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Laura’s Restaurant Updates

Brussels Bistro is now open for lunch

Exciting news for Brussels Bistro Fans: Brussels will now be open for lunch from 11 a.m. every day of the week.

Thomas Crijns opened Brussels Bistro in 2004 and it has firmly been established as one of the most celebrated restaurants in Laguna Beach, renowned for its authentic Belgium cuisine and of course its huge selection of Belgium beers. It most recently won Open Tables February Diners Choice award, alongside many other accolades since it opened. 

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Photo by Laura Buckle

Lunch is served!

Seven months ago Crijns’ best friend of 40 years, Nicolas Servais, moved his family over from Belgium to partner up with him, a partnership that has only enhanced this already popular and successful bistro.

Lunch fans will find all the favorites from the weekly menu as well as Belgium waffles served daily. 

Brussels prides itself in its weekly evening specials and these specials will also be available on the daytime menu.

For more information, visit their website www.brusselsbistro.com or call (949) 376 7955.


Laura Buckle’s Restaurant Updates 

Wine Gallery will now be open every day of the week

Exciting news for Wine Gallery Fans – the Wine Gallery in Laguna Beach will now be open on Mondays. That means the restaurant will now be open seven days a week, offering Happy Hour Monday through to Sunday between the hours of 5 and 7 p.m.  

 

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Photo by Laura Buckle

Delicious burrata

And as if that wasn’t enough exciting enough, The Wine Gallery is also opening for weekend only lunch 11.30 a.m. – 4 p.m. starting Saturday July 23. You can sit in and keep cool or order to-go food (their pizzas are phenomenal) to enjoy on the beach – but remember to pick up your trash… 

The Wine Gallery is located at 1833 South Coast Highway www.winegallerylaguna.com Phone (949) 715 8744.


Need a cure for lunchtime blahs? Head to Okura, perfect for lunch meetings (and dinner conversations)

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

Six weeks ago marked the arrival of Okura Laguna Beach’s new manager Chad Abell. Managing restaurants is in Chad’s blood. Originally he hails from northern California, where his father worked in fine Italian dining all of his life before going on to run a selection of Fiore restaurants in the region.  

Chad moved to southern California and began to manage the Marbella Country Club in San Juan Capistrano, before moving onto the St Regis where he obtained his Fine Dining training. A shift in the management of the St Regis saw him leave there and take up a position at Mozambique, where he worked as the banqueting captain for three years before moving to Okura to become the manager of the restaurant.

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Yum, oysters

And Chad has big ideas. Okura is Laguna Beach’s largest sushi restaurant, located where many businesses have sadly struggled, due to the size of the space. However Okura seems to have been ticking along nicely since 2015. 

As with most businesses, there is always room for growth and improvement, especially during the quieter winter months.  Chad is already working on a new cocktail menu, which will incorporate Japanese inspired cocktails such as a green tea martini and an alternative Bloody Mary. They have also introduced happy nights on a Monday and Tuesday, where the regular Happy Hour, which is 4-6 p.m. every weekday, has been extended until closing time. This is one of the best happy hours available in a sushi establishment, with many dishes and drinks being half the price.  

Chad explains that the food in Okura sells itself (more on that from me later): he is eager to focus on the regeneration of the bar area.

The next step is to try and obtain a live music license (pretty please to anyone on city council reading this). It’s surprising that such large space does not have this feature, but Chad is confident and determined to get this passed. Their recent sponsorship and collaboration with our local radio station KX 93.5 means that if and when they do get a live music license, you will be sure to see some great local artists performing there.

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Sashimi and sushi is fresh and delicious

In the meantime, Okura offers a phenomenal lunchtime menu. I regularly use Okura for business meetings and hopefully by the end of reading this report, I will have convinced any business owner out there to do the same.  

As mentioned previously Okura is a large restaurant, with the capacity to seat many big parties, perfect for a large business lunch or meeting. It is also very well arranged, so that the spacing of the tables allows for intimate conversation, should there be just a couple of people.

The tables themselves are also large, accommodating laptops, notepads or any other equipment you may need for a working lunch. The restaurant is air conditioned, which is a must (especially over the last week).

The lunchtime menu is a colorful array of salads, lunch combinations, bento boxes sushi sashimi rolls and specialty rolls. It also offers a wide range of Gluten Free alternatives. There’s truly something for everyone.

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Sushi can be ordered gluten free

During the lunch menu drinks are available at happy hour prices, but this was a business meeting with my other boss Tyler Russell of KX 93.5 FM and I needed to keep a clear head. 

I ordered a surprise, but specified I wanted the gluten free option, eager to see if it would be as good as the rest of the menu. I was not disappointed. I was presented with the shitake beet salad, crispy shitake mushroom, goat cheese, and walnuts with marinated beet. Alongside this was an array of sashimi served of course with wasabi and ginger and tamari (gluten free) sauce. This was light, tasty and felt so incredibly healthy. It was just the right amount of food for me at lunchtime, without leaving me with an overly full feeling.

Tyler also ordered a dish to be surprised but this time not gluten free…in fact, he ordered extra gluten ha ha! He was presented with a variety of sashimi served over sticky rice and colorful special rolls. It was all perfect and a delightful accompaniment to our working lunch. 

Chad then treated us to some Kumamoto oysters, these were the cream of the crop, delicious tasty oysters, with a magnificent kick. I would highly recommend these if you can cope with a little spice.

All in all my experience at Okura was, as always, really great. The food is consistently spectacular and if you take advantage of the weekly happy hours and specials, it can be a cost effective place to eat.  

Okura is available to hire as a private venue and it also offers outside catering. 

www.okurasushi.com (949) 793-4320 · 858 S Coast Hwy


Cheers to Laguna Beach Beer Co., the coolest 

new hot spot in town

By SUZIE HARRISON

Prepare for takeoff, Laguna. The best flight ever experienced without having to leave home, Laguna Beach Beer Co., has just arrived. This place is for real, with over 20 original beers on tap and two guest beers. So leave the baggage behind and get ready for this smooth restaurant-brewery ride!

Everyone is welcome, whether on two feet or four. This flight is different, even dogs that aren’t designated as “emotional support” are invited, no doctor’s note is needed to walk through the door.

Cheers to Facade

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The new Laguna Beach Beer Co. is a real hot spot that’s so cool 

There’s nothing plain about this plane ride...belly up to the bar, choose from a selection of high tops, standard and open style seating, outdoor tables, or park it at a chill lounge-like couch setting.

Preparing our flight was Captain Russell Swarts, Sales and Marketing Manager. I explained to Swarts the type I beer I like and he prepared my flight schedule.

“We’ve been doing a ton of flights. It’s been pretty busy so far. We have 22 of our own beers on tap and two guests beers,” Swarts said.

The first leg of my flight was Ruby Street, a grapefruit IPA / ABV: 7 / IBU: 70, one of their most popular, a West Coast style IPA with a healthy dose of the tasty, great fruit. 

As a beer aficionado, I had elevated expectations and to have them exceeded was exceedingly exciting. My immediate reaction was this is the best beer I have ever tasted. Anyone who knows me, understands that’s a big deal, hugely big.

I diligently delved into my pursuit of the other beers on my itinerary, doing my due diligence as a reporter, of course. Main Tower, Big Bend, and Telonics Trail were mine for the tasting.

Cheers to Beers Flight

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Photo by Mike Tauber

Me absolutely loving the beer flight I was on at Laguna Beach Beer Co.

Big Bend is a Hazy IPA / ABV: 8.2 / IBU: 64, named after the hairpin turn in Laguna Canyon, described as a hazy double IPA with flavors of passion fruit and ripe melon, double dry hopped with Ekuanot, Mosaic, and Dr. Rudi for that bitterness and aroma,” according to the beer menu. “This has definitely been a crowd pleaser,” Swarts said. 

I was indeed pleased. Suddenly, beer by beer, my new favorite choice of brews became clear. My fave was Ruby Street, Big Bend, Telonics Trail, and a Guava beer that Mike Tauber, my partner in crime to check out the Beer Co., had on his flight. I was ready for landing.

“Big Bend is my favorite beer right now,” Swarts said. 

As for what’s most requested, Swarts said, Big Bend or our Drunken Cellarmen, 2.0, which is a hazy IPA.

“We’re about to release our third different version of it. So basically, what we do is change the hops; we use the same yeast in every version of it,” Swarts said. “So our last and third version is coming out this week or at the very latest next week.”

So what is a hazy IPA as opposed to sans haze?

“It’s a very juicy tropical beer, each variant is different based on the hops that we use so the version was very light, the second version was actually very bitter, and the third version is going to be like the first version a little bit lighter, very juicy and tropical,” Swarts said.

It resonates for summer, a sweet summertime swill. 

The Beer Company likes to go local when possible, as the two owners are Laguna Beach natives Brent Reynard and Mike Lombardo.

However, the most is important ingredient is using the best ingredients.

“Our malt comes from Germany. We do use some local Southern California companies, including a hop company from San Diego,” Swarts explained. “We try to tie it in with the local area, the names of the beers. Saddleback Mountain is where our brewery is, so we send some love to them,” Swarts said of Mike’s first beer.

It was time to come back down to earth and order some of their tasty eats. I ordered what they call artisan flatbreads. I call it pizza. It tastes a lot like pizza you can find in North Beach, San Francisco, delicious. I got a Margherita.

Cheers to pizza

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Photo by Mike Tauber

It doesn’t get much better than this, beer and pizza, best ever, my new favorite hangout in Laguna Beach

Tauber asked to be surprised with something that has meat in it, something that says wow, you can’t get this anywhere else. He got the Cali-Chick, a chicken breast with cilantro pesto, smoked mozzarella, arugula, avocado, and tomato on a talera roll. 

He was in love, especially with the fact that all their sandwiches come with fresh greens. Everything tasted so fresh. We also had a side of baked cauliflower with corn and brie with fruit.

And we loved the presentation of the flights, the wooden racks made with a chalkboard intersection to write the name of each beer on it, its initials, giving it a unique touch.

Each flight was put in the order to drink from, left to right. But not me, I moved them all around, except Ruby Street, which didn’t really come out of my hand.

Tauber was going for his Guava beer while I was trying Big Bend.

“I love Guava, so of course, it has my name written all over it,” Tauber said. And I of course had to make a quip, “Well really MT, Main Tower does.” We had a good laugh over that.

“The Guava is light and has an absolutely fresh guava taste to it. I picked guavas in Hawaii and this is delicious,” Tauber said.

Guava beer was new to me and to my delight it was unbelievable, practically neck and neck with the grapefruit freshness of Ruby Street.

I elicited a meow in response to my first guava sip and found myself holding onto his beer for a couple more swills.

“What we did for that beer, we made a Hefeweizen and we split the batch, so we got two beers out of one. We added guava puree to about 10 barrels of it,” Swarts said.

Rob McClaire who was once with the Montage and other high-end restaurants oversees operations. He was warm and welcoming.

“I got joined up with Mike and Brent the founders in February. They brought me on to run the operations and really bring Laguna’s beer to Laguna Beach,” McClaire said. “I’m so stoked to be here back in my hometown in Laguna Beach, where I was born and raised. It’s also good to be joining forces with them.”

Tauber enjoyed the open vision of the kitchen, where you can watch the chefs at work. 

Cheers to Beer Menu

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Photo by Scott Brashier

Enjoy the buzz of the Hive and the liveliness of the revamped Civic Art District, especially the tasty eats and beer treats at Laguna Beach Beer Co.

“It’s easygoing, everyone is very laid back. I love it,” Tauber said. “I mean look at the helpful staff, helping you with your beer choices. Look at that, line it up.”

“We really want people to come for the beer and stay for the food. It’s really a neighborhood spot,” McClaire said. “You can bring your kids and family, you can go on date night if you want to, bring your dog. We have great beer and some delicious wine too.”

The place was packed all night but with plenty of room, nonetheless.

We ran into David Evans, who we really like, a close friend of one of our best friend’s, Sian Poeschl. He had already been to the bar twice by Saturday.

“The selection of the beer is amazing here. It’s cool,” Evans said. 

Tauber and I reiterated to each other how exemplary the staff is, and we couldn’t get over the cool atmosphere, so Laguna Beach.

“We’re trying to keep it laid back and local here,” McClaire said. 

It definitely delivers on that promise. There was not an empty bar stool the whole time we were there. Mike and I concurred that it’s better than 5-stars.

Now it’s your turn to check it out.

“We have our grand opening Thursday, June 7, starting at 5 p.m. with live music, light appetizers, and a live muralist next door,” McClaire said. 

We plan to highlight different artists on our walls for Art Walk nights,” Swarts added.

The event is being held in conjunction with the rebranding and opening celebration of the Hive. Swill on!

Laguna Beach Beer Company, located at 859 Laguna Canyon Road, is open every day from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.


Zinc is a vegetarian restaurant with dishes certain to whet the appetites of carnivores too

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

Opened in 1988, Zinc Laguna Beach has been a favorite among the locals for more than 28 years.  Zinc Cafe was inspired by the quality food movement initiated by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Since Zinc opened its Laguna Beach location, Zinc has gone from strength to strength, opening in Corona del Mar and Los Angeles. And by that I mean, it really does crush any myths that a vegetarian restaurant leaves a non-vegetarian person feeling less than satisfied. 

Zinc food is beautifully fresh, tasty, with generous portion sizes and adventurous ingredients. It offers and breakfast and lunch menu seven days a week, changes its soups daily and offers fantastic specials. It also serves brunch cocktails, beer and wine. 

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Start with a delicious latte

I decided to report on breakfast (as its one of my favorite breakfast venues in Laguna Beach) and took my best veggie friend Cottie and her puppy Flounder (yes that is right, Zinc is dog friendly).

Our Food Journey at Zinc

When we arrived at Zinc, it was (as always at 10 a.m.) very busy, luckily we managed to grab a table for two.  There is no table service at Zinc, but cold water is available on a self-serve system and there are staff on hand to clear tables and keep guests comfortable.   

Diners are required to go inside the bar to order food, where drinks are made and then you are given a device which buzzes when your food is ready for collection.  

I ordered a large almond milk latte and a Zinc Mimosa, the drinks came quickly. Zinc coffee is great coffee, pretty strong in taste but very smooth. The Zinc mimosa was really delicious, sparking wine, orange juice, peach juice and raspberry puree. It had the look of a sunset and tasted just as sweet.

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Dill’s what does it

It was then onto the food, the breakfast menu consists of an eggs section, specialties section, fruit yoghurt and sides as well as cereal and a selection of baked goods.

My friend Cottie ordered the avocado toast from the specialties menu and it really is special, consisting of smashed avocado, dill, lemon dressed radish salad, chives onion and lemon zest, and she added a poached egg.  This is one of my favorite things on the menu at Zinc, the combination of the dill and chives in the smashed avocado make it so tasty. You can have this with wheat toast or gluten free.

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Breakfast bowl: it’s delicious and fresh

I decided to go for the breakfast burrito bowl, which included delicious scrambled eggs, vegetarian sausage onion sauté, white cheddar, avocado, pico de gallo and fire roasted salsa. This is a fabulous dish and is available as a burrito wrap also. What I love about this dish as it feels like a hearty breakfast and definitely something that you could give the token carnivore that may be in your group. 

As well as a fabulous café, Zinc also has a wonderful take out café and coffee shop for lunch or brunch on the go.  I often buy their full cakes for parties and palm them off as my own (oops maybe I gave the game away..)

There’s a reason Zinc has been busy since 1988 – it’s great quality and value vegetarian food done so incredibly well. I don’t know one person in Laguna who has never visited.

Zinc is located at 350 Ocean Ave.


Selanne Steak Tavern’s executive chef is named Culinary Visionary for Flavors of Orange County

Award-winningJoshua Severson, who has served as executive chef of Selanne Steak Tavern since its opening in 2013, has been chosen to be the Culinary Visionary for the 2017 American Liver Foundation Flavors of Orange County gala fundraiser. 

On Sunday, October 15, at The Duke Hotel Newport Beach, Chef Severson and Selanne Steak Tavern will be recognized for ongoing dedication, support and commitment to the research, education and advocacy efforts of the American Liver Foundation.

Flavors of Orange County is a special culinary experience that showcases the signature dishes of area chefs who are invited to participate in this distinct evening featuring a cocktail reception and fine dining. Each participating chef will create a unique five-course dinner to be served tableside for one table of 12 guests. In addition, the glamorous evening hosted by celebrity chef and lifestyle expert Jamie Gwen will feature exciting silent and live auctions.

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Executive Chef Joshua Severson

“I am highly honored to be designated as the 2017 culinary visionary of Flavors of Orange County,” said Severson. “And, I look forward to working on this important American Liver Foundation fundraiser. It is my goal to help invite and lead a team of outstanding OC chefs who want to show off their culinary talents to discerning guests. I am pleased to do all I can to promote such an amazing evening of giving.”

Owner Kevin Pratt noted, “From the beginning, it has always been our goal at Selanne Steak Tavern to offer the highest level of food, drinks and hospitality to our guests from far and near. Also, co-owner Teemu Selanne and I always strive to support important causes that affect the health and wellness of children and adults in Orange County and beyond.

“Being a part of the American Liver Foundation’s Flavors of Orange County is a meaningful way we can help others,” he added.

The 14th Annual Flavors of Orange County event takes place on Sunday, Oct 15 from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Duke Hotel, Newport Beach, 4500 MacArthur Blvd.

Ticket cost is $355. To buy tickets, visit https://alfflavors.org/orangecounty/tickets/

For more information: Visit https://alfflavors.org/orangecounty/

The mission of the American Liver Foundation is to facilitate, advocate and promote education, support and research for the prevention, treatment and cure of liver disease. For more information, visit liverfoundation.org.

Selanne Steak Tavern, located at 1464 South Coast Highway opened in November 2013 and is owned by Hockey Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne and local Orange County businessman Kevin Pratt. Housed in a reimagined 1934 historic home along the Pacific Coast, it’s an upscale contemporary steak house with a downstairs tavern, bar and wine library, a loft upstairs for more intimate dining and two patios for alfresco dining. 

Selanne Steak Tavern is open for dinner only, nightly starting at 5 p.m. For reservations and more information, call 949-715-9881 or visit www.selannesteaktavern.com.


New restaurant Terra Laguna Beach will open in time for Festival season

The new on-property restaurant for Festival of Arts/Pageant of the Masters (FOA/POM), Terra Laguna Beach, introduces its new Executive Chef, Jenny Messing, and its premiere menu just in time for the Laguna Beach festival season. 

Officially opening July 6, in line with the beginning of the FOA/POM, Chef Messing’s menu for Terra will be a distinct and vibrant collection of sophisticated and fresh dishes with a focus on California cuisine infused with international inspiration and world-class taste.

“Fine cuisine is in and of itself an art form,” said Festival of Arts president David Perry. “We look forward to welcoming the culinary creativity of Terra Laguna Beach to the Festival grounds.”

New restaurant Terra

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Terra Laguna Beach

Born and raised in Southern California, Jenny grew up with a restaurant and catering family legacy. With an education from Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California, her specific culinary style is heavily rooted in California cuisine – it’s fresh, fun and sophisticated. 

Before coming to Laguna Beach, her catering business, Kitchen Vibes, helped facilitate a warm and welcoming dining experience for corporate and private events all over Southern California. 

With help from longstanding Executive Sous Chef from the previous FOA/POM restaurant in this location, Tivoli Terrace, Gregorio Huerta, and Chef Messing, Terra’s menu will feature some signature favorites from Tivoli Terrace’s previous menu but will breathe new life into this kitchen. Terra will be keeping the Lamb Shank braised in wine, tomato sauce and spices – a pageant classic; June Neptune’s Chicken Walnut Salad with fresh grapes and light curry, as a tribute to June and her legacy; and Tivoli’s award winning Viennese Spiced Carrot Cake.

Chef Messing will also add some flavorful new California classics, including Fresh Salmon, pan seared to perfection with fresh pineapple and grapefruit salsa with spicy pickled Serrano peppers and ginger to give your taste buds a kick. Terra will also introduce grass-fed beef with its Grilled Flank Steak with a charred scallion and toasted walnut chimichurri sauce, and a House Salad made with mixed baby greens, fresh strawberries, toasted almonds, chèvre and a rosé vinaigrette will offer a flavorful introduction for every guest – as a simple yet beautiful salad with all ingredients sourced locally in California. 

New restaurant messing

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Submitted photo

Chef Jenny Messing

For dessert, Chef Messing has created a light Rosemary-Lemon Olive Oil Cake with fresh house-made whipped cream and topped with juicy macerated berries for a perfect ending to a delicious summer dining experience.

There will also be a new bar menu that will include artfully crafted cocktails and mocktails infused with fresh juices and herbs, as well as an expanded wine, beer and cider selection. Terra will also be adding healthy and vibrant seasonal brunch items to its weekend menu. Chef Messing is still testing, tasting and perfecting the Terra menus with insight from the FOA/POM and others.

“I couldn’t be more inspired by Terra Laguna Beach,” Chef Messing said. “The Terrance, the roof, the outdoor setting and overall ambiance is a perfect pairing to the food I am so looking forward to serving our guests. It’s going to be an incredible summer at Terra!” 

Hasty Honarkar, Vice President of The Laguna Beach Company hopes that appealing to the evolving tastes in food and beverage offerings for Terra will bring more guests and excitement to this year’s 85th anniversary of the FOA/POM. “This is an exciting year for Laguna Beach,” she said. “We are so grateful that our team has been able to partner with the Festival and Pageant to provide a delicious and unique experience for locals and visitors who come to support our wonderful art community.”

Dora Wexell Orgill, Vice President/General Manager of Terra is also looking forward to this new chapter for FOA/POM. “I am so excited to see the community engage with Terra and reconnect to the history of the FOA/POM grounds,” she said.

In the fall, Terra will be an active event venue and offer private parties and events customized catering menus and a gorgeous space surrounded by nature. However, in November, Terra will close for renovations and will re-open in May 2019 with its grand opening. Festival and Pageant ticket holders are able to come and experience Terra at their leisure during the festival season; and, with a season pass or a Pageant ticket guests can keep returning to Terra.


Ruby’s is a great diner for kids with delightful options for the determined adult dieter

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

In two weeks’ time myself and 11 other Laguna Beach moms head to Mexico to celebrate one of our party’s “Big Birthdays” – cue many group photographs and postings by a luxurious infinity pool.  

Therefore like most women (those of us who admit it) my calorie intake has reduced and my workout rate has dramatically increased so that I don’t represent a beached whale in Cabo San Lucas.

So imagine my horror when my food report schedule brings up Ruby’s Diner. Not the place (or so I thought) I should be eating at so close to this impending vacation.

Ruby’s Diner is a legacy, with more than 35 years of experience and over 35 restaurants in the USA. This American diner has stood the test of time in delivering a diner inspired vibe and an enormous menu in keeping with that. 

