrots, bean sprouts, cilantro and green onion, and it’s very shareable.

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Thai Glazed Calamari

Feinstein and Walker are also working to revamp the restaurant’s menu—starting with a new format. For example, previously, Big Fish’s “Catches of the Day” were showcased on its “Just Hooked” menu card—a small piece of paper attached to a mini clipboard that’d be distributed to guests. However, given the fact that the owners are working to place more of an emphasis on the restaurant’s fish offerings, adding new, fresh fish items, the “Just Hooked” section will now be embedded in the restaurant’s regular menu. 

Which is a good thing, considering the fact that it really steals the show. At Big Fish, the “Just Hooked” section includes swordfish from Australia, wild yellowtail from Mexico, wild opah and wild ono from Fiji, and mahi-mahi from Costa Rica. And you can order it prepared in one of four ways: simply grilled, with lemon, seasoned rice and vegetables; pan roasted, with a lemon beurre blanc sauce, kale and roasted mushrooms; blackened, with a lobster cognac sauce, baby potatoes and grilled asparagus; or grilled, with pineapple-mango salsa, quinoa and roasted vegetables. 

In addition to seafood, the restaurant offers plenty of “on-shore” items, which include everything from Grilled Filet Mignon and the “Hangover Burger”, to Pho Noodles and Garlic Rosemary Chicken. 

Keep an eye out for Big Fish’s new “Sunday Supper”, too: for $28, you’ll get a soup or salad, your choice of entrée, and dessert. 

And, of course, the restaurant does an incredible job of rotating its beers on tap, showcasing a wide variety of local Southern California brews—including Laguna’s own Laguna Beach Beer Company. 

“We really work hard to accommodate everyone—from highchairs to wheelchairs, and people come back to us again and again because we’ve got a varied menu with broad appeal, and the best prices for seafood,” says Louie. “And the menu continually develops and grows.” 

Big Fish is located at 540 South Coast Highway, #200. For more information, visit http://www.bigfishtavernlaguna.com.


Adventures in Gastronomy

victusandvinous.com

April Steinert

 

Mac + Cheese with a Twist

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This recipe is a different take on an old classic. I saw somewhere, ages ago, a recipe for mac and cheese that called for avocado. Genius. Since I have no memory of where I spotted this brilliant addition, I improvised and created my own version. 

In addition to the avocado, I added roasted tomatoes with a bit of basil. The tomatoes add some acid, the basil a bit of herbaceous-ness, both of which help balance the richness of all of that delicious cheese. Divine. Much like the bewitching powers the dynamic duo of grilled cheese and tomato soup have on people. Hard to beat. 

Here’s what you’ll need to feed 5-6:

1/2 Cup whole milk

8 oz. grated Gruyere cheese

6 oz. grated fontina

8 oz. mascarpone cheese

1 avocado, cubed

2 packages of Manini’s gluten-free rigatoni (or 1 lb. of regular pasta)

1 package of strawberry tomatoes 

1 Tbsp. EVOO

2 cloves of garlic, sliced thinly

2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. piment d’espelette (or cayenne) 

A handful of basil, julienned

In a 400-degree oven, roast the tomatoes in the EVOO until about bursting.   

Boil the pasta in salty water until al-dente. Drain and retain 1/4 Cup of the starchy pasta water. 

Put the pasta back in the pan with the hot pasta water.

Add the cheeses, milk, garlic, salt, and piment d’espelette to the pasta. 

Mix well over low heat. 

Once the cheese is nice and melt-y, toss in the cubed avocado and mix again. 

Add salt and pepper to taste, top with a few of the roasted, and hot, tomatoes, some basil, and chow down! 

Eat well!

April

 

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”  - J.R.R. Tolkien

Kya

 

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