Run on the beach inspires Ruby’s

The idea for Ruby’s Diner was born in 1980 after a run on the beach. Doug Cavanaugh had just returned to his native Southern California after successfully restoring and running a restaurant on Nantucket Island off Cape Cod. One evening he was brainstorming about business opportunities with his father, and remembered that he had seen a dilapidated building at the end of Balboa Pier while jogging along the beach. Although the building was in pretty bad shape, Cavanaugh noticed its architecture really lent itself well to that of a 1940’s diner. With his father’s encouragement, Cavanaugh started to make the restaurant a reality.  The restaurant’s name came from his mother Ruby, as did the logo of the brand.

The location I visited was in South Laguna. It is a bright white and red building (as are all the diners) with an array of vintage vehicles located outside, it reminds me of a scene out of Happy Days, and delights visitors (especially children) daily. In fact, I always make sure that when families visit me from the UK and they have children that this is where we bring them for a true “diner experience.”

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Ruby’s Laguna Beach

For this report, I took along two children, one of whom doesn’t enjoy red meat and one who is burger crazy.

We were greeted by the manager of the Laguna Beach location, Victoria Douglas, who has been with Ruby’s for 15 years (although she doesn’t look old enough!). Victoria took us upstairs to our table, where we had a beautiful ocean view. 

The menu is large and takes some reading, there is a full page dedicated to Ruby’s famous 16 different flavor shakes so obviously that’s where the girls decided to start.

 They chose an Oreo child’s milk shake and a chocolate banana milkshake. Each milkshake is handmade to order, so don’t expect these to be rushed out, but believe me it is totally worth the wait.

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The shakes are great

As I mentioned before Ruby’s menu is vast, there’s a kids menu, appetizers and sides, fresh salads, chilis, soups, shakes, premium burgers, extraordinary burgers, all American sandwiches, big plates, classic burgers, turkey burgers, all day breakfasts and desserts.

As I scoured the menu, I was amazed at all the options and then I felt I had struck gold, Ruby’s really does cater for everyone. There is a full section of DE-LITE-FUL dishes to choose from all under 650 calories! All of a sudden the Mexico swimsuit anxiety lifted.

The children ordered, one child going for the chicken fingers with fries. Ruby’s fries are completely trans fat free and there is an option of a fries refill upon request.  The chicken fingers were tasty, succulent white chicken in a crispy breadcrumb coating. Just to make sure we got our greens that day, we also ordered a side Caesar salad, which was very tasty. 

The other child ordered a kid’s cheeseburger, fully loaded with added Ruby’s sauce, which tastes a lot like a Thousand Island dressing, but has added spices. This was delicious and a large burger for a child. 

I decided to go for the DE-LITE-FUL garden burger, a garden burger patty served on a whole wheat (or gluten free) bun with non fat mayo, half cheese, crisp lettuce and tomato accompanied by a side salad. This was seriously good, and felt much more naughty than 650 calories! 

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The garden burger was less than 650 calories

The children decided not to go for the dessert option, way too full from the shake and the main meal. And I obviously did not want to spoil my healthy momentum. 

Ruby’s Diner is really great, its food is good, the atmosphere great and for children it’s a little bit magical.

The restaurant offers weekly promotions and on a Tuesday evening kids eat free. It really is fun for the whole family and there is an option to be healthy if you’re under a little pressure.

Ruby’s Laguna Beach 30622 S. Coast Hwy, is open 7a.m  – 9 p.m. Call (949) 497 7829 or go to www.rubys.com for more information. 


Waterman’s Ball was wonderful

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

On Saturday August 5, The Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) honored inspirational professional surfer Bethany Hamilton as Waterman of the Year; Parley For The Oceans founder Cyrill Gutsch as Environmentalist of the Year; and all- around surf industry legend Herbie Fletcher with the Lifetime Achievement Award.  

A Special Recognition Award was also presented to the International Surfing Association (ISA), the world governing body for surfing, for its unwavering and successful efforts in getting surfing included in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games.

The 28th Annual Waterman’s Weekend was held at one of my favorite venues, The Ranch at Laguna Beach. This year the entire event was held at The Ranch with the Waterman’s Golf Tournament at Ben Brown’s Golf Course. The tournament took place on Friday, August 4 and featured a 3-club and barefoot format.

On Saturday, August 5 the industry gathered under the stars at The Ranch for the Waterman’s Gathering to celebrate this year’s honorees, raise money through silent and live auctions and enjoy a farm-to-table meal with friends.

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Laura Buckle with Bethany Hamilton

I was lucky enough to be invited along once again to cover this fabulous night for Stu News and as always the event did not disappoint. 

The Award Winners

Waterman (woman of the year) Bethany Hamilton: Bethany Hamilton is known around the world as the inspirational pro surfer whose determination, heart, and skills brought her back to competitive surfing after a shark attack in 2003. The attack left her without her left arm, however she overcame the odds to return to surfing at the highest level. 

Hamilton’s story has reached far beyond the surf community. Following the release of her autobiography Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board (2009), and later with the release of the feature film Soul Surfer (2011) she inspired millions with her story. Hamilton continues to be an inspiration through her pro surfing and big wave accomplishments, and as an author, wife, and mother. 

I was lucky enough to talk to her and meet her beautiful family briefly where we discussed her life and her remarkable “just get on with it” determined attitude.

My children encouraged me to ask her one question, which was “Are you afraid of anything?” her answer was not being a good enough mom or a good enough wife is the only thing that scares her. She was truly deserving of this marvelous award and it was a complete pleasure talking to her. 

Environmentalist of the Year

SIMA’s 2017 Environmentalist of the Year was German-born Cyrill Gutsch who is a designer and creative entrepreneur based in New York City. At first glance, not what one would expect in an ocean environmentalist honoree, but a life-changing meeting with Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society inspired Gutsch to commit his life to protecting the world’s oceans back in 2012. That meeting was the catalyst for founding Parley For The Oceans, a non-profit network that seeks to facilitate collaboration across the fields of business, government, activism, art and science – with the ultimate objective of conserving the earth’s oceans. Gutsch has worked tirelessly in connecting many walks of life, people, cultures and businesses in order to create change, from pro surfers Greg Long and Ramon Navarro to Hollywood star Chris Hemsworth to companies such as Adidas and Corona. Gutsch is committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure the health of the earth’s oceans.

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Caption

“While he may not be widely known in the surf world yet, I can tell you that Cyrill is without question someone who is a friend of surfers around the world,” said Paul Naude, SIMA Environmental Fund President and CEO of Vissla. “Simply put, Cyrill is an agent of change, and his work to create a forum and network of others who want to protect our oceans is what the world needs right now. And the surf industry needs it more than ever. We couldn’t be happier to award Cyrill with the Environmentalist of the Year award.”

Lifetime Achievement Award: Herbie Fletcher

A Southern California native, Fletcher has continued to re-invent himself and the industry since he began surfing in 1948. In 1976 Fletcher created the revolutionary peel-and-stick Astrodeck, and went on to become an icon of self-promotion. In fact, his first foray into film in 1985 (Wave Warriors) was a self-made promotional movie for Astrodeck, and was followed by with four successful sequels. Fletcher was not only behind the camera, but also starred in several surf films in the 70s and 80s.

As the patriarch of the famous Fletcher clan (wife Dibi, sons Christian and Nathan and grandsons Greyson, Lazer and Jetson), Herbie remains as integrated in the industry as ever. His most recent projects include a RVCA + Astrodeck collaboration, and creating fine art pieces from broken surfboards.

Special Recognition Award – ISA – Fernand Aguerre

In August 2016, the announcement was made to the world that surfing would be included in the Olympic Games after decades of hard work and dedication from the ISA. SIMA honored the work of the ISA with the 2017 Special Recognition Award as the surfing community prepares itself for its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games. The award was presented to ISA President Fernando Aguerre who has tirelessly spearheaded ISA’s Olympic Surfing movement, a vision first pioneered by Duke Kahanamoku who is widely regarded as the “father of modern surfing” and was a five-time Olympic medalist in swimming.  

Fernando was the life and soul of the evening’s event, both he and his wife were the most colorful people in town with smiles to match their fabulous outfits.

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The Ranch provided exquisite food

Mark Christy and the team at The Ranch pulled out all the stops for this event. The venue was beautifully presented, the organization ran without a hitch and the food we ate on the fairway of hole nine was exquisite. Not only did I feel an overwhelming sense of pride for the winners but also for The Ranch, which is proving itself to be one of the most fabulous venues In Laguna Beach.

A little bit about SIMA

The Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) is the official working trade association of more than 300 surf industry suppliers. Founded in 1989, SIMA is a non-profit organization that serves to promote awareness of the surf industry and participation in the sport of surfing through public relations efforts and a variety of services, educational programs and research. 

In addition, SIMA actively supports oceanic environmental efforts through its 501(c)(3) charitable environmental foundation, the SIMA Environmental Fund. In the past 27 years, SIMA’s Environmental Fund has raised more than $7 million for environmental groups seeking to protect the world’s oceans, beaches and waves. 

The SIMA Humanitarian Fund, also a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation, was established to award grants to various surf or boardsport related social and humanitarian non-profit organizations whose efforts are focused on improving the quality of life, health and/or welfare of people. Since 2004 the SIMA Humanitarian Fund has raised and donated more than $1.7 million to surf-related non-profit humanitarian organizations. For more information regarding SIMA, visit www.sima.com.


Penguin Café: a place parents treasure, and for good reason

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

Back in July last year, I was lucky enough to report on the Penguin Café, if you remember rightly I took my then-13-year-old son who I affectionately referred to as the bottomless pit. From that moment my son has become a firm regular in the cafe, often having a sandwich after a morning surf.

The Penguin Café has been in Laguna Beach since 1942, and is proud to be one of Laguna’s oldest family-run businesses. They have served generations of Laguna families.

Since 2001, Sabrina McMurray and her husband Michael have owned and run the restaurant, which has been in the McMurray family since 1968. Sabrina has worked there since she was 14 years old, in every capacity, as a waitress, kitchen assistant, cook and now the owner.

The café was originally named “The Penguin Malt Shop” and served vanilla floats and iced drinks (hence the Penguin title). Over the years the menu has evolved, and now the restaurant serves famously hearty made-to-order breakfasts and lunches using family recipes.

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Pie at the Penguin!

The past few years have been challenging for the Penguin Café. All the kitchen staff left to start their own businesses, so Sabrina has been spending the majority of her time in the kitchen.  

However, with a new chef and kitchen assistants, she is back at the front, warm and welcoming and socializing with customers. Sabrina is an extremely busy lady, so when I heard that the Penguin was to open two evenings a week (Wednesday and Thursday) for dinner, I half expected her to tell me she had hired someone to help. 

It turns out, no, this was all her and her husband Michael’s idea to give Laguna Beach more Penguin hours. She specifically chose Wednesday and Thursday nights as she realized that being a mom in Laguna Beach, these are sports nights, meaning cooking dinner is always a rush and not very satisfying.  

Penguin’s new evening menu can be ordered to go, so if your family doesn’t fancy sitting, then that is an option. For this report, we decided to sit in, “we” meaning four members of Stu News staff.

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My chili was fabulous

As with the daytime menu, Penguin’s evening menu is extensive with a breakfast-for-dinner menu featuring breakfast favorites, a burger section, and hot dog section as well as sandwiches, soup and salads. The hot dog section was created with Mayor Toni Iseman in mind, who once told Sabrina there was a desperate need for a hotdog place in Laguna Beach.

Our food journey

I decided to order from the soup and salads section and chose the chili bowl, this was a deliciously light homemade chili that wasn’t overly spicy, so great for those who are not keen on spice. You know me by now though, I ordered a side of jalapenos. 

Lynette ordered the burger and it was really exceptional, homemade and huge. Really tasty, with fresh salad to garnish, as well as a side salad to start.

Dianne ordered the veggie burger and was really impressed with the vegetarian option. Like everything in Penguin Café, don’t expect small portions. 

Shaena went for the Bird Dog, a special hotdog that comes with grilled onion, bell pepper, jalapenos, a scoop of chili with cheese and fries. This was outstanding! I think everyone on the table had food order envy.

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Shaena enjoys the Bird Dog

Alexis had a grilled cheese and I was so glad she did as she was the only one to order fries, so I stole a couple and they were delicious.

It was safe to say that everyone was completely satisfied and like everything at the Penguin it filled us up without breaking the bank.

It was then on to dessert and Sabrina (who loves baking) had made two fabulous pies. One was a mixed berry, which was warm, delicious and just like my grandma used to make, and the other a chocolate mousse cake, which was decadent and naughty.

 Sabrina plans on changing the pies weekly and believe me, it is worth checking them out. 

Once again Penguin Café really impressed me, I urge you all to go visit it one evening. Hungry athletes will thank you!


Tortilla Republic will contribute 20 percent of sales on Sept 27 to help rebuild Mexico City 

On Wed, Sept 27, Tortilla Republic will support and stand with Mexico City to help citizens after the recent earthquake.

Tortilla Republic Nachos: every bite helps

On that day, Tortilla Republic will be contributing 20 perecent of its sales to UNICEF’s effort to provide food, water, shelter, protection, and health care to Mexico City after the devastation of the recent earthquake. 

Along with the other sponsors, Herradura Tequila, will be serving $8 margaritas. For more information on upcoming events, visit www.tortilla republic.com


Ivory: Unique dishes – and there’s parking!

Story by MARRIE STONE

When I entered Ivory Restaurant, my first impression was, “This place feels chic and sophisticated, trendy and beautiful, but without an air of pretention.” 

The noise level is delightful for maintaining a civilized conversation (which I loved), yet the subtle remixed rhythms of European electronica still made for a young, cool atmosphere. 

More important, no one at Ivory is trying to be anything they’re not. They’re simply—and genuinely—delighted to be there. And that authenticity, combined with the classy coastal atmosphere, attracted my attention.

A Ukrainian Foundation

When I had a chance to talk with owners Alexander Pavlovsky and Olga Bevz, my feelings began to make sense. Both Alex and Olga grew up in the Ukraine, where eating out wasn’t just a luxury—it was nearly beyond the realm of possibility. “Ever since I was a little girl, I always loved gathering places and great food,” says Olga. “Eating out wasn’t a common thing, so I was fascinated with this concept of a restaurant.” 

Alex shared Olga’s childhood experiences. “We were friends a long time and both realized we had the same concept in mind,” says Alex. “Owning a place for people to gather and enjoy their experience.”

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Photo from website

Ivory’s exterior is attractive

Together, they began looking for a coastal location, modern and fresh. Ivory fit the bill, with a white décor and old world elements that gave the space a chic vibe. The room is small and intimate, appointed with luxurious leather couches and flowing white drapery. They were inspired to add an outdoor patio with a living wall of jasmine. “Ever since we did that,” says Olga, “it’s become a hit. Especially during the warm summers.”

Ukraine meets California for a perfect culinary union 

Did that Ukrainian influence find its way onto Ivory’s menu? Da! (Actually, in Ukrainian, it’s “tak.”) Alex and Olga strive for exclusive offerings that are difficult to find in other Orange County restaurants. Their blini, for example, is a quintessential Ukrainian dish infused with a Californian touch: Crepes filled with braised short ribs and a mushroom sauce. Alex is quick to point out these are nothing like French crepes. You won’t find this taste or texture elsewhere. That culinary homage to their homeland makes Ivory’s menu utterly unique.

This winter, Alex will expand the Ukrainian influence to include pelmeni—a Russian boiled dumpling, filled with veal. It will be presented in a way consistent with Ivory’s style, incorporating both the influences of Southern California and Alex and Olga’s heritage.

Other signature & standout plates

Chef Jesus Duran joined the Ivory team as a line cook and quickly demonstrated unparalleled creativity and passion toward food. He moved through the ranks, becoming their trusted head chef in February of 2015. “When he came in,” says Alex, “we fed off a lot of his ideas and improved the menu to provide an excellent food and tasting experience.” 

What sets Jesus apart? He’s a wizard with meat temperatures and textures, says Alex. The octopus ceviche, for example, is a very tricky protein to get just right. “Jesus has perfected the process,” says Alex. “There’s a very narrow window of cooking time to get the right texture.” Jesus knows just the sweet spot.

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Shrimp, Ivory style

Another signature favorite is the Boom Boom Shrimp (an homage to Laguna’s old Boom Boom Room), a light and crispy shrimp marinated and served with a creamy aioli. My recent visit to Ivory proved that the hype over this appetizer was justified. The flavor combinations and crispy texture tasted just right. We also applauded the goat cheese and beet hors d’oeuvres, which I hadn’t associated with Ukrainian cuisine until I spoke with Alex and Olga. Beets—of course! The fresh cucumbers and pears on the side made this a delightfully light dish.

Let me not forget the prawns in a citrusy asparagus risotto. The lemon leek buerre blanc sauce created a light finish to the heft of the risotto. Against my better judgment, warning me against eating a full serving of risotto, the plate returned to the kitchen clean. And, surprisingly, I didn’t have that overly full feeling I’m often left with after a hearty carb-rich meal. 

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Beets – of course…

Alex also worked with Jesus to create the blackberry duck. “Duck isn’t something you see on a lot of menus,” says Alex. “We wanted a standout dish to differentiate us from typical fare.” The duck is complemented by farro and a side of blackberry sauce.

“The sweetness of the port and darkness of the berries work really well together,” he says. I must return to test this for myself!

The Dirty Russian & other drinking delights

Olga and Alex wanted to ensure their specialty drink menu represented their heritage, as well as a variety of options for their guests. There’s an old Soviet Union hangover cure that involves pickle juice. Actually, maybe it is just pickle juice. Alex decided to experiment. The result is a twist on the classic dirty martini, using pickle juice and adding pickled tomato, as well as good vodka. Diners can’t get enough.

This winter, Alex will bring his own family tradition into the restaurant. For years, he’s personally made a cranberry infusion for the enjoyment of his friends and family. Fresh cranberries, muddled with sugar and vodka, infused for over a week—what’s not to love? Plus, probably some antioxidants. “It creates this amazing tasting beverage,” says Alex. “Our version of the cosmopolitan.” 

It will go on the menu in a few weeks, plenty of time to become a local favorite this holiday season.

A local advantage

A few other things make Ivory particularly palatable for locals. Free, easy and plentiful parking. All the time. If you live in town, I hardly need to tell you this is a treat. 

After some research, I also discovered their happy hour is nearly unmatched in Laguna. Served from 5 to 6:30 p.m., you’ll enjoy 50 percent off appetizers and well drinks. They also have a reasonable prix fixe menu—four courses for $35. 

But, more than that—at least for me—are all the benefits that come from its location off the beaten and overcrowded Laguna path, nestled in the Canyon near the Sawdust Festival. This means the beach bikini crowd isn’t strolling by the front window looking for a seat. This intimate setting makes Ivory a perfect choice before a night at the Laguna Playhouse, with whom they partner often for various events. 

“Unlike other places in Laguna that get continuous walk-by clients,” says Alex, “we’re a destination. We work harder to provide a better experience. As a result, Laguna locals love us. We have a loyal support-base, and don’t rely on drop-in business.”

For those who want a place where they can relax, away from the frenetic crowds and beach scene, Ivory fits the bill.


Golden Foodie Award for “best service” honors Selanne Steak Tavern in Laguna Beach

For the fifth time in Golden Foodie’s six-year history, Selanne Steak Tavern has been recognized in an outstanding category.  On Sept 24 at the Annual Golden Foodie Awards ceremony, emceed by Food Network celebrity Simon Majumdar and held at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa, an audience of 250 people was on hand as Selanne Steak Tavern was presented a Golden Foodie Award for Best Service.

The other four awards that Selanne Steak Tavern has received include; Best Steak for the restaurant’s outstanding menu execution, service and overall program in 2016; Best Wine in 2015; and Best New Restaurant and Best Steak in 2014.

The Golden Foodies – the People’s Choice Food Awards – honors excellence in the world of restaurants, chefs, bartenders, food, drinks and hospitality. Results are culled from online nominating and voting by industry professionals, avid restaurant devotees and other influencers.

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Sommelier Vito Pasquale and Chad Sisco

 “To be recognized again by the Golden Foodie Awards is an ongoing testament to the devotion and professionalism of each member of our outstanding staff,” said Selanne Steak Tavern’s co-owner Teemu Selanne. “Kevin Pratt and I are thrilled our restaurant has won this industry validation especially on the heels of being recognized by Wine Spectator magazine for our wine program.” 

Selanne Steak Tavern recently garnered the “Best of Award of Excellence,” granted to only 1,168 restaurants globally from the prestigious magazine. Located at 1464 S Coast Hwy, Selanne Steak Tavern opened in Nov 2013 and is owned by Hockey Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne and local OC businessman Kevin Pratt. 

Housed in a reimagined 1934 historic home along the Pacific Coast, it’s an upscale contemporary steak house with an upstairs dining room, downstairs tavern and bar area, a wine room for more intimate dining and two patios for alfresco dining. 

 Selanne Steak Tavern is open for dinner only, starting at 5 p.m. For reservations, call 949-715-9881 or visit www.selannesteaktavern.com.


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

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Larry Tenney

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

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

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

We sighed contentedly, and focused on the menu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it was delicious! I ate it all. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

My taste buds thanked me.

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

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

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

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

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


Fun, German food, and rollicking festivities at Anneliese School’s Annual Oktoberfest on Oct 14

Anneliese Schools is proud to announce its annual Oktoberfest celebration taking place on Sat, Oct 14, at Willowbrook Campus, located at 20062 Laguna Canyon Road, from 12-5 p.m. Last year, over 1,000 people attended the event. 

The celebration takes place in the Willowbrook Campus’ gorgeous gardens, where attendees can sit beneath the grape arbor and enjoy German fare while listening to live music performed by professional musicians, including Heinrich Martin, Kallie Forester, and Adam and Roberta Haines.

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Kids enjoy rides at Anneliese’s Oktoberfest

Guests will be able to dine on delectable traditional Bavarian food, including bratwurst, potato salad, sauerkraut, pork roast, goulash with dumplings, pretzels, along with delicious festival favorites such as organic cotton candy, organic sno-cones, and more.

A mechanical bull ride has been added to last year’s favorite bungee-jump. Professional face painting and balloon art may be enjoyed by children and grown-ups alike.

Free trolleys will be shuttling passengers from City Lot 16 to the Willowbrook Campus. Parking is free.


Word about our breakfast toast taste test has spread like, well, avocado

A little more on the subject from Lynette

Turns out that when you tell people you’re doing an avocado toast taste test, the word spreads like, well, mashed avocado, and all at once yesterday Dianne Russell and I were inundated with stories about really, really good avocado toast, told where we should have gone, and we were urged also to break out of our comfort zone and try pumpkin toast. 

Sadly, deadline day prevented us from experimenting with the pumpkin option. But we offer Project Juice’s version below for the avocado-averse. (And Project Juice has avocado toast too.)

Diane Armitage, who writes our Laguna Beach Best column, strongly recommends Skyloft’s avocado toast, available all day, and on weekends for breakfast as well. (It was a weekday when Dianne Russell and I scoured the town for the right toast to taste-test.)

“I’ve never been a fan of the current trend of ‘avocado toast,’” Diane A tells us. “It’s usually a bland attempt at finding another way to use a stale piece of bread and an over-ripe avocado.” 

(Methinks being a regular food reviewer must lead to a little cynicism sometimes, Diane A?) 

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Skyloft’s Avocado toast

Diane A goes on to say, “Skyloft’s Avocado Toast, though, is a robust, confident entry that you can actually pick up with your hands.”

(This is an interesting angle that we neglected to mention in our feature, the handiness or otherwise of the dish in question. I appreciated the Zinc version very much, but it’s true that I feared it would topple over in my hand, so generous was the serving of the glorious green fruit – but I found that a good problem to have.) 

“Chef Arthur’s choice for fresh-baked, thick pumpernickel is a happy anomaly that holds its own and blends beautifully in taste to the creamy, spicy, blistered-tomatoe-y goodness,” Diane added.

Here’s how the menu describes the delicious dish at Skyloft:

“Seasoned crushed avocado with lemon dill aioli, spicy avocado dressing and a creamy hint of queso fresco. Topped with blistered cherry tomatoes and micro cilantro. Served on fresh baked pumpernickel bread with a simple side salad.”

I’m sold. See you there tomorrow, Dianne Russell?

And in other news…

Project Juice Laguna Beach also offers avocado toast, described as follows: 

Gluten free toast spread with fresh avocado, microgreens, and black sesame seed seasoned with sea salt and black pepper with a touch of lemon. Top with Bee Pollen Booster for an extra dose of vitamins, minerals and protein.”

But it’s the pumpkin toast that sets Project Juice apart. The company’s board certified nutritional consultant, Marra St. Clair, says that Project Juice Laguna Beach is pumped for fall, and they’re introducing their favorite pumpkin flavors with its new Pumpkin Spiced Protein Oats and Pumpkin Butter Toast.

“The flavor of the season is more than just delicious - with its fiber-to-calorie ratio, pumpkin can help us feel fuller, longer,” St. Clair says. “It’s also heart healthy, with the prevalence of phytosterols that studies have shown can reduce bad cholesterol.

“Pumpkin also has more potassium than bananas, making it a phenomenal choice to help repair the muscles pre- and post-workout.”

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Project Juice’s pumpkin toast

Hence the pumpkin toast option, described thusly in the press release:

“This perfectly toasty-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside gluten-free vegan toast is everything that’s right in the pumpkin world. Combining bee-free honey, spiced pumpkin butter, and almonds, the Pumpkin Butter Toast is a great source of fiber, protein and healthy fats, and is well-suited for a quick breakfast or as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. 

St. Clair adds that pumpkin is also a tremendous source of vitamin A and is rich in beta-carotene, which aids in eye health, and is also loaded with antioxidants. They say that pumpkin can also help boost the mood, with amino acids that have been shown to aid in the production of serotonin. 

This strongly suggests that I should indulge in pumpkin on deadline days. 

And that maybe the saying should be “a pumpkin a day keeps the doctor away.”

Especially, of course, if used as a doorstop.


You have guac to be kidding me: Avocado toast was harder to find in Laguna than we thought 

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL and LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Dianne’s musings…

An avocado a day keeps the doctor away, well, not really – although maybe they are better for our health than the proverbial apple: according to the California Avocado Commission, one-third of a medium avocado (50g) has 80 calories and contributes nearly 20 vitamins and minerals, making it a great nutrient dense food choice.

 Wouldn’t matter anyway, I just love them, and truly do eat them every day, in any way, shape, or form. Once during a party mixer game, in which the guests wrote down the one thing they couldn’t live without, I scribbled avocados, (unfortunately not my husband, kids, or dog, though the dog would have come in a close second). 

But then my family loves avos as well, so much so, that my 22-year-old grandson has an avocado tattooed on his arm. That’s a life-long commitment. 

So, not surprisingly, when given the scrumptious assignment of sampling some of the avocado toast offerings at local restaurants, I was giddy with anticipation.

Although Lynette’s love affair with avocadoes began on a different continent (South Africa), we share a similar passion for this tasty fruit, which is sometimes called an alligator pear, so we decided to put our heads together, prime our taste buds, and collaborate.

Lynette’s musings…

Way back in the seventies, before avocado toast was a thing, I loved hot buttered toast (slightly burned) upon which I’d place avocado, mashed with a hint of vinegar and sprinkled with a decent amount of salt. 

Little did I know I was ahead of my time, and that avocado toast would become a gourmet breakfast of choice in the 21st century. 

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Photo by Lynette

Zinc serves it lavishly and chunkily

Turns out there are many varieties of avocado toast. Each has its own style, appealing to purists and innovation-seekers alike.

For my son Dylan, an avocado junkie (I was addicted while pregnant with him), I’ll be recommending Zinc Café when he next comes west for his fix. The avocado is lavishly and chunkily served on a bed of julienned radishes and topped with chives. 

A poached egg (if desired) is served in a separate little bowl. This prevents any yolk, no matter how delicious, from invading and compromising the integrity of the perfectly toasted base. 

Mouth-fillingly marvelous, is all I can say.

Those who prefer their avocado as a palate-pleasing accent rather than a full-on avalanche of taste may wish to visit Jan’s Health Bar. Here, the presentation of avocado toast is so stunning, I considered framing my breakfast instead of eating it. 

The avocado is generously applied to the toast, but in a much more understated fashion, and, if ordered with a boiled egg, the dish arrives with pretty ovoid ovals topped with chili flakes. This breakfast will appeal to those who like a bit of spice in their lives. 

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Photo by Lynette

I considered framing my breakfast at Jan’s instead of eating it

Kitchen in the Canyon serves avocado on a toasted brioche topped with jalapeno-cilantro aioli, avocado spread, sliced avocado, tomato salsa jam, topped with an egg, poached or fried.

“What?” I exclaimed upon reading the menu. “Avocado spread and avocado slices?” Talk about heaven!

And it was good. The jalapeno and tomato salsa jam contrasted interestingly with the smooth coolness of the avocado. The cilantro-averse should avoid this dish, though. 

I must admit I’m mystified as to the difference between mashed avocado with added ingredients, and guacamole. Why don’t we call it guacamole toast? It’s a puzzle. 

But anyway, now I am feeling the urge to make some guacamole just in case guests should drop by. (You never know!) Back to Dianne.

Dianne continues to muse…

Unlike Lynette, I didn’t have an egg at Zinc, although the dish was a delight without it too. Served on sourdough toast with a slight slathering of butter, then sprinkled with lemon tinged radishes, and finally topped with more than ample mounds of creamy avocado, this serving is so generous that part of this offering ended up in to-go containers. 

Jan’s Health Bar also offers a bagel with avocado, and this has a more down-home appeal. The bagel was a great alternative. The perfectly seasoned avocado was a nice change from the traditional cream cheese, more health conscious, and an option for those who love bagels, but must avoid dairy. 

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Photo by Lynette

Bagel with avocado is a great alternative for those who must avoid dairy

And yes, the age-old guacamole versus avocado question! With the presentation at Kitchen in the Canyon, we got a taste of both – we hit the mother lode. The brioche was a nice touch, lighter and a bit sweeter than toast, and the tomato salsa jam and jalapeno-cilantro aioli added a tasty blend of sweet and spicy to the richness of the avocado. An interesting twist. 

Evidently, the popularity of avocado toast has been overstated, because on Wednesday morning, Lynette and I walked the streets downtown trying to find another version to sample. No luck. We tried The Grove, Anastasia, Moulin Bistro, and C’est La Vie (all of which have delightful breakfasts, some of which incorporate avocado but none that gives it star billing). The White House and The Cliffs were closed. 

After a brisk walk, we agreed that at least we were getting some exercise, an unexpected benefit for adamant avocado-seekers. Then, starving, willing to give up the Great Avocado Chase and just eat whatever else might appeal, we ended up at The Greeters, which has a spectacular view of Main Beach. 

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Photo by Lynette

Build your own avocado toast…

Although they too didn’t have avocado toast on the menu, we decided to Build Our Own Breakfast, and each ordered an avocado with an egg (Lynette had bacon on hers) and a side of toast. This wouldn’t be the first choice if a diner were looking for a more gourmet version, but it had the vital ingredients, half an avocado, egg and toast. 

In sampling the Avocado Toasts available in Laguna, there was such a variety, it is difficult to compare them – each had its unique attributes destined to please someone somewhere.

And now, bring on the Super Bowl – just five short months away … the king of guacamole events.

According to the Haas Avocado Board, fans eat an average of 278 million avocados that day. With the politically divided state of the country these days, it’s good to know that so many of us have at least one thing in common: a deep and abiding love of avocados. 

Or is it guacamole?


Bounty dinners at Bluebird Canyon Farms: A unique dining experience at a magical place you won’t want to leave

Story and photos by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

So when I was about ten years old, I read a book called The Faraway Tree by author Enid Blyton. Every week, a new land would arrive at the top of the Tree, and three lucky children would climb up the trunk and enter a new dimension. 

Some of the lands were magical and some of the lands were terrifying – but in every case, the children had to leave before the land moved on, or they’d be stuck within that world forever. 

For different reasons, some lands were harder for the kids to leave than others. 

This was the experience that awaited me at Bluebird Canyon Farms. 

My Uber climbed the short but steep driveway off Bluebird Canyon Drive. I emerged from the car and looked around, breathed in the scents, heard the soughing of leaves in the breeze. 

And I knew immediately that I had arrived at a truly magical place, a serene and wildly lovely oasis floating a mere ten minutes above Laguna’s downtown. 

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The tables are set with beautiful flowers

After a tour led by Farmer Leo, aka Ryan Goldsmith, it seemed to me that the bees danced more giddily here than most bees, the chickens were happier and cluckier here than most chickens, and the vegetables more saturated in color here than most vegetables.

Soon I was to enjoy a dinner that would taste more delicious than most dinners I’ve enjoyed in my long eating life. 

During the spring, summer and fall, the farm hosts twice-monthly Bounty Dinners of five to six courses, each of which is true to the season and exquisitely prepared.

Ninety percent of the vegetables served are grown on the farm. Farm to table is a literally true here – the distance between the two minimal.

Farmer Leo and Chef Jen Alvarez espouse a philosophy about food that echoes the Native American belief that every part of an animal that has given its life to provide sustenance for others, should be used as completely as possible.

Chef Jen recalls, “Recently we served slow roasted duck, freshly brought in from [a place in] Lake Elsinore. We rendered the fat to cook dumplings; we made stock from the heart, liver and bones and served consommé; we even created crackling that we sprinkled on the salad.” 

(Maybe there’s also a new down pillow or two on the farm? I forgot to ask.) 

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Welcoming cocktails in a genial atmosphere

Dinnertime. We sit at beautifully decorated tables under a string of lights. A guitarist plays in the background. Stars sprinkle the night sky. Candles glow.

After a pink cocktail incorporating grape jelly, mint soda and vodka, which started a gentle buzz that I happily maintained throughout the evening by imbibing wine brought by guests and willingly shared by all, we were served our first course.

Lusciously plated, the corn squash tortellini was accompanied by creamy sage butter, a perfect accompaniment to the rich texture of the squash and satiny pasta.

Conversations began among strangers, commonalities found. “You too?” “Oh, I agree.” “No, really, how funny.” 

A dreamily good arugula and pea shoot salad with pomegranates, persimmons, spiced walnuts, Nicolau Farm goat cheese, and honey then arrived. The dish made my mouth strike up a band, the peppery arugula a great contrast to the sweeter ingredients, harmony on a plate. 

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Lynette’s iPhone cannot possibly convey the fabulous look and taste of each dish: hence the salad will be the only food photo you will see in this article

The arugula reminded me of the aquaponics system we’d seen earlier, and the chicory, among other vegetables, it was nurturing. Chicory, the farm believes, may be the next trend after kale.

Aquaponics was a new term for me: it combines aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soil-less growing of plants) into one one integrated system.

Back to the dinner: the soup was rich and tasty and earthily good, incorporating free-range chicken broth and farm greens with new onions and crème fraiche. 

The chatter grew louder, with more introductions made across and around the table, without any of the acoustic issues that happen in the best of restaurants.

“Each dish is so good, I feel that we should be standing up and applauding after every course,” said the diner across the table from me, Don Meek, formerly a top executive with the Tribune media company, dining with his wife Summer Meek.

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Summer and Don Meek, fellow diners, were great conversationalists

Founders of The Soul Project in downtown Laguna, the Meeks explained the goal of their company, which started as a way to build a sustainable company that could support their family while also making an immediate and positive contribution to the world around them.

Well, they made an immediate and positive contribution to my enjoyment. Several anecdotes about cousin Sli Dawg and his tendency to steal spoons were hilarious. I guess you had to be there, though…(so go!)

And then I was served my very first rabbit. (I have eaten a Patagonian hare, I have to confess, or at least part of one.)

After walking the trails that very morning, and seeing bobtail bunnies happily be-bopping in the brush, I was a little more conscious than I normally am about being a meat-eater, especially with a vegetarian sitting to my left. (She was served an amazing squash dish instead, and was reassured that none of it had touched the rabbit or vice versa. She said her dish was “amazing.”)

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Chef Jen loves her kitchen – I get a preview of the magic to follow, though I did not personally see the rabbit

The Da-le-Ranch rabbit was good, very good indeed, the flavors of the dish encouraging each other to be their very best selves. The meat was braised with wine, mushrooms and thyme, served with baby turnips and dandelion greens. 

“Is it wrong to lick the plate?” someone asked, rather longingly.

By now, conversations had grown funnier and funnier – time, wine and good food tend to have that effect – and I was enjoying myself immensely. The evening felt like a Thanksgiving dinner but with new stories instead of the usual oft-told anecdotes (which of course have their own charm).

The evening was topped off with a Kabocha squash cake with cocoa nib cream, cinnamon meringue and chocolate ganache sauce. 

Guest Kim Narel said, “This was like a lava cake marrying a carrot cake (with chocolate too). Not too sweet, and the ingredients mixed together so well,” she said. “Yet they could still be individually tasted and savored.”

A hot toddy ended the evening and warmed the stomach as well as the soul. 

To stay or to go?

Then I had to leave. Given the choice, I might well have wanted to stay in that happy land forever, but that would not have gone down well with my husband Bill and family (or with Shaena, most likely). And the truth is, I was happy to be transported to home by Uber, with no climbing down a Faraway Tree required.

Because that’s the great thing about Bluebird Canyon Farms. The Farm is not moving on. It’s here to stay. I can go back, and I will.

Bluebird Canyon Farm’s next Bounty Dinner will be on October 26, the final dinner before a winter break. Dinners will resume in spring. Visit www.bluebirdcanyonfarms.com for more information. They’re also available for private functions.

Be warned, Bluebird Canyon Farm is not an easy place to find…do not take that first steep driveway on your right, take the second steep driveway to find this magic land.


Okura is unique for “Ishiyaki” - cooking on hot stones – and offers dishes from the far past to the present

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL 

There’s only one restaurant in Laguna Beach that offers the ancient Japanese cooking method, Ishiyaki, the ancient Japanese method of cooking on smooth hot stones, right at your table, and that’s Okura Robata Grill and Sushi.

And there’s only one person I know whose eating adventures rival Anthony Bourdain’s, and that’s my fellow-writer Marrie Stone. 

On occasion, when travelling, she’s been known to order dishes few people would even consider (one that arrived with hair, so it’s not unusual for her to ask if a certain dish requires a comb). However, on this particular evening, we were sure that inquiry wouldn’t prove necessary.

The combination of hot stones and Marrie Stone made for a fabulous evening of fun and food.

The history behind Ishiyaki comes from Akita, Japan. “When fishermen went to catch a fish or shellfish by diving into sea, it was a custom to provide a stove in the boat. At noon, they boiled fish and shellfish in a wooden bucket heated with hot stones from the stove. On shore, where wooden buckets or pans were not provided, they cooked in a hollow of a rock. This cooking is also called ‘ishiyaki,’ baked with hot stones,” I learn.

Chef Jin has transformed this tradition into cooking on a hot stone tableside, or on the table, which we did. (More about the delicious food that preceded this later.)

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Ancient Japanese method of cooking on hot stones, Ishiyaki

The oval stone is heated to 450 degrees (it can be heated up to 1,000 degrees), which lasts for 15-20 minutes, then it will be reheated. This method, which involves no oil, is used for meat, fish, and vegetables. The hot stone grill arrives with three condiments: a soy garlic based sauce, rock salt and pepper, and a homemade ponzo sauce of soy vinegar, dried bonita, and citrus infused oranges. 

As she applies a slice of meat to the stone, and then tastes it, Marrie raves about the tenderness. “The Ishiyaki was an incredibly unique experience. The hot stone perched over hot coals was lovely. I enjoyed both the control over the cooking, and the fun of cooking a meal together without the hassle. The meat was amazing – buttery, melt in your mouth, marbled quality that I haven’t experienced before,” she said.

As an expansion of the original Okura in La Quinta, opened by Chef Jin Heo from South Korea and his sister, Chef Jin has been in this location for three years (and cooking in the US for 12 years, since his arrival here in 2005). 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Chef Jin Heo

Instead of always dreaming to be a chef, as some chefs do, Chef Jin majored in aerospace engineering in college, and his goal was to be a pilot. However, that ambition was dashed when he had surgery, and luckily for his patrons, he decided to go to culinary school. He successfully translated that engineering precision and creativity into his cuisine.

Chef Jin considers his style Italian-Japanese fusion, which is also reflected in the clean and sleek décor of the restaurant, but with a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere. 

After culinary school, Chef Jin learned much of his craft while at the La Quinta location, increasing his knowledge through reading and experimentation. In recognition of his talents, he has received top nods from Best Chefs America. 

Before the Ishiyaki adventure, Marrie and I had been greeted by Christina, the manager, who settled us in a cozy corner area of the lounge to scan the menu for a few sushi rolls to start. Prior to assuming the role of manager, Christina worked here part time, and has now been in her new position for three months, a move for which she seems superbly suited. We decided on the New Kye, Protein Roll, and the Salmon Carpaccio. These are specialty rolls, but, we soon found out, with an added twist.

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Photo by Dianne Russell

The New Kye roll with a burst of tobiko

The three rolls arrive at once, and Marrie and I jockey for position with our chopsticks. These rolls incorporate unexpected flavors and ingredients that meld together nicely. The Protein Roll consists of salmon, tuna, yellowtail, spicy crab, and jalapeno. The jalapeno is surprising and provided a tangy peppery taste with the freshness of the fish. 

Marrie says, “The presentation feels like a work of art. From the vibrant colors of the fresh fish to the crisp greens of the cucumber and jalapenos, it’s as much a feast for the eyes as it is the palate.”

The New Kye roll is also a delight, using hamachi, tuna, salmon, cucumber, tobiko, and scallions. The colors are spectacular, and the tobiko (flying fish eggs) explode in little pops with each bite. 

The Salmon Carpaccio leaves both of us in awe. Thinly sliced salmon in a shallow layer of clear and citrusy sauce (we both love lemon) is topped with flash fried baby arugula. The crunchiness of the arugula combined with the silky salmon couldn’t be more perfect.

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Photo by Dianne Russell

A surprising and delicious topping of flash fried arugula

And then the Ishiyaki was served. Chef Jin is especially proud of the quality of the meat. He shows us a Certification of Authenticity that verifies it is 100 percent Japanese Wagga Beef, the highest quality grade in Japan, which Okura imports. It requires no oil in the cooking process. 

For his fish dishes, Chef Jin also uses only fresh fish, utilizing all of the parts in his cuisine. They even have fresh Toro in an aquarium.

Okura also offers Robata Grill cooking, which involves grilling skewers of fish or meat over charcoal in a Konro grill. We’ll have to save this one for our next visit.

Although I’ve left the libations for last, they are certainly not the least. Okura offers an impressive list of new specialty cocktails with tantalizing names like Dragon Bite, Ginger Rita, and Pacific Rim Bellini. And the selection of sakes won’t be found on any other menus. We tasted Dewasanan, which is infused with green apple. It’s crisp and smooth with no acrid alcohol taste.

So far, we’ve covered the past (Ishiyaki) and the present (specialty rolls) contained in Okura’s menu. 

In the near future, they will have even more excitement for local residents. Late Night Happy Hour has already been added, Friday and Saturday nights, from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m., perfect for those wanting to grab a bite after normal restaurant hours.

Christina also plans to open up the space for events and weddings. More variety of meat selections, such as short ribs for Ishiyaki, will be added to the menu, and Chef Jin’s ongoing enhancement of his dishes will no doubt continue to delight and surprise patrons.

With its unique presentation of Ishiyaki, Okura brings a bit of ancient Japan into modern day Laguna Beach, well worth a visit to taste this exclusive example of Japanese cuisine.

Okura Robata Grill and Sushi is located at 858 So Coast Hwy, 949-793-4320.

Hours: Mon-Thurs, 4-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.- 1 a.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. For questions, go to: http://www.okurasushi.com/


Harvest Restaurant’s growth reaps bountiful new menu items

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” 

Mark Christy would tell you he’s been planting so many seeds at The Ranch since its inception that he should be driving one of those giant John Deere tractors with a matching hat on his head. 

As golf course, hotel rooms and spa have all matured, the resort’s primary restaurant, Harvest, seemed to be on its own gestation schedule. 

But now, Harvest is – as an old church hymn sings – “bringing in the sheaves.” 

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Photo courtesy Diane Armitage

Harvest: A perfect finale to a hard day’s work

By far one of the most stunning restaurant settings in Laguna Beach, Harvest is a feast for the senses. I love sitting at the tables on the windows, especially when said windows have been rolled back into the walls. It’s a soothing place where you can come alone to regenerate your soul, or carry on a low decibel conversation with your dining partner without the need to holler. 

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Photo courtesy The Ranch/Harvest

New Chef, new mojo – executive chef Kyle St. John

In September, with the announcement that Chef de Cuisine Kyle St. John had been elevated to Executive Chef status, our soothing restaurant’s menu began to stir with signs of life, new ideas rustling in the wind.

Although Harvest’s restaurant menu had, to date, offered some memorable items, it hadn’t reaped the giant fanfare that had been expected. 

Now, that’s all changing. (In other words, it’s harvest time, baby!)

In my estimation, a Chef de Cuisine or Sous Chef is often the most innovative and talented cook in the kitchen. (This might have something to do with the fact that the Executive Chef has to become more of a business executive of the kitchen with P&L statements, food cost predictions, labor and scheduling, and the comparative price of fresh orange juice in six states.) 

Chef Kyle came on board as Chef de Cuisine at the Ranch exactly one year ago, undoubtedly dreaming up new innovations for the menu all along. While a few changes were made under the most recent Executive Chef, Chef Kyle is finally enjoying a run at the menu on his terms. 

And that run, folks, is looking mighty fine.

What a difference a few changes make

When I sat down for lunch this week, I arrived unannounced with a girlfriend buddy. It was only a matter of minutes, though, before Chef Kyle was introducing himself at our table. He’s a happy guy, producing a happy menu – no better place for a chef to be. 

He served up a number of fun dishes on the current menu that bear his signature, including a revamped Caesar Salad, a giant bowl of creamy Pimento Mac ‘n Cheese, and a crazy-good Fried Chicken Burger. 

The Caesar was created true to form, shaken (never stirred) with a very light touch on anchovy mixed in. 

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Creamy Pimento Mac ‘n Cheese

Although we talked with Chef more than 20 minutes, when we finally dug into the creamy mac ‘n cheese, it was still steaming. It’s noted on the menu as a “side dish,” but this can easily feed a family of three (but you might have to fight over it). 

The Fried Chicken Burger was a masterpiece. You’re going to need help with a knife and fork as this is a giant with a hefty chicken breast, fresh tomato, mini haystack of arugula and house-made bread and butter pickles. The menu claims Thousand Island dressing for added goo, but there’s a hint of curry somewhere in this mix, whether in the breading for the chicken or the dressing itself. Whatever the case, it makes for a perfect meld of savory goodness. 

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The fried chicken burger is a masterpiece

After all that comfort food, Chef sent out the final piece de resistance, “The Last Piece of Apple Pie.” A single wedge in an empty pie pan, this is a heap of Grandma-like love with freshly peeled and baked apples, a perfect flaky crust and ice cream drizzled in caramel sauce. It has all the guilty trappings of finding that last piece of homemade pie stuffed behind the leftover turkey from Grandma’s holiday meal…and stealing away with it like some kind of Christmas Grinch.

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Photo by Diane Armitage

“The Last Piece of Apple Pie”

While Chef Kyle is happy with item changes and additions he has inserted into the existing menus, he loves the new changes coming down the pike. Complete menu changes for both lunch and dinner will be debuting before Thanksgiving.  

For starters, let’s start with starters

Chef Kyle is innovating several new small plates and shared appetizers for the new menus. That info is enough to get an ovation from me. This is exactly what Harvest has needed, as this is the kind of restaurant that speaks to relaxing and lingering with friends. 

He’s also creating a “legitimate” soup and salad section with classic French Onion, soup du jour and a lineup of salads that include a Harvest Garden salad made of “whatever comes out of our garden,” he says with a grin. 

And then it’s on to even bigger changes with a bigger picture in mind.   

Sustaining delicious sustainability is a commitment

Chef Kyle was raised in Montana on a 1,200-acre farm that produced just about everything on the family’s dinner table. His love for cooking firmly established, he moved to be near his next love – ocean water – first on the East Coast, and then broad jumping everything in between to land in South Orange County. In SoCal for 18 years, he moved to Laguna Beach four years ago, and now lives with his new bride, Laura, in North Laguna. 

With the combined farm background and local love for Laguna and all things surfing, Chef Kyle is a perfect fit for The Ranch’s significant commitment to sustainability 

Chef Kyle has taken the initiative into his kitchen with continued efforts to maintain the restaurant’s rare award, Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly Restaurant Certification. This means, in part, that some fish menu items are wholly local, caught that very morning in the waters off Dana Point. 

Further, Chef Kyle is working hand in hand with San Juan Capistrano’s Ecology Center to boost his own harvest out by “Scout Camp” at The Ranch. It’s an acre-sized garden of completely organic herbs, root vegetables and leafy greens.

Debuting delicious new menu items is an art form

As Chef talks about the new entrées and dishes he will be debuting shortly, every item connects back to the sustainability and organic theme. 

His new Beer Braised Short Rib, Bone-In Ribeye for Two, and Half Chicken (done Coq au Vin style) will be sourced organically. 

Chef’s debut of Whole Fried Branzino, Bacon-Wrapped Scallops, and mussels and oysters will be arriving fresh daily. 

Even new share and small plates such as Pork Belly Bites, done banh mi style, and the Confit Duck Wings will be loyally and thoughtfully sourced. 

Granted, we all admire and support any chef’s efforts toward sustainability. From a foodie standpoint, though, it’s just darn exciting to see so many enticing new menu items in the “winter harvest” at Harvest

Look for menu changes in about two weeks. Lunch menus will be the first to debut the largest number of small plates and shared appetizers but, in short order, we will be seeing them migrate to bar and dinner menus, too. 

Breakfast at The Ranch is served 7 – 11 a.m., Lunch from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Bar menu runs interference from 3:00 – 5:30 while the kitchen preps for dinner. 

And dinner menu plays 5:30 – 10:00 p.m.


SLICE: It’s pizza on a whole other level

Review and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

With vision and dedication to the project, an impossibly small, slice-shaped piece of property has become the commodious and welcoming Slice restaurant. 

I was happy to pop in the other night – a weeknight – and find the place abuzz with families, couples, and individuals all sharing a long table and neighboring counter. Cary and Suzanne Redfearn, firstly, designed the attractive space to include the communal seating, already enjoyed by loads of your soon-to-be new friends. 

And then there was the aroma of something delicious in the giant, authentically Italian, gorgeous, 7,000-pound pizza oven. Even better, owner Cary Redfearn was there to provide a little depth as to the whole concept that is Slice.

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Cary Redfearn happy to have opened his newest restaurant in Laguna, Slice

“I wanted to do quick service, with elevated product,” said Cary. “There’s more than I ever imagined!”

Getting started

Cary told me that the research into creating a fantastic pizza restaurant was more than being a super-experienced restaurateur for more than thirty years, more than even falling in love with Italy while taking cooking classes there. 

“I spent time at Las Vegas [a pizza purveyors convention]. There were 1100 vendors – with tomatoes, olive oil, …an oven company!” he said. “I changed because of that show.”

What you don’t want

Cary had a vision for Slice, and it started with what you don’t want.

“I didn’t want to do Napoli pizza floppy in the middle – I wanted it crispy all the way through.” He calls it “Neo-Neapolitan.”

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Slice’s custom order bar and 7,000-pound Italian pizza oven

Ever the able student, Cary found a school in LA teaching about such things. “The instructor said, ‘You need to come to my restaurant.’” 

It was South End, in Venice. Cary went, and knew it was exactly what he wanted to create in Laguna. “Mario,” Cary told the instructor, “that’s what I want to do.”

So Mario headed south to impart his expertise. “After two days [teaching],” Cary says. “It’s like a light went off!”

It’s about the dough

“I’m 24-hour fermentation, augmenting the dough – 24 hours ahead,” Cary says, clearly excited about the dough process. The flour used in the dough comes from one of the oldest mills in Italy. This is a man who cares about the product. 

“Dough has a look, a feel, and a sound – I know how it’s supposed to be,” he says with a laugh. “My life has been run by dough lately! 

“I didn’t want to let people down by not serving great pizza. I wanted to get the dough right – just the way we wanted it.”

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Here in sophisticated Laguna Beach, we value that authenticity. We can be pretty picky about our pizzas. I found the pizza dough absolutely on point – crispy, with bits of char, still chewy and full of fresh, properly risen yeast and wheat taste. 

And the other stuff

All the ingredients were chosen by Cary’s exacting standards.

Take the tomatoes, used for the base. Bianco Dinapoli tomatoes, from California’s Central Valley, won out because they are super-fresh, not pre-cooked, they are organically grown and steam peeled – and because they are the least acid of any tomatoes Cary tried. And he tested a lot! The cheeses – mozzarella, ricotta, burrata – are all fresh, made by Angelo Franco, in LA. 

And then there are custom options of all the freshest variety. One of the delicious concepts at Slice is that you can create your own custom pies.

Signature pizza or customize?

I met a couple there, Mark and Kobea, who had just received their favorite pie. “We came here once, and we were hooked,” Mark said. Theirs had olives, tomatoes, fennel, zucchini, prosciutto and burrata. It looked amazing.

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Kobea’s favorite pizza

We tried two pizzas from the menu, and I have to say – no hyperbole – I was a little weak in the knees! The first was the “Shaw’s Cove,” a combination including shrimp, pesto, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, fresh oregano, and topped with wild arugula. I loved the way all the different flavors worked together, and the rustic, natural appeal of whole shrimp, curled while cooking in the oven, and the cool, fresh arugula added at the end so it stays nice and crunchy.

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The Shaw’s Cove pizza

The other pizza we tried actually had me coming back for more the next day. Called the “Lolita,” it looked innocent enough, all smooth and white, dotted with green olives and topped with egg. But, one bite into that creamy garlic ricotta sauce countered by the zingy castelvetrano olives and I was swooning. I seriously woke up the next morning, planning to head out for another Lolita pizza.

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The Lolita pizza

Wait, there’s beer!

The signature pizzas are all 11-inches, perfect for sharing. Meanwhile, to wet your whistle there is a whole other universe happening at Slice. It’s like you travel into the future and, looking back, think why didn’t this exist before? 

Here’s what you do for adult beverages: you get a wristband. The wristband has a magnetic thingy on it that knows your bill (attached to your credit card). You swipe the wristband at the dispenser of your choice (some 14 different beers, and 14 different wines), and pour away. You get charged only the amount that you pour. So, say you want to try a little of the Session IPA, but just a bit because you’re eyeing a different microbrew, you just get charged that little bit. All the info about the varietals, as well as the prices are listed at the tap.

Photo by Shaena

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Beer and wine taps at Slice

Meanwhile, over at the soda station, there’s another world going on as well. Out of a soda machine, unlike any I’ve ever seen before, you can dispense away – up to 160 varieties of soda combinations (as well as other Coke products, like Vitamin Water)! Tech savvy kiddos can even check it out on the computer or phone beforehand, and the machine will identify you and your preference when you’re there. Whoa. Someone from the future dropped off a Coke machine at Slice.

Slice is open daily from 11 a.m. Learn more at slicelb.com

477 Forest Avenue, Order ahead at (949) 715-3993


The Durban Room: It’s very back-east-ish, as three former residents of Durban, South Africa, discover

Dining feature by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Three former Durbanites, newly introduced, met last week at The Durban Room at Mozambique Restaurant to reminisce about our lives in that city several decades ago, and to taste the South African-influenced cuisine offered at this sophisticated speakeasy, complete with piano bar and lounge singer. 

“This place has a real ‘back east’ vibe to it, doesn’t it?” observed Richelle Lavin, whom I’d first met at a book launch party a few weeks earlier. I’d been astonished to learn that she had gone to the same high school in Durban North as I had, albeit years later. 

Indeed, the rich burgundy walls, the photos of Victorian architecture (I loved seeing the picture of the old Durban railway station) the highly-polished bar, comfortable upholstery and the subtle lighting does make The Durban Room feel somewhat back-east-ish, somewhat New-York-ish – a restaurant/bar lounge that’s intimate and inviting at the same time. 

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The railway station, starting point for many adventures up and down the coast

Not to mention that Durban is very back-east-ish itself, given that it’s a port city on the east coast of South Africa, located where the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in 1497 on his way to India. Da Gama was the first European to reach India by sea, opening up the spice route and (unintentionally) ensuring a lasting Eastern influence on Durban cuisine.

In later years, Indians were indentured to work in the sugar cane fields. Their influence on the culinary culture has led to Durban today becoming the curry capital of South Africa (if it weren’t for London, I’d say the world). 

Add to that the influence of the Portuguese, then the Brits, the Boers (Afrikaners), the Zulu and the Xhosa who fought over the land in times past, and you’ll understand why the city is a place where the cuisine is as varied and feisty as its population.

Ah, yes, Durban curry… There’s nothing quite like it, Richelle, Barbara (Richelle’s mom) and I agreed, to bring back memories, and The Durban Room’s version is thoroughly authentic. The lamb, saturated with dark, mildly spicy sauce, fills the mouth with satisfying warmth and flavor without overwhelming the taste buds. 

There are certainly hotter versions on offer in Durban, but Mozambique’s flavorful, tender, fragrant dish is just right for many Americans. 

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Durban curry: there’s nothing like it, whether served with rice or as Bunny Chow inside a scooped-out half-loaf of bread

Not that curry was necessarily the dish of choice when we were growing up. In those days, it was the cheap option, often served in dives where anti-apartheid theatre or music played on Sunday nights. Serving alcohol was against the law on Sundays, unless dinner was provided – hence curry, which denizens of dark bars could usually afford – also known as bunny chow when served in a hollowed-out half-loaf of bread. 

We never dreamed there’d be a gourmet version.

Richelle and Barbara were in heaven, as was I, over the peri peri prawns, the peri peri sauce a Portuguese influence that made up part of the delicious and varied sampler plate that we ordered as an appetizer. 

“That peri peri sauce is the real thing, so authentic, spicy with a warm lingering aftertaste,” Richelle said. “And the samoosas! The pastry’s light and flaky, the perfect bite-size appetizer to wake up the taste buds.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. The Durban Room understands that samoosas should not be leathery pouches containing a solid lump of meat or vegetables, as is true in some Indian restaurants, but instead, the pastry shell should be closer to phyllo and inner fixings should complement each other in taste and texture, with just the right amount of crunchiness. Bravo, Chef Braulio Melo.

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Photo for Mozambique by Mike Altishin

The sampler plate is great, though I was tempted to eat only samoosas all night

The plump prawns in the sampler dish burst with flavor and were exuberantly spicy, setting up great expectations for the entrees, each of which turned out to be up to the task.

The boerewors (farm sausage) was good, nicely spicy, a little dry for me, but then I’ve never been much of a boerewors booster – however, those who do love boerewors should know that it is made daily on the premises to exacting standards.

Barbara chose to detour from the Durban theme (though she remained coastal) for her main course and she raved about her Chilean sea bass, served with asparagus and mashed potatoes. “The fish was light and fluffy,” she said. “The sauce was creamy and exceptionally tasty. It’s a new favorite for me.”

A word here about the wine list: South Africa, mostly in the Western Cape area, produces incredible wines. I’m not a sophisticated wine drinker: “I’ll take the house Chardonnay” is generally what I tell servers, or otherwise I tend to choose wine based on its name, rather the way I’d select possible winners in a horse race, so I asked for the Indaba Chardonnay, Indaba meaning meeting, which is what we were doing right then, we Durbanites, and the wine was perfect, light enough to pair with the curry, but tasty in its own right. 

Richelle, more knowledgeable than I about viticulture, confirmed that Mozambique offers an excellent selection of South African wines.

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Barbara took a detour from the Durban theme and loved the Chilean sea bass

Richelle enjoyed her Fleur de Cap Pinotage. “This is a lovely light drinking wine. However, a true treat would be the Rust en Vrede Cabernet Sauvignon,” she said – apparently one of Nelson Mandela’s favorites. 

I must mention here how conducive to conversation The Durban Room is, a rare quality in many restaurants these days where loud music or bad acoustics tend to leave one more or less speechless, unable to do much except nod or smile in response to chatter one can’t actually hear. 

On this night we were particularly fortunate to hear the accomplished Francois Dean on the piano. What a fabulous singer and musician! At the Durban Room, diners enjoy voluptuous lounge music from Thursdays to Sundays, ranging from jazz, blues, funk and R&B – the mood changing with the deepening of the night, and sometimes with the appearance of additional musicians and celebrities. That evening, Star Jones sat at the table next to ours.

So it was that our conversation covered quite a bit of ground. Barbara and I found out that we had both worked at The Three Bears furniture store way back when. We talked about the paddling pools on Marine Parade and the time the high tide engulfed them. The surfing culture, how Shaun Thomson used to come into Kelly’s Steakhouse where I worked during my vacations. 

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Richelle’s peri peri prawns were very very good 

But mostly we talked about food, from the ghastly – for example, the dry, chewy frikkadels (meat patties) my mother used to make, served with slimy overcooked cabbage – to the glorious – in my case, the fudge my Scottish father loved, my memories of those times such a comfort, recalling how at eight years old, I stood on a stool and helped my dad stir the mixture until the texture was just right. (My father would die a year later.) 

Finally, the three of us sampled the Portuguese hot butter pudding, served in a martini glass. “The sweet, warm flavor of the pudding just melts in your mouth,” Richelle said.

She also enjoyed an Amarula on the rocks, a popular South African after-dinner drink. “Sweet and creamy, this drink is the perfect sipping cocktail for after dinner, a fun dessert replacement,” she added, “or try the restaurant’s Dark and Stormy Continent coffee drink with a shot of Amarula.” 

What’s great about The Durban Room, in addition to the warm, sophisticated and yet welcoming atmosphere, and the unobtrusively excellent service, is that the menu provides a wide range of delicious choices for everyone’s taste. Certainly no diner is forced to choose a South African-influenced dish.

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Photo by Kim Hardin

The Portuguese hot butter pudding was sweet and warm 

But we three ladies, we Durbanites, we would have loved to see a few more South African favorites on the menu. Not that I expect The Durban Room to serve anchovy toast, or Marmite toast, or cheese and tomato sandwiches grilled with butter on both sides of the bread – though I’d enjoy all three – or mieliepap (corn porridge), which I wouldn’t – but perhaps more dishes with an Eastern flair, such as Indonesian rijstafel? I mean, Americans love their peanut butter…

Perhaps bobotie (minced lamb with a hint of curry, incorporating raisins and almonds, with a milk-and-egg topping)?  

Maybe desserts invented by our Afrikaner fellow-countrymen, such as melktert and koeksusters? 

Of course, many of my South African food memories are bound up with personal experiences, both happy (fudge) and sad (frikkadels), and nostalgia is not a flavor that can be added in any kitchen. 

So I’d best leave the menu decision-making to Chef Melo, who clearly knows what he is doing.

Please, do go to The Durban Room. It’s intimate, it’s inviting, the food is amazing, conversation is audible, and the atmosphere is, indeed, very back-east-ish. 

Durbanite or not, you will love it, I promise. 

Group bookings and holiday group party reservations are also welcome at The Durban Room – it seats 50 for dinner, and handles 80 in a cocktail reception format.

Mozambique Restaurant is located at 1740 S. Coast Highway. Visit the http://www.MozambiqueOC.com website for announcements of the upcoming piano lounge live music schedule.


Laguna’s newest coffee café: BLKdot

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

Gosh it’s been so long since I wrote anything, I am sure I have a touch of writer’s block…but here goes.

I am back. Having had three months away from reporting on all the culinary delights Laguna Beach has to offer, I am pleased to say that once again I will be gracing the pages of Stu News Laguna with my thoughts and reports of all that is tasty in our wonderful town.

Where have you been? I hear you ask (or maybe not). Well, sadly, it appears I have turned into a true California girl and developed food allergies…“like, totally” real ones though.

Wheat and gluten top the list for me but there is also a lactose intolerance, which comes in a close second. As a self-confessed foodie, this news was pretty devastating, and my initial thoughts were “how do I carry on with my food reporting page?” I literally thought there would be no way I’d ever be able to eat out again. 

How wrong I was.

Laguna Beach has me covered, aside from a couple of places, which other staff writers will review. I have been pleasantly surprised by how accommodating chefs can be and how menus are figuring out how to change their menus to accommodate what I label myself – as one of “the allergics.”   

But don’t worry, I will also be reporting on the rest of the menu, but through the eyes and taste buds of the guest I take with me weekly (who I will ensure is not one of “the allergics”).

Anyway enough about me and where I’ve been, let’s carry on with the report.

I decided to ease in to this gently and this report saw me at the newest coffee hot spot in town: BLKdot Coffee.

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Latte

Located in North Laguna in what was previously Jean Paul’s, this coffee shop and café has been lovingly renovated, updated and restored. Aesthetically it is a contemporary, clean, cool, eatery in an area of town that I feel will really benefit from its presence. This is BLKdot coffee’s second location – its very successful flagship store is located in Irvine, and seeing the people already enjoying its location and vibe at 10:30 in the morning, I feel this place will be just as successful. 

The owner, Mai Tran, cheerfully greeted me. Mai hales from Newport, but having three daughters who have all been in the LBUSD she feels that Laguna has been more home to her than anywhere else.

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BLKdot Owner, Mai Tran

“I always wanted to open in Laguna Beach. My eldest daughter (now age 23 who works in the Laguna Beach location) was very keen to be here as an adult as she loved her school time here.” 

Like many people, finding a location in Laguna Beach proved to be a challenge but luckily for Mai this property became available in an area that has seen much activity, with the opening of many food establishments over the past 18 months (Reunion Kitchen + Drink, Asada, Jan’s, etc.), and also The Well fitness center, which is located next door. (Lets face it, after a workout we all need coffee.)

Joining me for my report was Stu News Publisher, Owner and dear friend Shaena, as we had some business to discuss and we needed a long overdue catch up.

I arrived at the location first and ordered a 16 oz. (BLKdot coffee serves 16 or 24 oz. cups) almond milk latte. One of the things I have struggled with since I had to remove lactose in milk from my diet is a nice creamy latte, as, more often than not, almond milk fails to give you that frothy creamy effect. However THIS latte was perfect! The almond milk was creamy, it frothed, the barista made a pretty pattern… I was “stoked” (gosh, I sound more and more Californian) and the coffee itself was great.

BLKdot coffee roasts their own beans off site, but they are brought to the location fresh every morning. I asked Mai just how they make their almond milk seriously as creamy as a regular milky latte and she explained that the almond milk they source is a special barista type that they have spent years sourcing and locating and she, too, does not drink cows milk but missed the creamy latte texture. 

Mai then went onto tell me that they would soon be serving oat milk, which is gluten free and vegan, and has even creamier texture (more on this later).

Shaena (who is not an allergic) ordered a 16 oz. vanilla latte with non-fat milk, which she said was delicious also.

It was then time to order food.  And I couldn’t wait! 

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BLKdot has delicious pastries, including this guava and cheese one

BLKdot coffee offers a range of delicious pastries on display on the counter as well as some fresh pre-made (in house) salads for those on the run, who need something quick. But they also have a breakfast and lunch menu, which, Mai tells me, is still a work in progress, although I personally think it’s just enough.

There are four breakfast choices and five lunchtime choices – all sounded delicious and it was difficult to choose.

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Avocado Boat

As it was 11:30 in the morning, I decided to choose from the breakfast menu and went for the Avocado Boat, which was half an avocado with a scoop of tuna, topped with bacon (optional) and pepper. This was so simple yet so incredibly tasty, very healthy and perfect for little miss allergic, i.e. me.

Shaena, who had probably already run 10 miles before our meeting, went for one of the sandwiches on the lunch menu. She chose the Asian inspired Chicken Banh Mi; perfectly cooked chicken breast served on a French roll with a spicy mayo, cucumber, pickled carrot and daikon, and jalapeño. I could not try this, but, wow, it looked spectacular. 

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Chicken Banh Mi

At the time of my visit, Mai was sourcing the perfect gluten free bread. She is hoping to add gluten free as an option to all of her sandwiches shortly.

As an extra treat Mai brought out the Avocado Toast, which looked amazing, and, as it wasn’t on Gluten free bread, I took it home for my family who all said it was amazing. 

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Avocado Toast

We both really enjoyed our food; it tasted fresh, clean and was well presented. 

As we were ready to leave, we couldn’t help but take a look in the pastry section and Mai very kindly gave us two pastries to try: a guava and cheese croissant and a peach Danish. I took mine home for my pastry-loving daughter who is still asking to go back and get more. 

Shaena inhaled hers after another workout and said it was amazing also. 

For me, this coffee shop will definitely become a regular haunt of mine, especially as I take a Pilates class opposite. The day after my review I popped in after class to try the oat milk latte and that was even better than the almond milk!

Great job, Mai and team – another excellent addition to Laguna Beach.

BLKdot Coffee   656 N. Coast Highway


Ti Amo by Il Barone: Love is in the air…along with the fragrance of unique and delicious dishes

Story and photos by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Love was very much in the air ten days or so ago when I visited Ti Amo by Il Barone in South Laguna - and not just for the hand-holding couple sitting at a table on the deck of this most romantic of restaurants, their shared gaze only momentarily distracted by the view of a scarlet sunset flooding the Pacific Ocean with red and gold.

No, love was in the air in many ways. I sat at a table with Laguna business owner Heidi Miller, whose adoration for this restaurant and its (relatively new) owners, Franco and Donatella Barone, became evident when she asked me to eat there with her on the eve of surgery to donate one of her kidneys to long-time acquaintance Bruce W Cook.

You know a restaurant is really great when…

When you know you won’t be eating much beyond ice chips for a few days, and will have to watch your diet pretty carefully after that for a few weeks, it matters where you have your pre-surgery meal. If Heidi’s dining decision that evening is not a testament to the great cuisine at Ti Amo by Il Barone, then I don’t know what is.

Well, maybe I do. It’s the food itself, which was spectacular, and I can testify to that, or at least to four amazing dishes on a menu that offers a wide range of options. I will get to those in a moment.

First let me say that I loved (that word again) the layout of Ti Amo. In the renovated 1928 bungalow, there are three levels, the lower one catering to parties of up to 50 people, a view-blessed raised deck lit by flickering flames, and the street-level dining area where Heidi and I had been led to a nook (or was it a cranny?) that felt private and yet not isolated from the warm hum and ambiance of the Tuscany-themed room. 

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Facci Ri Veccia: the photo does not do this dish justice at all – go see for yourself

I loved the way Massimo, our server (who worked as a chef himself for 30 years), every now and again popped around the corner of our nook as suddenly, but more charmingly, than a rabbit out of a magician’s hat, to share details about the menu and daily specials. 

Then he would disappear to consult with the kitchen, only to reappear with delicious dishes, which he served with a half-bow and a flourish worthy of David Copperfield. 

And so to the food, inspired by Franco Barone’s childhood and youth in Milan, and his mother’s and mother-in-law’s family recipes, some fine-tuned over the decades he spent working at Antonello’s, then Spiga, and his own Il Barone Ristorante, some dishes left exactly as originally prepared, needing no modification to be hungrily consumed and regularly reordered by customers.

We began with Ti Amo’s most famous and frequently ordered starter – the Facci Ri Veccia, a wondrous combination of crescenza and mozzarella cheese and thinly sliced Parma prosciutto, drizzled with white truffle oil on focaccia bread “stretched until it is see-through” in the making, Massimo told us. 

“This will open up your appetite!” he said.

I am tempted to eat several Faccis & forget additional dishes, but…

True, though it was tempting not just to open but to close (so to speak) my appetite by eating the entire Facci and maybe one more. We are talking about an amazing dish here, folks – familiar yet fabulously different, salty yet cheese-sweet, light yet madly satisfying, the perfect texture for a taste-happy tongue. 

Heidi and I had no words: we just blinked happily and nodded to each other.

I restrained myself with difficulty from eating the entire Facci.

The salad! Oh, the salad! I did not leave one scrap of green on my plate. The Pere E Rape consisted of organic beets, arugula, mache, radiccio, freese, fresh pear, gorgonzola cheese, candied pecans and raspberry vinaigrette. The pecans were just the right amount of charred to grab the attention of my taste buds, despite the fact that each bud had been seemingly fully engaged before the snap of the nut hit.

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The salad was pear-fect: fresh and a riot of flavors

Homemade cappelletti alla carbonara followed: delicate rings of pasta with smoked pancetta in a Parmigiano cream sauce. I briefly regretted my indulgence with the Facci and the way I had inhaled the salad, worrying that I would not be able to do justice to this dish.

But I did. I ate almost all the pasta crowns.

Next came the ribeye special, the meat aged for 60 days, served with julienned eggplant and zucchini tossed in garlic and olive oil. The meat was tender and succulent. I could only take a few bites at this point, given all that I had already eaten, but those bites were enough to convince me that I would be coming back here with my husband and recommending the ribeye for him.

A return visit sounded perfect for our upcoming anniversary in January.

Massimo recommended Jordan Chardonnay, Napa Valley, to accompany my meal, and it was just the right wine for my taste, while Heidi reveled in lemon drops.

We were fortunate that both wife Donatella (the “face” of Il Barone, known for her hospitality and hugs) and husband Franco were in that evening and paid visits to our table, regaling us with tales of past and present culinary glories and adventures.

Talk about love: the Barones love food and they adore Laguna

Talk about love – the Barones’ love of food, of their customers, of their longtime staff, and Laguna Beach itself shone through in every word they spoke.  

“It has been a passionate dream of my husband to have a place in Laguna,” Donatella said. “When this property came up [they’ve been owners for six months], we knew we had to act on it. We’ve had great success with the tourists, the concierges always recommend us and we’ve had lines waiting outside in the summer, but locals don’t know us as well – we believe that when they find out what good food we serve, they will come.”

Of that I have no doubt, my certainty reinforced when dessert arrived – a light, ricotta-based cheesecake served with brandied cherries, truly a carnival of taste in one’s mouth. Heidi ordered the tiramisu and raved, rolling her eyes in appreciation.

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Ti Amo desserts: Love on a plate

So many dishes still to taste one of these days: from lamb to veal to swordfish to octopus, and so much more, all served in inimitably Il Barone style.

We ended the evening with homemade limoncello, a delightfully tart final drink, and left reluctantly, loaded with to-go boxes, in my case containing two thirds of a ribeye and half a slice of cheesecake, both of which my husband devoured with delight when I returned home, despite the lateness of the hour.

Yes, Ti Amo by Il Barone, I do love you.

Ti Amo by Il Barone is located at 31727 S Coast Highway. www.tiamolaguna.com.

Phone: 949-499-5350.

Footnote: Within 24 hours of our meal, Heidi would be on the operating table. One of her kidneys would be transplanted into Bruce Cook. Within hours, Bruce’s condition would begin to improve dramatically. Two weeks later, both donor and recipient are home and doing well. Heidi tells me that as soon as she is well enough, she’ll be back at Ti Amo for a post-surgery celebration. Now that’s true love.


A Tale of Two Restaurant Openings

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Last week, I had the pleasure of being invited to two Laguna-related restaurant “soft openings” on the same night.

Now, “soft openings” can be any of a number of events for a new restaurant just readying to open its doors to the public, which proved to be the case last Thursday. 

Chef Ryan’s Parallel Pizzeria

My first restaurant opening of the evening was in Dana Point at Chef Ryan Adams’ new concept restaurant, Parallel Pizzeria.

Chef Ryan is a longtime success story here in Laguna Beach with Three Seventy Common Kitchen + Drink, so I knew I was in for a treat. Truly one of our most talented chefs in Laguna Beach, Chef Ryan is incapable of making anything ordinary, even if it’s pizza. 

I showed up to an almost-empty restaurant except for Chef Ryan, his impeccable PR agent, Marguarite, kitchen and serving staff, and a single 10-top table filled with the area’s top food columnists. It was like a family reunion seeing all my foodie buddies there. 

LB Best parallel

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Submitted photo

Chef Ryan Adams with his pizzeria staff

In minutes, Chef Ryan and team were off and running with plate after plate of fabulous fare. His “Parallel” concept is only about the East Coast’s New Haven, Connecticut-inspired pie meeting the West Coast of fresh, organic flavors.

In Ryan’s opinion, no one makes pizza better than this mid-size coastal city on Long Island’s Sound. 

No Parallel in Pie Research, Either

Not unexpectedly, Chef Ryan did his usual intricate research, even having the New Haven water tested, then shipped in the exact same level of minerals to enhance his SoCal water here.

Why? 

To create the perfect New Haven pizza crust, of course. 

From his West Coast pear and gorgonzola-based salad to his East Coast chopped salad, and from a classic East Coast Clam Pie to the West Coast-based Killer Dana Pie, it is truly a heavenly mash-up of the best of two worlds. 

LB Best pizza

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Submitted photo

Parallel Pizzeria’s Killer Dana Pie with Italian chicken sausage, sweet peppers and cilantro pesto

For the sake of brevity here, I have a full review of Parallel Pizzeria in my blog, Tge Best of Laguna Beach at www.LagunaBeachBest.com.

Parallel Pizzeria opens today, Friday, June 1 and is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. It sits in “The Row,” right on Coast Highway by Chronic Tacos and Subway at 34255 Pacific Coast Highway.

Central Peruvian is Back (With a Bang)

I scooted from Parallel Pizzeria to my second restaurant “soft” opening at Central, our re-opening Peruvian restaurant on Forest Avenue.

As you may recall, Central experienced a devastating kitchen fire on December 29.

Thankfully, no one was hurt in the unexpected blaze, but they experienced a crushing $350,000 loss that included $20,000 in wine. 

While Central Partners Anna Montoya and Taylor McKinney hoped to be open in February, they were finally able to celebrate their soon-to-open status last Thursday, May 24. 

I arrived about a half hour after the party had begun, parked on a side street and half-mindedly noticed a roar of some sort of crowd as I began my short trek to Central’s front doors. As I turned the corner, I realized the roar was emanating from none other than Central itself. The place was absolutely packed with well-wishers, from the outdoor patio to the walls hugging the bathrooms at the restaurant’s very back. 

Taylor was manning the front with a couple of darling (but overwhelmed) hostesses and offered me a welcome hug. 

And then…I was left to wade into the throng. 

I managed to push my way in about two feet, popping up on my toes to see if I could find any familiar faces. The place was absolutely vibrating with high energy and happy, loud conversation, and I couldn’t help but grin. I remember the days when Anna first opened Central and worried with me about whether or not the crowds would ever come her way. 

As I tried to wrassle my way further into the restaurant, I discovered my hands were near my chin, similar to that of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. As a cocktail server neared me with her tray of enticing appetizer samplers, I found myself helpless and hapless, unable to reach for a bite with my now-diminutive reach. 

I couldn’t help chuckling; this was a significant change up from the tranquil restaurant opening I had just exited moments before.

I managed to turn (really just spinning on my heeled toes as it was all the room I was allowed) and discovered Anna trying to make her way in the front door. I waved her down, hugged her, gabbled happily for a moment, and barked at people to clear a small path so that we could get a photo together.

The fanfare and goodwill were absolutely exuberant all around, and there is no one more deserving than Anna and Taylor.

I managed to tap the shoulder of one of the few local friends I could spot, and we shuffled and squeezed our way down the length of the restaurant to the back door exit. Emerging rather sweaty and disheveled, we took a few deep breaths…and headed for Ryan’s 370 Common for a much-needed drink.

Central opened to the public last night (Thursday) and I’ve made reservations for Saturday evening. I can’t wait to see the renovated space and try the “improved” menu (though I doubt much of anything can be improved at this fine eatery).

More news on that review in my column next time!

Congratulations to both of our Laguna-based restaurateurs, and I look forward to seeing both of your places filled to the brim. 

P.S. For Chef Ryan’s fried chicken-loving fans…oh, have I got news for you. More on that next week here at StuNews. 

Diane Armitage is the best-selling author of the book The Best of Laguna Beach, and offers a cornucopia of ideas and upcoming events at her blog at www.LagunaBeachBest.com.


A spot of tea – and more, at Harmony Tea Bar

Story and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Don Ho is the very friendly owner of the newest downtown eating and drinking venue – Harmony Tea Bar. Don is amused because he knows that I remember the famous Hawaiian named Don Ho, “But no one under 30 does!” he laughs.

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Don Ho, proprietor of Harmony Tea Bar

The small establishment, located in the same spot that was formerly a fancy shoe store, looks half take-away and half dine-in. There’s a walk-up counter displaying all kinds of drink combinations (examples: sea salt jasmine, and pomegranate green iced teas, coffee and hot teas – sorted as classic, milk, or fruit teas), some lovely pastry selections, avocado toast made with artisanal asiago pancetta bread, and a full tea service which includes a delectable assortment of little sandwiches…and more, as I soon discovered. 

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Lavender Earl Grey tea for two

A Move to Laguna

The tableside section of the room is fronted with a big bow window looking out to all the action on this block of Forest Avenue. The place has barely opened, yet is full of so many customers we have to wait for a table to open up. I’m admiring the different colored pots of tea, and stacked servers dotted with sweet confections and mini sandwiches.

This is the second location for Harmony Tea Bar – the other is in Mission Viejo. Don is very happy to finally have his tea bar open in Laguna Beach. He’s plodded his way through some of the new restaurant blues – “These chairs are not the ones I ordered…I ordered months ago and they still weren’t ready, so I just went out and found these.” 

He says his wife really wanted to buy a house, but first they opened the tea bar in Mission Viejo, and just when they might have been able to get a house, he opens up this second shop. Still, he has assured her, one day they’ll get that house. Such are the joys and setbacks in the life of a restaurateur. 

Don found out about the location becoming available in Laguna Beach by a good customer. That customer, a Laguna local, happens to own the downtown building and thought it would be a perfect fit. They both did. 

Open and ready it is! 

A Four-Course Tea

The highlighted feature of Harmony Tea’s menu might be described as High Tea, but here it is called “Full Tea Service.” No need for white gloves, or pinkies sticking out from delicate cups. This is a modern incarnation. There are pots sufficient for two people accompanied by glass cups. There are no waiters or linen tablecloths. The delicacies – whether savory or sweet – are served on wood planks and stacked wood trays.

We ordered the heavenly fragrant Lavender Earl Grey tea as our starting point.  

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Strawberries with green tea matcha whipped cream

The first food presentation in the full tea service, Berries & Cream, arrives in a clear cup filled with layers of fresh strawberries and matcha green tea whipped cream. It’s really a combo of sweet and savory, as the matcha imparts a slight bitterness to the sweet cream, and, of course, the strawberries are both tart and sweet. 

This would actually be plenty and perfect to accompany a pot of tea – just a little something to keep you on your feet. But we were in for the full deal.

Next up was a real “tell” about a proper tea: scones with clotted cream. I confess I am an Anglophile, and very particular about scones (not dry!) and clotted cream (where can you get anything close to what you’ll find in London?). And it did not disappoint. 

The cranberry, ginger, and orange scone was the best I’ve ever had in this area, and the clotted cream (house-made, with bits of candied ginger) rivals anything on the Queen’s tea cart. Served alongside was a mouth-watering Strawberry-Syrah jam (“Made by jammit jams,” said Don. “I met them at a food conference.”)

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Scone, served with Clotted Cream and Strawberry Syrah Jam

Classics and modern renditions of teacakes and sandwiches were served next, riding aboard a stacked serving tower. On the top were the little sweets: crème brulee cheesecake, matcha macaron, chocolate “fantasy” cake, guava bar, and a chocolate chip tea bread. They may look tiny, but they pack a sweet punch. 

This would have been more than enough for two people, perhaps, but the sweet must be balanced by the savory. Enter the finger sandwiches.

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Sweets on top, and Finger Sandwiches: Caprese Bruschetta, Cucumber Cream Cheese, Curried Chicken, and Egg Salad

I love cucumber sandwiches – this being in the classic style, with cream cheese on crust-less bread and topped with a mint sprig. The caprese sandwich lent a modern approach to the sandwich selections, with sundried tomato bruschetta, mozzarella and basil. The whole really was greater than the sum of its parts, as what looked at first like little tidbits was soon a feast we could barely finish.

The complete tea service would be a delightful afternoon event for fans of all ages… It’s served from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, $30, and reservations are appreciated. 

Stop by and say hi to Don Ho. He’s looking forward to getting to know the people of our town as well as fellow restaurateurs in the ‘hood.

305 Forest Ave    www.harmonyteabar.com


Chef Arthur’s awesome menu + a rockin’ live band =  memorable NYE Party at Skyloft this year 

Chef Arthur Ortiz has pulled out all the stops on this year’s New Year’s Eve prix fixe menu with items such as Marsala Duck Medallions, Grilled Steak with a skewer of Cajun Shrimp, a hearty California Smoke Platter, and more.

On New Year’s Eve, Skyloft has two prix fixe menus seatings, with the first from 5 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. for $80, and the second from 8 p.m.- 1 a.m. 

The second Skyloft NYE seating, priced at just $120, includes the prix fixe menu, your table reserved all evening long, lively music with Venson Quarles & The Just Funk Band, and a midnight bubbly toast. Patrons interested in just the live music party after 9 p.m. (no prix fixe menu) pay a $20 cover.

For more infromation or to  review the New Year’s Eve menu, visit www.SkyloftOC.com/nye-menu. To reserve seating, call (949) 715-1550.


Chef Craig Strong offers cooking classes at Studio, Montage Laguna Beach 

Acclaimed Executive Chef Craig Strong of Montage Laguna Beach’s signature fine dining restaurant Studio will be giving a series of interactive cooking classes starting Sat, Jan 13. The classes will be held at Studio, located at 30801 Coast Highway, panoramically perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, and will include hands-on cooking experiences complete with tips and tricks from Chef Strong, lunch with wine pairing, recipe sharing and a Studio apron.

The series includes: Spanish Cooking 101 on Sat, Jan 13, at 11 a.m. Strong leads the way for participants to learn how to throw a Spanish-themed party, complete with tapas and paella. On the menu: Gambas ajillo, Serrano ham con pan and Tomate, Brandade in Pequillo Sauce, Patatas Bravas and Chicken Paella with Shellfish.

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Submitted Photo

Since 2009, Strong has helmed the kitchen at Studio with its highly acclaimed modern French cuisine with California influences

Another event included is the Sweet Tooth: Pastry Basics on Sat, Feb 17, at 11 a.m. Participants will learn to make decadent desserts just in time for Valentine’s Day – from classic recipes with techniques demystified by the Chef. On the menu: Lemon Tart, Warm Chocolate Cake and Crème Brûlée infused with garden herbs.

Additionally, there will be an Italian Love Affair with Pasta on Sat, March 17, at 11 a.m. Students will make three types of pasta - hand-rolled, dumplings and noodles with a variety of delicious sauces to compliment each. On the menu: Ricotta Cavatelli with Basil Sauce, Fettuccine Alfredo and Trofi with Checca Sauce and Mozzarella.

Cost for each class is $150, plus tax and gratuity. Class size is limited. For reservations, call (949) 715-6420.


Gu Ramen’s hot broth and chill vibe draw a diverse and enthusiastic clientele

Story and photos by JENNIFER ERICKSON

Gu Ramen Taps and Tapas, located at 907 S. Coast Highway, at the corner of Thalia, began drawing ramen aficionados from as far as Los Angeles as soon as it opened on June 6, 2015. So far the momentum hasn’t slowed, as had been the case with two previous, short-lived tenants in the space. 

Perhaps that’s because Gu Ramen boasts not only bowls of noodles and toppings steaming in their signature tonkotsu broth, but also what some web reviewers call “a chill vibe.” 

Earlier this week I interviewed Kitiphong (“Kiti”) Thongdetsakul, who co-owns the restaurant with Wicha Thossansin, and he seemed to agree. He attributes their success to “good food, good drink, good wine, and good atmosphere.” 

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A bowl of Gu Ramen’s noodles with their signature broth and pork belly

Besides their pork- and chicken-bone broth, double-simmered for 16 to 18 hours, they use high quality ingredients and meat, Kiti said. And he has nothing but praise for their current executive chef Michael Rudolph, who, he said, is working on some surprise menu items for the New Year.

The tasty food can be washed down with selections from a respectable line up of craft beer on tap, bottled beer, reasonably priced wines by the glass and bottle, or an extensive list of sakes. For those eschewing alcohol, there’s a fridge filled with specialty soft drinks, such as Fanta, Mexican Coke and hard-to-find Asian sodas.

While most reviews on Yelp, Google and Facebook are raves, or at least complimentary, the most common complaint among detractors is that the food can be slow to reach them on busy nights. But ramen is generally made to order, and with a small kitchen, the orders can pile up. Asked about that, Kiti assured me that they prefer to have the customer “wait for a better quality of broth and noodle” than to hurry the process and serve sub-par food. “We’re not here to rush the customer, we’re here to satisfy everybody,” he said, such as those who routinely pick up their bowls at the end of the meal to slurp every last bit of broth.

Eclectic playlists and alluring videos add to the chill vibe

Besides the inevitable observations on the merits of the ramen and other items on the menu, many reviewers note the eclectic playlists of mostly 80s and 90s music, usually accompanied by their alluring music videos displayed on the two flat TV screens behind the bar. It’s not an ambiance you’ll find at other ramen places, Kiti proudly noted. He said he relies on whoever is working to orchestrate the music playlists, which they’ll often tweak based on reading the room.

My theory is that most people come to Gu Ramen for the food the first time but keep returning for the aforementioned “chill vibe.” 

The first thing I noticed when I ate there over a year ago was the diversity of the clientele. Single men and women of different ages and walks of life dotted the bar, while the booths along the opposite wall seemed to be crammed with every age group, ethnicity and gender. There were young couples on dates, older couples sharing a meal with friends, young women on a girls’ night out, hipsters, surfers, and business executive-looking types. All were talking, laughing, eating and slurping as those retro tunes rounded out the music of their conversation and the vintage, sometimes racy, videos supplied background eye candy.

Often, walking into a new restaurant or bar for the first time, you have an immediate sense of some degree of belonging, indifference or alienation, depending on the other customers. Maybe you’re older than the crowd, or younger, or more or less affluent, under- or over-dressed, or more of an outsider. 

But the second I entered Gu Ramen I felt the ease of anonymity. I didn’t stick out in any way. My husband and I were just two more people coming in to partake of the food and ambience, assuming we could get a seat on that busy Friday night. Luckily, we did. 

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Tapas like this Senbei Ahi Tartare hit all the right taste notes

A return there on a recent Monday night at around 6:30 p.m. confirmed my initial observations about the vibe and the food. The Senbei Ahi Tartare - poke-like tuna studded with edamame and mounded on crunchy rice crackers, and the Buta Belly Sliders - glazed marinated pork belly and sweet and spicy sauces on a soft pretzel bun, were as mouth-watering as I had remembered. As were the ramen.

For the sake of diversity this time around, my husband ordered the Chashu Yaki Rice Bowl, which was basically hibachi fried rice with pork belly and an egg. This was flavor packed comfort food at its best. It almost made me jealous. Almost. But my chewy noodles bathed in the long-simmered pork and chicken bone tonkotsu broth, and garnished with pork belly, garlic oil, sprouts and other goodies, kept me quite happy. 

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Look no further than the Chashu Yaki Rice Bowl for your next comfort food craving

The playlist also seemed the same, though instead of music videos the flat screens over the bar displayed Monday Night Football with the sound off. No one seemed to mind.

Kiti told me that they try to accommodate the customers, so during football season, they’ll usually have the games on early on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays. 

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Football replaces the usual music videos on early Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights in season

Though a sparser crowd, as expected for an early Monday night, Gu Ramen’s  clientele was just as diverse as on our inaugural visit. There were couples, singles and groups of varying ages and backgrounds, including a trio of 30-something guys apparently having a “chill” time.

I decided to invade their privacy and find out what brought them there. 

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Local guys enjoy beer and...where did those sliders go?

It’s “pretty much the only place in Laguna you can get ramen,” said one, while the others cited “spicy food and beer” and “really good food” in general. It was not the first time these guys, who turned out to be locals, had been here, but it was the first time they’d ordered the Buta Belly Sliders, which they liked so much they had consumed all evidence, leaving only their beer by the time I took their photo. (They assured me more food was on the way.) When I asked if they were there for the football, they said no, adding that they got a kick out of the music video fare usually on display. See what I mean about the vibe?

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Buta Belly Sliders get devoured quickly

As a foodie, I sadly admit that extensive ramen knowledge is one of my weak points. That said, I have at least read a lot about ramen, such as in the coveted “ramen issue” of Lucky Peach Magazine (a sort of holy grail for some). And I have eaten ramen in two other places – Ivan Ramen in New York City and Kagari, in Tokyo, both of which establishments have cult followings, as so many of these places do.

Based on that experience, I can say that though each place has its own standout dishes, Gu Ramen easily holds its own in the taste department. And as ambience goes, they knock it out of the park. Ivan Ramen in New York has a bustling, diner-like atmosphere where hurried and hungry New Yorkers come in to grab seats and quickly get their ramen fix before being displaced by others. It’s lively, but the atmosphere is more about eating and running than hanging out. 

If anything, Kagari, on the Ginza in Tokyo, is even less about hanging out. After a two-hour wait on line outside in the cold to occupy two of the nine available seats there, once you sat down, it was all about the food. The one similarity to Gu Ramen was the diversity of the customers. There were businessmen, mothers with daughters, and groups of college kids bumping elbows with nattily dressed women and goth-clad teens.

Gu Ramen alone seems to have combined its ramen destination identity with a neighborhood bar atmosphere and diverse customer base. 

Personally, I have to admit that I crave the food and the vibe just about equally…and finding a good IPA on tap doesn’t hurt either.

Call 949-715-0825 for more information.


Chef Arthur’s awesome menu + a rockin’ live band =  memorable NYE Party at Skyloft this year 

Chef Arthur Ortiz has pulled out all the stops on this year’s New Year’s Eve prix fixe menu with items such as Marsala Duck Medallions, Grilled Steak with a skewer of Cajun Shrimp, a hearty California Smoke Platter, and more.

On New Year’s Eve, Skyloft has two prix fixe menus seatings, with the first from 5 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. for $80, and the second from 8 p.m.- 1 a.m. 

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mike Altishin

Steak filet wrapped in bacon

The second Skyloft NYE seating, priced at just $120, includes the prix fixe menu, your table reserved all evening long, lively music with Venson Quarles & The Just Funk Band, and a midnight bubbly toast. Patrons interested in just the live music party after 9 p.m. (no prix fixe menu) pay a $20 cover.

For more infromation or to  review the New Year’s Eve menu, visit www.SkyloftOC.com/nye-menu. To reserve seating, call (949) 715-1550.


Even the food is festive

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Avocado toast at The Grove looked quite festive this week


Best Burgers Roundup, 2017: Eat juicy burgers now before making New Year’s resolutions …

Story and most photos by DIANE ARMITAGE
Skyloft photo by Mike Altishin

During the holidays, I suspect you might do as I do, adapting a diet that has nothing to do with the way you live the other 11 months of your year. 

For me, it’s too much eggnog, too many creamy gravies, rich holiday appetizers that I would never eat any other time of the year (who can pass up anything wrapped in phyllo dough?), and one sugary thing after another. 

The Bridge Back to Diet Normalcy

For some reason – and invariably as the holiday season winds down – my rather warped brain begins to crave a good old-fashioned hamburger. I consider it my Bridge Back to Normalcy, a mental coup of sorts against roasted turkey, baked ham and prime rib roast.

Of course, a handful of our great chefs in town think an “old fashioned burger” should be more of a decadent celebration, too. And, for some reason, I don’t argue this … my eggnog-addled brain simply accepts this as a gentler descent across that bridge before I’m faced with detoxifying juices on the other side. 

So, I’m updating my list of Best Hamburgers in Laguna Beach this week just in case you, dear reader, feel the tug of one more culinary venture before the New Year tolls, making sensible eaters of us all.   

An Editorial Note:

Permit a few caveats before we begin this slippery slope of a review: I wasn’t able to try every hamburger in town; the list below is ranked by price, from lowest to highest; Yes, we have a number of great vegetarian and vegan burgers in town that are worthy of their own column; and you might have a favorite burger in one of our fine dining establishments that’s not mentioned here. We welcome your vote and commentary on this terribly serious subject at my FB page, www.facebook.com/BestofLagunaBeach or write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with your suggestions (or both…)

Towering Edifices of Wonder

Even as Laguna Beach sports a number of great burger-centric restaurants, the chefs at our finer dining restaurants bow to the burger, too.

These chefs, though…they don’t make normal food, and they certainly don’t make normal hamburgers. I discovered towering edifices of wonder with unique combinations of ingredients and detailed preparation steps that would leave the ordinary backyard grill guy agog. 

Grab your dinner napkins and let’s get started.

Reunion Kitchen Classic Cheeseburger

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Reunion Kitchen Classic Cheeseburger

Probably the highest tower of them all, Scott McIntosh’s Classic Cheeseburger is more like a national monument. Add optional avocado, bacon or fried egg, and you have a replica of The Leaning Tower of Pisa on your hands. 

Creation Date: At his first Reunion Kitchen in Anaheim, Dec. 2013

Sold per week: 75-100

What makes the Reunion Classic Cheeseburger memorable: A half-pound patty of ground chuck serves as the base to sliced tomato, thick house-made pickle slices, crisp lettuce, melted cheese (type of cheese is your option), and crispy fried onion strips with house sauce (a house-made, spicier version of Thousand Island dressing with the restaurant’s own secret pickle relish combo), slathered on both halves of the potato bun. Avocado, fried egg and bacon are optional add-ons (two of the three are pictured in my photo).  

Scott McIntosh’s Secrets: After selling many burgers at many different restaurants over the years, McIntosh learned a “French technique” while working with Restaurateur David Wilhelm at French 75. 

“We served a ‘Butter Burger’ at French 75, which was actually stuffed with about a tablespoon of butter,” says McIntosh. “I carried that idea over with about a half tablespoon in our Reunion burger. It’s just enough that, when the patty hits the grill, the butter bubbles out and over and gives it that rich flavor. 

Price: $13.95

Served with: Seasoned fries

Skyloft’s “The Cheeseburger”

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Skyloft’s “The Cheeseburger”

A devoted fan of In-N- Out in his growing up, formative years, Chef Arthur Ortiz has created an insanely popular burger “that harkens back to that nostalgic taste,” he says. 

“Cheeseburgers are a go-to for a lot of guests,” says Chef Arthur. “Sometimes you just want a classic burger that’s just messy enough but can still be held in your hand without falling apart everywhere. I created it for people who have that ‘classic burger’ heart.”

Aside from weekly sales of 1,000 pounds of smoked ribs, brisket and house-made maple-basted bacon, Chef Arthur’s Cheeseburger is the most popular item on the menu. 

Creation Date: May 2016, when he first came on board at Skyloft.

Sold per week: 300+

What makes the Skyloft Cheeseburger memorable: Two tenderized four-ounce patties hard-seared on the griddle, two “just melty” slices of white American cheese, a rabble of small-diced fresh tomato, red onion and pickles, and crisp iceberg lettuce. It’s finished with a healthy slather of top-secret black peppercorn aioli on a cushy bun. 

Served with: Hand-cut fries with sea salt seasoning and Cajun aioli dipping sauce

Price: $15

Added bonus: Every Monday, The Skyloft Cheeseburger is just $10. And, any day it rains in Laguna Beach, you can order it for $10, too. 

The Lumberyard’s Signature Burger

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The Lumberyard’s Signature Burger

Waddling due east on Forest Avenue from Skyloft, I find my way to the Lumberyard. At my request, Owner Cary Redfearn and Chef Armando Ortega whip up their Signature Burger, a half-pound Angus ground chuck that is probably the prettiest burger I’ve seen. 

Creation date: Day 1, 2008 when the restaurant opened.

Sold per week: 200+

What makes the Lumberyard Signature memorable: Bleu cheese, Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, bacon, mushroom chips, Bibb lettuce and fresh slices of tomato on a lightly toasted, freshly baked wheat bun.

Chef Armando’s Secrets: Chef Armando’s unusual mix of Bleu and Swiss cheeses creates a union happier than any past, present or future détente between France and Switzerland. 

He also flash fries fresh mushrooms into “chips,” which provide an “earthier, mellower balance to the cheeses.” The caramelized onions are Sweet Vidalia, to add yet another nuance of mellow, nutty sweetness to the cheeses. And, the star of the show – Nueske Bacon from Wisconsin – drapes the burger in glory. “There’s nothing like Nueske,” says Redfearn. “It’s double-thick Applewood smoked bacon and it goes with everything. It’s magical stuff.”

Served with: Steak fries. 

Price: $16

Sapphire’s Kobe Beef Cheeseburger

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Sapphire Pantry & Sapphire Restaurant’s Kobe Beef Cheeseburger

This burger began quietly at Sapphire Restaurant’s shop next door, The Pantry. Its popularity exploded to such an extent that Chef Azmin Ghahreman was quick to add it to the restaurant’s lunch menu, too. 

The real love here starts with the beef itself. This is Snake River Farms Kobe beef, where cows are given daily neck massages and guzzle beer. The Japanese culture “invented” Kobe beef on the belief that happy cows made for stellar meat. Having tried this burger, I’m all for happy cows. 

Creation Date: Day 1, 2007 when the restaurant opened.

Sold per week: 200-250

What makes the Kobe Cheeseburger memorable: Havarti cheese, caramelized onion, fresh arugula, Heirloom tomato on a brioche bun.

Chef Azmin’s Secrets: Azmin tops his happy beef with a thick slice of Havarti cheese “because its mild creaminess melds so nicely with the bite of the arugula,” says Azmin.

Azmin is all about contrast. Sweet caramelized onions champion the mild Heirloom tomato slices, while the buttery, sweet Brioche bun is brushed with a house-made Dijon aioli.

Price: $12 at the Pantry, $18.50 on the Lunch menu

Served with: Thin-cut garlic fries

Three Seventy Common Kitchen’s 10-Napkin Burger

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Three Seventy Common Kitchen’s 10-Napkin Burger

If you’ve ever wondered why Three Seventy Common gives you a cloth dinner napkin the size of a dishtowel, it’s because of this burger. Chef Ryan wasn’t kidding when he named this signature dish, as it is heavenly drippiness for all the right reasons. 

The burger itself is an all-natural blend of ground chuck, skirt steak, short ribs and hanger steak. It’s ground fresh daily in the restaurant, and they will never tell you the percentages of meats used, so don’t even ask.  

Creation Date: Shortly after re-opening as Three Seventy Common, Chef Ryan Adams added this burger to the foodie-famous menu as “it was the burger I was always prepping for myself at the end of a shift,” he says. 

Sold per week: 100-150

What makes the 370 10-Napkin Burger memorable: White cheddar, arugula, fried egg, smoked bacon, mushrooms, roasted chile, caramelized onions, and Chef’s secret aioli sauce on a freshly baked potato bun.  

Chef Ryan’s Secrets: For starters, if you’re definitely not a fan of eggs, you can ask to have it omitted. If, however, you haven’t ever tried a fried egg on your hamburger, it’s time to take the leap. 

The chile is an authentic Hatch, New Mexico fire-roasted chile, and this is no dinky chile. Its smoky goodness blends perfectly with the sautéed mushrooms and all-natural Applewood bacon. The two-year-aged white cheddar comes from the Grafton village of Vermont, chosen specifically for its high butterfat and mellow smoothness. 

Price: $19

Served with: Hand-cut fries.

Where’s Your Next Cheeseburger in Paradise?

Any time you venture into a finer dining establishment, I know it can be a struggle to order something as mundane as a hamburger when there’s all that other glory on the menu to be had. Remember, though – if this Chef has foodie talent, you can bet his house burger is a far cry from a snoozer. Really … it’s your New Year’s duty to give these burgers a try. Let me know what you decide to try at: www.facebook.com/BestofLagunaBeach.

Diane Armitage is the best-selling author of the book, The Best of Laguna Beach, and offers a cornucopia of restaurant updates, ideas and upcoming events at her blog, www.LagunaBeachBest.com.


Chef Arthur’s awesome menu + a rockin’ live band =  memorable NYE Party at Skyloft this year 

Chef Arthur Ortiz has pulled out all the stops on this year’s New Year’s Eve prix fixe menu with items such as Marsala Duck Medallions, Grilled Steak with a skewer of Cajun Shrimp, a hearty California Smoke Platter, and more.

On New Year’s Eve, Skyloft has two prix fixe menus seatings, with the first from 5 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. for $80, and the second from 8 p.m.- 1 a.m. 

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mike Altishin

Steak filet wrapped in bacon

The second Skyloft NYE seating, priced at just $120, includes the prix fixe menu, your table reserved all evening long, lively music with Venson Quarles & The Just Funk Band, and a midnight bubbly toast. Patrons interested in just the live music party after 9 p.m. (no prix fixe menu) pay a $20 cover.

For more infromation or to  review the New Year’s Eve menu, visit www.SkyloftOC.com/nye-menu. To reserve seating, call (949) 715-1550.


What’s new at Tommy Bahama, besides your well-deserved vacation at home? New dining delights!

Story and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Tommy Bahama, where vacation is a way of life, is a-buzzin’ as if it were still summertime here in Laguna-ville. Well, it is touching on 70 degrees in early January, so it may as well be the land of vacation. 

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The Bahia Sangria, made with brandy, red wine, pomegranate, oranges, 

green apples, and lemons

The bar is lively with a good crowd in the afternoon as I stroll in, and straight on to the dining area. The window-side booths are great for discreet sidewalk people watching but my husband, Richard, and I have arrived with a good post-workout appetite to boot. 

The super friendly staff is quick with a welcome, and happy to show off the newest menu. Let’s try some of their most popular menu options and new additions…

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The “World Famous” Coconut Shrimp

Who doesn’t love coconut shrimp? No one! In my perfect world, coconut shrimp is as presented at Tommy Bahama – super-sized shrimp with an extra-crispy coating of sizzling sweet coconut paired with zingy papaya-mango chutney.

A different twist on Poke

I am a die-hard poke fan. I seriously think the one sorely missing restaurant in Laguna Beach is a poke bar. So I am, admittedly, hard to please on this subject. And I’m happy to report that the Tommy Bahama Ahi Poke Bowl is now my Laguna favorite. 

What sets this poke apart is the mix of ingredients tucked into sections of the bowl. First, there’s the fresh ahi, diced into nice, little bites – better for melding with the other flavors than most standard big-size chunks found in poke bowls. 

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Ahi Poke Bowl

Sprinkled amidst is a dose of quinoa, sesame seeds, and faro for a healthy and tasty spin added to the classic. Underneath are baby greens, and around the sides: pickled ginger, crispy wontons, edamame, seaweed, avocado slices, and the Tommy Bahama classic “Island Slaw” – all drizzled with a wasabi aioli. This is what I would call a big salad, but with ahi poke as the main event. It’s a big salad I’d be happy to have any day of the week.

Debuting Barbacoa Tacos

Another top hit from the new menu – beef Barbacoa Tacos. Richard is the Mexican food fan in the family, so this lit his fire. The tacos are described as “Cajun-Seasoned.” I was there to weigh in on the quality component – and, again, happy to report thumbs up. 

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Barbacoa Tacos

I like that the flavorful beef is so tender it’s fall-off-the-bone, and melt-in-your-mouth rich in the seasoning. The barbacoa is nestled in two crispy flour tortillas with a tomato relish, Island Slaw, and lime sour cream. On the side are house-made tortilla chips and fire-roasted salsa.

The finishing touch

 Just when we thought we could not possibly eat another thing, along comes a tempting teaser. The ever-popular Key Lime Pie has been tweaked in the new menu – transformed, in that vacation-casual way, into a popsicle.

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Key Lime Pie Pop

Key Lime Pie (only made with authentic Key limes), that sweet and tart little tramp! Now she’s been dressed up in dark chocolate, turned into a pop, and looks all the better for it. Our server tells us that lots of people pick the whole thing up by the stick and enjoy it bite by bite that way, but since we were splitting, we opted for cutting up bite-sized bits of the luscious chocolate and tangy sweet.

Chef Stephen has plans

Tommy Bahama’s Chef Stephen Nguyen trained in Newport and is now happy to call the Laguna locale home. The Tommy Bahama formula has standard menu basics anchored in their 15 locations around the country, but Chef Stephen has created regional spin-offs for the Laguna Beach home, often featured in their daily specials.

One big event on Chef Stephen’s agenda this week is New Year’s. There’s going to be a “New Celebration” menu created just for New Year’s Eve as well as New Year’s Day. The New Year’s Eve last seating is at 10 p.m. Details not available at press time, but phone for reservations at (949) 376-6886.

This was quite the holiday treat of a lunch. Delicious, and no holds barred! But I’ll return after New Year’s diet resolutions just for that poke bowl. 

Check out the new menu at Tommy Bahama; it’s a treat for their chef’s selections plus you get the added benefit of enjoying this corner of Laguna that hosts a relaxed, vacation vibe.

400 S Coast Hwy   376-6886


Taverna: An unforgettable Italian experience right here in Laguna

Story and photos by DIANNE RUSSELL

The minute I open the door of Taverna, savory fragrances envelop me in haze of memories. I’m immediately taken back to an incredible pasta dish I had in Venice 34 years ago. A long time, I know.

Such odor/memory links are known as the “Proust Phenomenon” in honor of Marcel Proust, the French writer who spoke lyrically about the strength of memories evoked by smell, and never has this sensation been more evident to me. 

But this isn’t Italy, this is Laguna Beach, and my husband Ron and I are in for a treat that exceeds the café in Venice. Our palates just don’t know it yet. 

Steven, the general manager, greets us, and we decide to sit inside. 

Now that the weather is cooling, Taverna, with its comfortable and cozy atmosphere, is the perfect place to dine. The patio is also delightful (and has heaters), but on this visit, we opt for inside and the rustic and warm ambiance. I’ve dined on the patio with friends often before. (As a bonus, they allow dogs on the patio.)

Our server Mike, who has been with Taverna since July of 2017, knows quite a lot about the restaurant. It resides in the restored Laguna Federal Savings and Loan Building, and the three unique murals (from the 1940s) in the patio area were uncovered during the renovation. 

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One of three murals from the 1940s in Taverna’s restored patio

Taverna is part of Lombardi’s Family Concepts, which is headquartered in Dallas, and this is their first restaurant in California (it opened in March of 2016). They have additional locations in Las Vegas, Austin, Houston, and Akumal, MX. Specializing in Northern Italian cuisine, each restaurant creates its own dishes from scratch.

Mike tells us about the specials for the day. For once, I realize I’m not straining to hear what the server is saying. One of my pet peeves is the high noise level in some restaurants, but that is absent here, and Mike points out the many sound absorbers installed on the beamed ceiling. 

One of the dishes he mentions is Scallop Risotto, and since Taverna is known as a “risotteria,” and it appears to be a signature dish, Ron decides on that one. Their expertise in risotto is widespread, they use only Carnaroli grain, which maintains its shape during the slow cooking process that produces enviable risotto. 

And just because I love eggplant, I order the Eggplant Parmigiana. 

Mike brings each of us a glass of wine, Pinot Noir for Ron, and a Sauvignon Blanc for me, and turns out, each is an apt pairing for our selections. 

Because the servings are ample, we decide to split a Burrata Salad, which was exactly the right choice. 

Burrata salad with heirloom tomatoes, arugula, basil and Tuscan olive oil

If I wasn’t aware that Taverna doesn’t have a farm out their back door, I would have guessed the tomatoes, arugula, and basil were directly from backyard farm to table. Rarely have I tasted salad ingredients so fresh and full of taste. And I don’t even know what to say about the Burrata, (obviously, they don’t have a cow anywhere nearby either). Burrata means “butter” in Italian, and this offering was fresh cheese at its best, creamy and rich.

To accompany it, they present a basket of warm rosemary bread and a crock of spread made from garbanzo beans, pesto, pine nuts, garlic and basil.  A delicious and unexpected blend of Greek and Italian. And, of course, the traditional balsamic vinegar and olive oil, but taken up several notches.

But the best was yet to come.

It’s no fluke that Taverna is known as a “risotteria.”  The Scallop Risotto is a dish to die for – or to die after – since this might be a good choice for my last meal (if I knew ahead of time it was to be my last meal). Although I loved my Eggplant Parmigiana, I commandeered a considerable amount of Ron’s dinner.

Scallops Risotto, risotto at its finest

Not only were the scallops cooked to perfection, silky and tender, but the asparagus shavings gave the dish a nice crunch. The risotto, as sublime and skillful as it gets, was smooth and laced with nutty parmesan, just enough to complement the other ingredients. Each bite was a tapestry of flavors.

The Eggplant Parmigiana was the best I’ve tasted, a tower of meaty eggplant slices, layered with, but not overpowered by a superb sauce. It was accompanied by a side of pasta with Pomodoro sauce which was also wonderful. 

Layers of meaty eggplant and heavenly sauce

At this point, anyone else would turn down dessert, but not us.

At Mike’s suggestion, we order the Chocolate Hazelnut Budino, which he describes as a chocolate lava cake, but it’s so much more. It’s topped with a giandula sauce, whipped cream and vanilla gelato. The crispy edges of the cake and its fudgy center, combined with the gelato, is more than any chocolate lover could ever hope for. 

A chocolate lover’s delight

No matter how amazing the food is, the server can either make or break a dining experience, and Mike made the evening an extremely pleasurable one. He was welcoming and gracious, answering all our many questions about the restaurant and the food with patience and expertise. 

To cap off the dinner, Steven brings us a glass of Limoncello, and we all toast the New Year. This night couldn’t have been a better introduction to 2018.

The memory of that long-ago pasta meal in Venice has now been upstaged by the food experience we had at Taverna. And, for us, traveling to Laguna Beach (rather than Italy) doesn’t require planes, trains, or even automobiles. Well, maybe sometimes automobiles.

Ron says as we leave, “That was a magical experience.” 

And I have to agree with my husband. Just this one time.

Taverna is located at 222 Ocean Ave., 949-715-0821. 

For information about brunch, happy hour, and hours of operation, go to www.tavernabylombardi.com


CENTRAL restaurant on Forest Ave, following fire, uses the opportunity to seek feedback from locals

CENTRAL Laguna Beach, an upscale, American New Fusion restaurant on Forest Ave, suffered an afternoon fire that severely damaged the property on Fri, Dec 29, three days before New Year’s Eve. 

Investigators determined the fire was an accident and nobody was injured. 

“Being a part of the Laguna Beach community has been an honor and rewarding over the past two years,” said Anna Montoya, Managing Partner. “We are grateful for the support and patience we’ve received from the locals and regulars.” 

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Submitted photo

Happy crowd at Central prior to the fire

Over the past two years, CENTRAL has entertained a steady stream of Laguna Beach locals, tourists and a host of celebrities and other notables including Doug McLaughlin, Founder of Nobleman Magazine. The space has also been filmed as a location on the Real Housewives of Orange County. 

“As much as we want to get this rocking and rolling again we need to make sure it’s perfected and ready to run efficiently as one of the best restaurants in Laguna again.” said Taylor McKinney, managing partner. “We’re committed to making the dining experience more intimate and fostering a genuine, timeless atmosphere.” 

The visionary team at CENTRAL is using this as an opportunity to take feedback from the local Laguna Beach community and enhance the overall experience to create a custom restaurant built with input from regulars – hopeful to make the wish list items for their favorite restaurant come true. 

With a mountain to climb the team at CENTRAL remains positive and is scheduled to re-open to the public the week of Feb 26. 

For more information, visit www.centrallagunabeach.com.


La Sirena Grill in South Laguna delivers both eat-in ambience and healthy take-out

Story and photos by JENNIFER ERICKSON

As someone who likes to cook with fresh ingredients and who avoids processed foods like the plague, I tend to steer clear of take out. That said, I’m only human, and, like most people, the idea of preparing even a simple meal at the end of a trying day can be daunting. Enter La Sirena Grill in South Laguna. Open daily, they are my perpetual back-up plan for a guaranteed healthy and tasty dinner. 

La Sirena, the self-proclaimed “Mexeco” eatery, prides itself on organic, sustainable and responsibly sourced ingredients. They even have a page on their website describing where they obtain their meats and veggies and providing links to some of the purveyors. I know that when I order the blackened salmon, for example, it is either fresh and wild caught in season or wild caught and frozen at sea in the off season. Just as important, it is delicious.

Casual queries to other locals about La Sirena, revealed a number of like-minded souls. Angela LaVelle, Laguna resident and owner of the recently opened Dog Tub on Coast Highway, said that it is also her go-to place when she doesn’t feel like cooking. As a vegetarian, she raved about the veggie burritos, “so flavorful and filling,” and her “favorite” green enchilada sauce. 

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The take out line at La Sirena is always hopping

But don’t get the idea that take out is the only way to enjoy La Sirena. Angela likes to go for a sit-down experience at one of the outdoor tables with her Husky, Kona.

“There’s such a friendly vibe,” agreed local Lisa Childers, manager of Laguna Beach Books, who is often accompanied by her Labradoodle, Bindi. She prizes the calamari tacos (not technically a menu item, just ask for them), and the Spicy Chicken Tortilla Soup. When you’re under the weather, “that is the soup to get,” she said. 

I have to agree. It’s just the right amount of spicy, with a deep rich broth strewn with sweet peppers and juicy hunks of chicken. Sprinkle on the crispy tortilla strips and shredded jack cheese and you have a nice little bowl of comfort food nirvana.

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Take home some Spicy Chicken Tortilla Soup when you need a little TLC

For me, the dog-friendly patio is heaven-sent on a hot day when I have my two dogs with me and can’t leave them in the car. At the same time, after a long day of packing boxes and moving furniture for a temporary move, my husband and I were so grateful to sink our tired selves onto a couple of stools at the bar inside. 

I felt the stress of the day fade away as we ordered some chips and that beautifully thick guac to start, followed by a couple of baja fish tacos (crispy fish, fresh cabbage, handmade corn tortillas and tangy sauce, need I say more?). The most difficult decision was choosing from the 20 craft beers on tap.

That’s right, count ‘em, 20 craft beers on rotating taps. When keg is drained a different beer takes its place, so there’s almost always something new to try, and something for every palate. Lager? Check. IPA? Check. Stout? Check. Not sure if that new sour beer is your thing? No problem, they’ll give you a taste before you order. Or if you really can’t decide, go for a flight of four-ounce pours. What? I know!

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Choose from 20 craft beers on tap…or specialty margaritas…or wine…

Of course, there are other decisions to make. I mean, maybe you’d like to start off with one of their signature margaritas, after you’ve figured out who’s driving. Spicy mango, perhaps? Wine is another option, and with Tablas Creek wine on tap, that is a very enticing option, indeed. Not in the mood for booze? Quench your thirst with an agua fresca, horchata (organic milk, of course), soda, lemonade or iced tea.

When it comes to the food, find your own bliss. My husband often goes for a burrito, with carne asada or carnitas, depending on his mood. Sometimes he’ll pick an item on the daily specials board, which offers up tasty treats pretty regularly, including a very respectable jalapeno burger. Some people swear by the taquitos, or the enchiladas with red sauce. Others can’t get enough of the tortas.

La Sirena is amenable to mash-ups – just ask

I admit that the killer lime-cilantro dressing on the salads is so good that I often order extra to take home and use during the week. The Blackened Wild Salmon Salad is definitely a favorite of many customers, myself included. It’s packed with fresh greens, crispy sliced veggies, avocado, and a papaya salsa that pairs wonderfully with the spicy fish. And yet…the crispy onions that top the Avocado Lime Salad often beckon. Fortunately, the folks at La Sirena are amenable to mash ups and will pair it with the salmon, upon request. When in doubt, or indecision, ask (remember those calamari tacos?).

From dyed-in-the-wool vegetarians to hard-core carnivores, and from gourmets to gourmands, La Sirena has something for everyone. I bring all of my out-of-town guests there, and they all crave it for different reasons. For my nephew, it’s that salad dressing. For my brother-in-law, it’s the blackened salmon burrito. Lisa Childers says that whenever her daughter-in-law visits from Israel, it’s her first food stop in Laguna.

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Dogs are regulars at La Sirena Grill in South Laguna

If you hit La Sirena on a Friday night, you may notice a lot of families at the outdoor tables, parents happily chilling as kids romp safely in the enclosed patio area. Did I mention that the menu includes some great kid options? If you go on a Monday night right about now, there will be football on the screen above the bar. Any day of the week, at any hour, those of us who are slaves to our four-legged family members love to hang on the patio with our furry companions.

Recently, just to change things up a bit, I diverged from my usual food preferences and ordered a Sirena Fajita Plate with carnitas – herb cheese stuffed pasilla chile, herb-marinated peppers and onions, and pico de gallo served with those handmade corn tortillas. What can I say? Now, when I get to the front of the line at the order window, my decision is that much harder…

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A Sirena Fajita Plate, with carnitas here, as is, or forked into some handmade corn tortillas, is one healthy and satisfying meal

La Sirena Grill South Laguna is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 30862 S. Coast Hwy in the Gelson’s shopping center across from the Montage. Yes, they are open for breakfast. Does it get any better?

La Sirena Grill also has locations at 347 Mermaid Street in downtown Laguna Beach (its original namesake location) and in Irvine. Visit www.lasirenagrill.com for details, menus and contact info.


Kitchen In The Canyon: inspired by passion

Story and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

It’s a hoppin’ busy afternoon at Kitchen in the Canyon when I joined a friend for lunch – and met the owner, Patrick DiGiacomo. While he finished up some business with the kitchen staff and construction workers out front (they’re tending to repairs and fix-its on the Canyon complex, now under new ownership – the place is already looking better for it), we perused the menu. And the chalkboard specials. And the cooking classes schedule. And the catering menu (PT Culinary). This is indeed a multi-faceted operation!

The first difficult decision was a drink selection. Daily, the Kitchen offers a variety of fresh fruit waters, and some of the best (Kean) coffee around. They also have a nice iced tea, my go-to selection when I’m out and about.

Ordering at the counter it’s easy to get a nice view into the incredible kitchen just beyond the glass. There, Patrick and his staff work their magic and often give classes for their home-chef teaching program.

“It’s a great way for corporate team building,” Patrick tells me. Some of his corporate clients include Pfizer, Ford, and Mazda. He’s also proud to be the “only place left” with five stars on Yelp.

The reason this place attracts so many people is not only because of the food, the convenient location, the event-friendly space, and the gleaming stainless steel, clean white kitchen. It’s Patrick who’s the heart and soul, putting it all into chefdom and into helping others.  

The back story

Once upon a time, Patrick DiGiacomo was a corporate guy himself. After 30 years as a successful financial planner, he decided to pursue another passion. He enrolled in the chef’s school at Laguna Culinary, which had been located in this exact same spot. After graduating in 2008, he took that passion for cooking and added his desire to serve with purpose. He went to Orange County Rescue Mission homeless shelter and, as a volunteer, became head chef, working 3-4 nights a week for four years.

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Chef Patrick DiGiacomo

“This afforded me a way to help,” Chef Patrick says. “Cooking gives you entrée into things. When you can provide food for people, you make them happy.”

In addition to his work at OC Recue Mission, he volunteered at St. James Episcopal Church, and managed to launch his own catering business and chef teaching program. When the space in the Canyon became available, the chef set his sights on the café concept, including job training and opportunities for some of the indigent and homeless population. 

He now calls Laguna Beach home, and he feels the love. “Laguna Beach has such a sense of community,” he gushes. Kitchen in the Canyon hosts many local events in their side room, such as the Laguna Beach Business Club and the Festival of Arts Christmas party, and a bi-weekly support group for moms of autistic children. The café offers discounts to artists, and LCAD staff and students. This all makes for a continually lively atmosphere.

And back to the food

Breakfast is highlighted by such favorites as Avocado Toast, the Breakfast Burrito, and Steel Cut Oats Brulee (which should always be accompanied by their perfectly crafted cappuccino). Me and my pal, Leslie, were hungry for lunch and we wanted to try something tried and true, and something new: the most-popular “The Canyon” salad, and the new addition to the menu, “The Clubhouse” sandwich.

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The Canyon salad, with grilled steak

The Canyon salad is made with arugula, pickled red onion, pear, orange segments, candied pecans, Gorgonzola cheese and sweet basil tarragon vinaigrette. It’s a simply tangy and divine salad taken over the top with the added grilled steak option. 

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The Clubhouse

The Clubhouse is made with roasted all natural turkey, avocado spread, green leaf lettuce, roasted tomatoes and chipotle mayo on a ciabatta roll. 

The two dishes were wonderful, and really big sized. We would have taken some home except that it was just too delicious.

Chef Patrick is effusive about the Kitchen burgers, too. “Best hamburger in Laguna Beach, in my opinion,” he says. “It’s the bun and what we put on top of it – everything is made from scratch. We use the best (and most expensive) bacon.”

The Kitchen in the Canyon is open just for breakfast and lunch, but chef has plans for doing “pop up” dinners soon – with guest chefs and wine pairings. He tells us that there will be one sitting for about 30-35 people. “That could be so fun!” he says, enthusiastically. 

Chef Patrick can probably be counted on to make his favorite dish. “My lasagna is so good!” he says with a smile. “New York style – with the best ricotta!”

Information, reservations, and cooking class info can be found on their website: www.kitcheninthecanyon.com.

845 Laguna Canyon Road   949-715-5388


Another Kind: it’s a family affair

Story and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

One of the delightful newer additions to Laguna’s dining scene is the Vietnamese café, Another Kind. Located in the canyon, between the Sawdust and LCAD’s south campus, the place attracts a clientele that is artsy, academic and, get this – vintage car enthusiasts.   

This self-described “Crossed-Culture Canteen” is a local’s shop, owned by Thinh and Vy Nguyen. Helping out is Vy’s sister, Vy Quan, and she described some of her favorite things that make Another Kind unique.

“All the recipes are my mom’s,” she said, with pride. “She taught us to make everything fresh from scratch, even our own Sriracha sauce.”

Vy Quan Nguyen

While she walked me through some of the amazing dishes, she also raved about driving. Yes, she’s the reason for the vintage car aspect. There is a gathering at Another Kind early every third Saturday of the month, of classic car fans. Vy Quan is not only passionate about the food prepared by her family, she’s also nuts for cars. She divides her time; waiting on tables one minute, and studying to be an auto mechanic the next. 

“I covet Steve McQueen’s Porsche!” she says with a big smile.

The classic car group comes in to enjoy the specialty coffees and chai, and perhaps a bowl of Pho (chicken or beef served with fresh basil, sprouts, chili, lime, and chili sauce).

About family – and food

I remember Vy Quan, as she was at LBHS in the same class as my son. She was in the dance program for many years. At Another Kind, her sister and brother-in-law oversee the business, and the family lends a hand. Her mom’s recipes rule the roost. The café opened in October of 2016, and is styled with funky, vintage school chairs, tables and decor.

It’s interesting to watch the food preparation at Another Kind because Vietnamese food is nothing if not labor intensive. There are a lot of ingredients, and lots of chopping involved. There’s always the scent of lemongrass in the air.

…And now, a few menu favorites to mention, beginning with their classic spring rolls. The Cha Gio is a fried spring roll prepared with shrimp, minced pork, carrot, shallot, jicama, and wood ear mushroom. It’s served with a lightly spicy sauce. This could surely be a meal in itself.

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Cha Gio Spring Roll

On the side I totally enjoyed the Sai Thanh Slaw, a tangy and citrusy-sweet salad of finely minced red and white cabbage, onion, peanuts, fried shallots and fresh mint.

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Sai Thanh Slaw

Special no. 3, the Bun Cha Ca, is one of their most popular dishes, and I’ve had it every time I go. It’s fantastic – but, of course, you must allow time for the preparation. It’s made with turmeric marinated white fish, pan seared, and served over rice noodles with sautéed scallion, baby dill, mint, red onion, mixed greens and peanuts.

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Special no. 3, turmeric spice marinated white fish

The newest menu item is now my newest favorite, Grilled Lemongrass Chicken. (All their poultry comes from Mary’s, organic and free-range.) The chicken is marinated with lemongrass, then grilled and served with jasmine rice, and Another Kind’s home made citrus garlic chili sauce on the side. 

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Grilled Lemongrass Chicken

For a sweet finish, there’s the Chilled Organic Coconut Pudding. I love how it’s served on a vintage metal tray, adding to its appeal. 

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Chilled Organic Coconut Pudding

This family-run and family friendly café is a treat, first time and every time. We’re really happy this complex of shops and restaurants is improving in many ways, under its new ownership. And we’re extra happy that this local-run café has brought the authentic flavors of Vietnam to Laguna.


Good things come in threes: A trio of Happy Hours has Laguna covered in more ways than one

By DIANNE RUSSELL

No matter where you live in Laguna, there is a Happy Hour within walking distance; North, The Village, and South, each with titillating libations and swoon-worthy fare. The Huffington Post says, “Happy Hour is a euphemism for that secret and festive hour.” I don’t know how secretive Happy Hours are (and we don’t want them to be), but the three we visited—Royal Hawaiian, Lumberyard, and Wine Gallery—were all festive, but distinct. Same town, different vibes.

Mellow out with a visit to the islands right here in Laguna

In North Laguna, Royal Hawaiian, which marked its 70th anniversary the end of last year, hails the return of the “Aloha hour.” And they make the most of it. One of the advantages of their Happy Hour is that it starts earlier than most, from 2:30-5:30 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday. An obvious invitation to make the most of the lazy afternoon hours.

General Manager Glenn Norton, commenting on the early start of their happy hour, says, “We have access when other don’t.” 

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Photo by Lynette Brasfield

Western Sour, refreshing with just the right amount of sweetness

The island décor transports one to the “Lei’d” back hours, soothing and mellow enough to relax tourists and locals alike. The afternoon Lynette and I visited, patrons trickled in, and slowly began to populate the seats. 

To begin, Lynette sampled the Western Sour (with the prerequisite umbrella, orchid and pineapple chunk), an almost-forgotten classic with bourbon, falernum, and lime juice. She said it was delicious and not too sweet. My sauvignon blanc was fruity and very cold, which always gets kudos from me. Drink prices during Happy Hour are $3 off tropical drinks and $2 off house wines, beer and well spirits.

Glenn served up a combination of four appetizers, a bargain at $28; Ahi Tuna Poke, Shrimp & Scallop Spring Rolls, Coconut Shrimp, and Smoked Salmon Flatbread. The Ahi Tuna Poke was some of the best I’ve had (Lynette concurred), the papaya added just the right amount of sweetness to the silky Ahi, clean and fresh, and the Ponzu sauce and won tons were a superb accompaniment. 

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Photo by Lynette Brasfield

4:28, Four appetizers for $28

A twist on traditional, the coconut shrimp wasn’t breaded, but coated with coconut, crispy but not overwhelming. The spring rolls, served with a lovely papaya rice vinegar sauce, were crunchy without being oily. And the smoky salmon was served on a thicker than usual herb-crusted flatbread, which was a great foundation for the cream cheese, capers, and chives. Creamy and salty, what goes together better?

As we feasted, Glenn filled us in on what’s happening at their Happy Hour. They’ve upped their mixology game with a bar consultant and incorporated a more Asian (Pacific Rim, Chinese and Japanese) inspired menu. The Hoisin ribs, with house BBQ sauce, are the most popular item on the Happy Hour menu. 

And they are soon to have a new draw for locals and visitors alike. A tiki torch-lit patio in front will be open for business, a great stopping place for locals taking an afternoon walk.

Lumberyard is right in the middle of the summer action

As the sea gull flies, The Lumberyard is only 0.6 miles from the Royal Hawaiian and right smack dab in the middle of the village and action, especially during the Art Festival. During the summer, if one is attending the FOA or the Pageant on a weekday, this is the ideal spot to fuel up at Happy Hour before heading over to the Festival grounds.

The Lumberyard’s bar (the Happy Hour menu is available only at the bar) is a cozy and comfortable atmosphere with San Francisco cocktail bar vibes (and flat screen televisions). Happy Hour is offered Monday through Friday from 3:30-5:30 p.m. with $6 well drinks, chardonnay, cabernet & champagne, $4-$10 appetizers, salads and small plates, $5 draft beers, and $8 specialty cocktails. 

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Photo by Lynette Brasfield

Lumberyard Planks and ceviche

The Lumberyard is housed in a charming historic building, and its fare is described as American dishes with a contemporary flair. And the Happy Hour plates reflect this mastery. I love zucchini, and The Lumberyard Planks presents it in the best possible way, panko crusted and without the grease and sometimes mushy texture of cooked zucchini. With a dip into the lemon aioli, every bite is perfect. We decided to stick with wine and ordered the house chardonnay, which was a nice choice for Happy Hour.

Lynette raved about the Lamb Meatballs, ample orbs mixed with rice, cumin and parsley, atop cauliflower puree. “These are fantastic,” she said, scooping up a little puree with each bite. 

Although based on Lynette’s compliments, I would have thought the meatballs were the most popular item, our waiter said that the most ordered dish during Happy Hour is the BBQ Pork Sliders. 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

BBQ Pork Sliders, most popular item on Lumberyard’s Happy Hour menu

Wine Gallery, a Happy Hour with a unique and inviting vibe

Heading down south, the atmosphere at the Wine Gallery is cozy and inviting with a focus on satisfying wine aficionados as well as foodies. Not only does Wine Gallery succeed in pleasing the palates of their patrons, it also displays a selection of art pieces on its walls to please the eye. It’s not called Wine Gallery for nothing.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Art and French Fries pleases palate and eyes

“We are excited to bring our depth of knowledge and passion for great wine and food to Laguna Beach. Our goal is to give locals and visitors alike a place to relax and enjoy the area’s one-of-a-kind charm in a warm and comfortable setting,” states Wine Gallery. And they achieved their vision. Seating areas (a long table on one side and secluded more private tables on the left) surround the bar, which anchors the inviting space. 

Chris Olsen, the co-founder/owner, is a warm and gracious host and makes sure he gets around to all the tables to see how everyone is doing. Casey, our server, was welcoming and attentive.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Oven Roasted Meatballs

On this outing, Marrie Stone joined me. Although we’re close friends, in some areas of food we differ. I’m a vegetarian and she is a serious carnivore. She orders the meatballs and red wine, and I order the cheese pizza and white wine (but I did steal some of her French fries, not on the Happy Hour menu, and she wanted to steal the picture behind us on the wall). 

Winter Happy Hours are Monday-Saturday (an advantage since it goes through Sat) from 5-7 p.m. Chris explains that the hours are going to change and Happy Hour will soon run from 4:30-6 p.m. The menu includes: $2 off all wines by the glass, $8 keg wines red & white, $5 Pilsner on draft, $8 Margherita & Calabrese Pizzas, 1/2 off pizza of the Day, $5 Off Oven Roasted Meatballs and WG Burger.

Marrie and I were both happy with our wine selections. She commented on the Alamo Creek Happy Canyon, “It’s deep and complex with an easy finish.” 

I had the Henri Bourgeois Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc, and it was crisp, fruity and wonderful!

The Oven Roasted Meatballs are wood-fired with a red wine tomato sauce and made with mozzarella, parmesan, and served with the house bread. Marrie described them as, “spicy and awesome,” with more than enough sauce for bread sopping. 

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Margherita (on left) and Calabrese, two Happy Hour pizzas

My Margherita pizza was heavenly, thin-crusted with house made mozzarella, organic tomato sauce, basil, tomato, olive oil, and The Wine Gallery offers full size pizzas for Happy Hour, enough for two (or one very hungry person).

This appears to be a place locals and visitors have taken to heart. Although Marrie and I arrived on a Wednesday just after 5 p.m., and were some of the first customers for Happy Hour, when we left, the restaurant was filled with a lively crowd, clearly enjoying all the Wine Gallery offers.

Happy Hours, something for everyone, and where to go

No matter what your mood, food hankerings or libation desires, this trio of Happy Hours has it all. It’s just a matter of which part of town strikes your fancy.

The Royal Hawaiian, 331 N Coast Hwy, www.royalhawaiianlb.com, 949-715-1470.

The Lumberyard, 384 Forest, www.LBLumberyard.com, 949-715-3900.

The Wine Gallery, 1833 S Coast Hwy, #110, www.winegallerylaguna.com, 949-715-8744.


Five Crowns is a royal treat, and not just for Brits

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

I remember vividly the first time I saw the Five Crowns, part of Lawry’s, an upscale gourmet restaurant chain, in Corona Del Mar. It was our first family vacation to California in 2012.  

As Brits, our eyes are always drawn to anything representing the UK and as we approached the mock Tudor building with the red telephone box outside, I remember thinking “oh, it’s the American take on a British pub,” and I kind of dismissed it.  

When we eventually moved to California two years later it was the last place I wanted to go, I wanted to eat Americana, Mexican and anything other than the type of food I had lived on my whole life, and honestly? I didn’t think anyone could ever cook British food as well as the Brits.  

After a year here, I began to crave the pub

About 12 months after we moved here, I was actually craving what we Brits call “The Pub” and my husband Jonathan (also British) suggested we visit the Five Crowns. Hesitant, I agreed, and from that first meal I became hooked.

When you walk into the Sidebar, which is a separate eating area, where more smaller plates and a bar menu is served (I will be reviewing this at a later date) you are automatically transferred to a very accurate representation of a good old-fashioned Pub.

The décor, the lighting, the atmosphere makes you feel you have just stepped inside from a blustery rainy walk in 30 degrees F to a warm cozy place complete with a fireplace to warm your Wellington boots, when in fact, you have just driven down PCH with your top down in 80 degrees listening to Tu Pac, but you get what I’m saying. It’s like going home for me and that is why I am such a fan, but that’s not the only reason.

Five Crowns was one of Stu’s favorite places to eat of Laguna

As many of you loyal readers know, I am limited with regard to food reports nowadays for health reasons, but when I met with Shaena and she suggested someone review Five Crowns, I immediately volunteered. We rarely review for Laguna Beach beyond Laguna Beach. However Five Crowns was our darling Stu’s favorite place to eat, he was the prime rib guy and I know he would have loved that we have featured it.

I took Jonathan with me for the purpose of this report (how could I not) and we arrived there on Tuesday February 13 the day before Valentine’s Day, but still tables were as full as if it were the night itself. 

The manager, the server and the chef were all great

Andrew Germann, the restaurant manager, greeted and seated us and explained that Valentine’s week is busy for them, not just the night itself, so I was very grateful we were able to dine that evening. Andrew has been at Five Crowns for 18 months now, moving here from Oahu where he was a manager in the restaurant industry.  

Our server was an amazing young lady called Linda, who literally knew everything about everything, she was funny, warm and attentive and I can honestly say in my years of food reporting, I’ve never had a server as knowledgeable about her food as she. It made the evening flow along so nicely and her recommendations were spot on. She was assisted by the lovely Juan who made sure our iced water kept coming.

Our Food Journey at Five Crowns

What I love about Five Crowns is that the menu is not “overwhelming” – as a reporter I honestly don’t enjoy seven-page menus. I’d rather have a one page full of outstanding dishes to choose from. 

The meal started with their selections of warm breads, which came with a side of traditional English butter, served with some rock salt. A perfect start, along with a cold glass of Kim Crawford Rose for me. 

We then ordered a salad to share from the Soups and Greens section of the menu. The salad we chose was the Pride Of The Crowns salad, butter lettuce, with bacon, toasted walnuts, shavings of gruyere cheese and herb de Provence dressing. This was simple and delicious. We enjoyed every bite. The butter lettuce smelled and tasted so fresh and the dressing was just right.

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The butter lettuce smelled and tasted so right

It was then onto then mains and to my surprise, I’m joking – it wasn’t a surprise at all - Jonathan went for the Crown Cut prime ribs – this dish originates from 1965 and it was the dish that launched Lawry’s fame.  

The prime rib is served with au jus, a Yorkshire pudding and creamed horseradish. You can choose two sides with this dish. Jonathan went for Lawry’s creamed spinach and the mashed potato.  

Jonathan hails from Lancashire, which is very close to Yorkshire. And one thing he is very picky about is Yorkshire Pudding. Chef Alejandra has them perfected, very authentic, very well done, light, fluffy and not greasy. This whole dish was fabulous.

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The prime rib that launched Lawry’s fame

I chose to go for the Mediterranean seabass, this was accompanied by white beans and prosciutto and served with a butternut squash puree. I couldn’t help myself, I also ordered truffle fries as a side to accompany it. It was an exquisite meal. Tasty but light on my tummy and I didn’t leave a bit.

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Seabass: It was an exquisite meal

Feeling very full, but knowing I had to try a dessert, I took the opportunity to rest and have a talk with the Chef Alejandra Padilla. Alejandra has been at the Five Crowns for just over three months and is loving it. She has been a chef for 15 years, previously with the Houston group. Her favorite dish on the menu right now is the Beet and Citrus Salad as it reflects the season beautifully. She and her purveyors select the best ingredients for the menu based on seasons. 

As always, I like to ask my chefs little bonus questions. I asked Alejandra if she was stuck on a desert island with the ability to fish, what would be the five ingredients she would take with her. Her answers were salt, lemon, chilli arbol, rice and squash. Squash features heavily in her menu right now, so I expected that one.

The chef was great, chatty interesting and we spent a long time talking about British pub favorites. Who knows? Maybe our ideas will feature on a menu in the future!

For dessert we allowed Linda to choose for us and we had a magnificent dark chocolate soufflé with cream and a side of vanilla ice cream. It was the best soufflé I’ve ever had in my life. Perfect in every way.

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The best soufflé I’ve ever had in my life

Just as the button was about to pop off my pants we were presented with another dessert, warm sticky toffee pudding with persimmons. This was spectacular, but I couldn’t eat it all. However the Bucklings took a piece to school the following day.

I absolutely adore the Five Crowns, they really do have everything right. The food, the building, the staff, it’s all fabulous. All they need is a big grey rain cloud over the entire building ten months of the year and they will be the most authentic British restaurant in the OC! 

Five Crowns is located at 3801 Pacific Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. Phone number: 949-760-0331. Menu: www.lawrysonline.com.


Maro Wood Grill entices guests with an intimate setting and smoke-kissed food – but don’t worry, the smoke won’t get in your eyes

Story and photos by JENNIFER ERICKSON

There is much to be said for ambience, for walking into a warm, softly lit space on a chilly evening and feeling the stresses of work and the world begin to melt away. This was my sensation upon entering the well-enclosed patio of Maro Wood Grill on a recent evening. 

Since most of Maro’s seating is on the terrace in front of the restaurant, my friend and I had brought layers, fearing a chill. We needn’t have worried. Thanks to efficient heat lamps and an absence of any drafts, a lovely warm glow enveloped us and the other diners. No one needed to shift seats because of an overbearing heat lamp or a cool air current. 

We might have opted to sit inside, perhaps at the small bar offering front row seats to the grill, with its glowing red embers of charcoal and mesquite, where most of the food is cooked. But we opted instead for the magical glow of the patio. Here the background music filled the gaps in our conversation without overwhelming it, and the intimacy of the space encouraged the exchange of a few casual observations with nearby diners, who seemed as delighted as we were to find this haven.

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Hard to believe this intimate setting is an outdoor terrace where diners will soon find a warm haven

If the atmosphere enticed us, the food kept us enthralled. What’s amazing is that even though most cooked menu items are grilled, and even though the grill is plain sight, the only place you encounter smoke is in the delicate flavor it imparts to the dishes. Rest assured, you will not leave Maro smelling as though you’ve been sitting around a campfire. However, from the first juicy bite of a sweet-smoky grilled green bean, you will know that the cook is, indeed, playing with fire. 

Yes, I used the adjective juicy to describe a green bean. Somehow the flames lick the beans enough to char them and seal in the moisture, rather than drying them out. The crunch came not from an overly crisped bean, but rather from a wonderfully fruity salt.

That would be Sonoma coarse sea salt, according to Alex (who preferred not to give his last name) who has owned Maro Wood Grill with his partner Chris since last May (the restaurant has been in operation for eight years). Alex informed us that their aim is to provide an organic, farm-to-table menu with grass-fed beef and other sustainable proteins and, as much as possible, locally sourced ingredients. Hence this ethereal Sonoma, California sea salt. 

That said, quality rules, which is why the organic wines on the menu are Italian. According to Alex, they tried to find organic wines from California and Argentina (since the menu is loosely based on Argentinian cooking principles), but ultimately the Italian organic wines most closely met the flavor profile they were seeking to match their menu.

Our meal started with a couple of the empanadas for which Maro is rightfully known. We tried the beef and the chicken, which both had moist and flavorful fillings with just enough crust to seal in their goodness and to eat them without making a mess when dunking them in an slightly tangy aioli dipping sauce. (Vegetarians will be happy to note that spinach- and mushroom-filled empanadas are also on the menu.)

A sampler plate of the grilled vegetables followed (usually they are separate menu items), and we made quick work of the (aforementioned) green beans, shishito peppers, mini bell peppers and okra, often forgetting to swipe them in tasty a trio of horseradish, sriracha and ginger aioli. Honestly, those mesquite-kissed vegetables were fruity, smoky, juicy and so full of their own natural flavors that the sauces were almost an extravagance.

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The grilled vegetables get a nice char but remain succulent

If you’re in the mood for leafier greens, Maro offers a number of substantial salads that could easily be shared as a side or serve as a first course or a light meal. The couple next to us, visiting from Sweden, said they’d had their fill of meat earlier in the day, so they started with an assortment of empanadas (I mean, if you haven’t tried them, it’s almost an imperative), and then finished with a duo of salads – one with burrata, tomatoes, beets, micro arugula and truffled balsamic vinaigrette, and another with kale, carrots, candied walnuts and house pomegranate dressing.

Beef, pork, lamb, seasonal fish and poultry are all accounted for in the proteins offered for entrees. For this meal my friend and I shared a seared ahi tuna and a grilled rib eye steak. You will find steak and tuna at myriad restaurants in Southern California, but will they be this fresh? Will they play with smoke and fire just enough to sear their outsides, leaving their insides rosy red? More important, will you be this glad that the other components of the dish complement, rather than mask the innate flavors of the beef and tuna? You owe it to yourself to find out. 

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Maro’s signature empanadas are crusty on the outside and moist and flavorful on the inside - to dip or not, that is the question!

And what were those julienned vegetables with the tuna that looked a bit like peppers and onions, but were earthy as well as sweet and velvety rather than shiny and slick? That would be rutabagas, turnips and parsnips, said Alex, solving the mystery for us. “That’s how we turn ugly into beautiful,” he said, referring to the trio of root vegetables as they appear in their natural, rather hoary state.

A bright, housemade chimichurri provided an herbal and acidic counterpoint to the rich, but lean rib eye, and grilled mushrooms and asparagus complemented its grassy profile. At Maro, the meat provides its own decadence, no need for extravagant sauces. A lovely Argentinian Malbec, however, paired quite nicely with the beef.

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Don’t be fooled – the meringue underneath this charred surface is as light as air, floating above a delicate lemon curd and light crust

Admittedly, dessert was not really on our radar by this time, but when faced with a surprisingly light and decidedly not too sweet lemon meringue pie, we rallied. This is not your grandmother’s lemon meringue pie. No gummy, dense neon yellow layer of overly sweetened lemon, and no dense, almost springy meringue on top. Here was a delicate crust smeared with a layer of lemony custard and topped with pillows of barely set meringue. 

Oh, and did I mention that your well-behaved dogs can join you on the patio if they are joining your party for the evening?

Maro Wood Grill, located at 1915 S. Coast Hwy, is open from noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and from noon to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. It is closed Mondays. For more information, call 949-793-4044, or visit www.marowoodgrill.com.


Asada: A beachside vibe with tacos…and then some

Story and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Asada “handmade tacos + beer” offers more than their handmade tortillas and craft brews. How about a sip of spicy sangria and a roasted veggie salad? Sounds like a nice afternoon!

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This Boat Canyon nook is like an open concept taco stand. They make 11 varieties of soft or signature crispy tacos, which are the classic surfside snack. I stopped by for lunch with a couple of friends who make this place a habit, regularly going for the crispy tacos and the huevos rancheros.

Photo by Chloe Cunningham

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All Day Breakfast – Huevos Rancheros

I went out on a limb toward alternative Mexican fare and enjoyed the Barbara’s Roasted Veggie Salad with added grilled chicken. It’s a romaine lettuce salad loaded with grilled zucchini, peppers, tomatoes and avocado, with crispy onions, cheddar and jack cheese on top. The warm veggies were nice and crunchy, but the chipotle ranch dressing was a bit heavy so next time I’d ask for that on the side.

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Barbara’s Roasted Veggie Salad

There are five “Asada Favorites” on the menu, and my two favorites in this category are the Short Rib Crepes, and the Carne Asada Plate (but I really like the Stuffed Chile Relleno too – it was a tough decision!). The Short Rib Crepes are just delicious with tender, demi-glace short ribs (prepared with Negra Modelo beer) served with a horseradish cream, roasted veggies and crispy onions. The Carne Asada Plate – great for sharing – is a nice, juicy steak marinated with citrus and plated with grilled onion, sour cream, pico de gallo, guacamole, rice, beans, tortillas and Asada’s famous bacon wrapped jalapeño.

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Carne Asada Plate, great with the green citrus salsa

The menu has a little fun, too. Somebody named Raymond got over his hangover with a burrito stuffed with scrambled eggs, pico de gallo, poblano chiles, jack cheese, spicy potato tots, jalapeño smoked bacon and salsa Diablo. The eponymous Raymond’s Hangover Burrito sounds like a good solution to a pitcher of Asada’s house-made margaritas!

Asada’s newest incarnation is a lighter version of the former restaurant that was in downtown. There’s a casual vibe and options of take away – even six-packs of beer. I love the idea of party trays the next time I’m invited to a potluck (taquitos, mini burritos or tamales). Yes, bonus points to Asada for the plentiful parking in the Vons lot, and that you can order big platters to take to the beach or your home party.

610 N Coast Hwy   asadatacos.net


Five top chefs in Laguna Beach tapped for renowned OC Chef’s Table

By DIANE ARMITAGE

If you’re a foodie (like me), you probably dream that someday you’re going to have a great chef host a custom, never-seen-before and never-seen-again dinner for you and your closest friends.

With the Illumination Foundation’s return of its phenomenal OC Chef’s Table event on Sunday, March 18, your dream just came true. And, here’s the topper to the best dream ever – aside from rubbing shoulders all evening with your own table’s Chef and 32 of Orange County’s most acclaimed culinary wunderkinds, the proceeds raised go to Illumination Foundation’s mission to end homelessness in Orange County. 

Presented by Disneyland and brought to you by KPMG, Orange County’s most prestigious culinary fundraiser takes place again at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa. A few tables and individual tickets for OC Chef’s Table are still available at: ifhomeless.org/occt2018.

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OC’s Top Chefs Join Mickey Mouse

Presented by Disneyland Resort on Sunday, March 18, the prestigious OC Chef’s Table culinary event features 32 of the county’s top chefs raising funds for Illumination Foundation’s mission to end homelessness in OC

The event includes a cocktail reception, live entertainment, a silent auction and even table décor that jostles for first-place pageantry. Joined by L.A.’s Celebrity Chef Jet Tila, each chef is responsible for his or her own 10-top table of patrons, creating an encapsulated “atmosphere,” from table décor to lavish courses and cocktails prepared tableside.

Event features 32 of Orange County’s acclaimed chefs

OC Chef’s Table has tapped top talent from 18 cities, representing every section of “the orange,” from Brea to San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente.

This year, Laguna Beach had a record five invitations to the event, with returning chefs Ron Fougeray (Splashes) and Andrew Gruel (who established Slapfish’s second restaurant in Laguna Beach after his founding restaurant in Huntington Beach). 

Chefs Rainer Schwarz (Driftwood Kitchen/The Deck/Hendrix), Azmin Ghahreman (Sapphire) and Arthur Ortiz (Skyloft) are newcomers to the event.

The OC Chef’s Table Hosting Chef is, again, Disneyland Resort’s Culinary Director of Signature Restaurants, Andrew Sutton. A longtime friend of Chef Schwarz, Sutton personally reached out to ask that Schwarz get involved in the event. 

“It’s always great camaraderie when chefs are able to get together,” said Schwarz. “But when Andrew explained the cause and introduced me to what Illumination Foundation was doing, we were absolutely in.

“I like knowing that we’re all doing something together here that causes such significant change,” he explained.  

“It’s just such an honor to be a part of this circle of chefs,” said Skyloft’s Chef Arthur. “And, there’s really no better reason for us to all join together. Homelessness is all around us, in every city of Orange County. We can look to government or agencies and expect them to help these people or take care of the issue, but nothing’s really going to change until we all take on this responsibility with an understanding that these people are our people.”

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Chefs prepare and cook all food tableside at OC Chef’s Table

Another first-time entry, our new neighboring success story, Trevor’s at the Tracks in San Juan Capistrano, echoes similar sentiment. “We’re definitely seeing more homeless people here in San Juan,” says owner Trevor Baird. “It’s heartbreaking and it can seem overwhelming, but here’s our chance to act locally, from a grass roots level, and change this - permanently. That’s what our restaurant’s mission is all about. Illumination Foundation’s invitation is perfect timing and a perfect combination for what we’re committed to doing here in our own town.”  

Alarming statistics on homeless children

Illumination Foundation primarily focuses on helping homeless families. Today, there are more than 32,000 Orange County children living in “tenuous” housing (i.e. cars) or homeless shelters. 

“The most vulnerable homeless population is that of families,” says Illumination Foundation CEO & President Paul Leon. “We receive about 55 to 60 calls per week from families asking us for help. This week, we were able to take in 10 babies with their parents, but we had to say ‘no’ to 15 others who asked.” 

The County’s first emergency housing for struggling families

Last year, the Chef’s Table event raised more than $650,000, which allowed for the completion of the Illumination Foundation’s first Theriault Emergency House, a beautiful Stanton-based home that takes in homeless families with at least one child or pregnant woman. 

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The Theriault Emergency House for homeless families with children

Built from the ground up in just seven months, it houses up to nine families at a time with large private bedrooms and baths for each family, new laundry facilities on both floors, a rambling community kitchen and living room, and a fenced, grassy yard for children to play in. 

Most families stay for about a month, working daily with case workers, doctors and local hospitals to get their lives – and health – back on track. At month’s end, families are helped into permanent housing solutions or bridge housing while they seek out permanent residence.  

Proceeds from this year’s OC Chef’s Table 2018 will go to the construction of the country’s first Recuperative Care Housing Site for children. Working hand-in-hand with CHOC Children’s Hospital, Illumination Foundation’s recuperative care program will be a safety net for unstably housed children who are recovering from an illness or medical procedure.

“Our goal is to build at least five emergency houses in Orange County, each with our foundational pillars of service and resource attached,” says Leon. “At that point, we will be helping more than 1,200 families each year get the footing they need to stabilize their lives.”

The one visit that resulted in creating Illumination Foundation

Celebrating its tenth year, “accidentally” came into being when Paul Leon crossed the bridge from “those people” to “our people” thinking.

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Illumination Foundation CEO & President Paul Leon

While completing his MBA at UCI, he began working in the hospital as a qualified nurse to determine mother/baby risk for at-risk mothers. In the process, he made a visit to the OC Armory Emergency Shelter, which provides hot meals and sleeping quarters to at least 200 people nightly during cold weather months. He was astounded and appalled to see so many children in the facility, and took it upon himself to immediately find housing for a couple families whose children were extremely sick.

“In the weeks that ensued, I was consumed with trying to find housing for homeless families and realized it was tougher than I thought it was going to be – there simply was no housing,” says Leon.

“I took this issue back to my classroom and we began working on it as a class project. In short order, we had organized a medical team that began making ‘house calls’ to the homeless,” explains Leon.

From a classroom project idea, the Illumination Foundation has quickly grown to become a national example and leading advocate for breaking the cycle of homelessness. It addresses the issue in multi-pronged fashion, from establishing resource centers and children’s “after school” tutoring centers, to providing emergency and recuperative care housing, all while directly addressing vastly improved healthcare that includes substance abuse and mental health issues.

Perhaps the most telling statement of Illumination Foundation’s success: 30 percent of the Foundation’s staff is made up of people who were once homeless and helped by the organization. 

“Our only mission is to protect these people and treat them with the compassion, dignity and respect they deserve,” said Leon. “We have no other agenda.”


Award-winning Gourmet Chef teaches tricks of the trade at Spring Cooking Class Series at Montage LB 

This spring at Montage Laguna Beach, attendees of special cooking classes will learn tricks of the trade, start mastering go-to recipes and have fun with acclaimed Chef Craig Strong, who has earned the prestigious Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Rating for Studio for the last nine years. 

While overlooking the Pacific Ocean at this iconic luxury resort, cooking class students will participate in “Loving French Classics” in April, “Saucing It Up” in May and “Spices of Life” in June. To complete the experience, at the end of each cooking class, guests will enjoy a wine-paired lunch.

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Chef Craig Strong teaches Spring Cooking Classes 

Since 2009, Strong has helmed the kitchen at Studio with its highly acclaimed modern, French cuisine with California influences. Under his leadership, Studio has achieved a Forbes Five-Star Rating for the last nine years and has earned Wine Spectator’s Grand Award. Strong is the force behind the ever-changing à la carte menus, multi-course chef’s tasting menus and private dinners at the elegant Chef’s Table. He is also responsible for Studio’s 1,000-square-foot raised bed garden and uses its bounty in his every day cooking, especially in his innovative gourmet vegetarian tasting menu.

Details follow for current classes:

 Loving French Classics: Sat, April 21, 11 a.m.

For those not traveling to Paris this April, they can instead attend Loving French Classics to experience French favorites at home. Participants will start with composing French onion soup, followed by coq au vin and ending with impressive éclairs.

 Saucing It Up: Sat, May 19, 11 a.m.

This class will reveal the prized secrets of sauce making, so students will have go-to sauces in their repertoire to deliciously top meat, seafood and vegetables. Participants will focus on basic meat sauces such as béarnaise and bordelaise, learn how to make beurre blanc for seafood and prepare the ever-popular hollandaise for vegetables and egg dishes.

 Spices of Life: Sat, June 9, 11 a.m.

Learning how to choose and use spices in cooking favorite dishes is what Chef Craig Strong will be sharing at the Spices of Life cooking class. Participants will create their own version of a spice blend for shrimp, make a Thai green curry fish soup and prepare spicy chipotle chicken.

The cost for each class including a wine-paired lunch is $150, plus tax and gratuity. Class size is limited. Reservations are available by calling (949) 715-6520.

Studio is located at 30801 Coast Hwy.

For more information, go to www.montagehotels.com/lagunabeach.


Who were the penguins dining at Penguin Café? If you know their identities, email us…

Something fishy was going on at the Penguin Café the other day. Two penguins, identities unknown (mystery shoppers?) sat themselves down at a table and ordered their meals.

We’re sure they must have been satisfied, otherwise there would probably have been a flap.

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Photo by Barbara Corman

Two penguins check out the menus at Penguin Café

Did climate change drive them here, or just the chance of a great breakfast?

We may never know.


Roux redux – the return

Story and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Not rising from the ashes, but more like emerging transformed from its cocoon, Roux is beaming in its new incarnation.

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Roux owners, Cindy and Michael Byrne

Yes, it was closed for a time after the well-publicized split with the former chef. Now, we’re not looking back, we’re looking forward. I know I was looking forward to the new chef’s approach to the Roux theme – classic, yet understated New Orleans style.

I’m happy to report that Chef Robert Villanueva has brought his own spin on the essentials at Roux, and has also leaned a little more toward seafood. The classics including shrimp, and catfish Orleans remain in Creole style, but seasonal fish, and killer Red King Crab Legs have moved in too.

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Chef Robert Villanueva

Chef Robert says he puts his Asian spin on the French here, and I think it’s a global win. “Spicy Garlic Shrimp is really Thai Green Curry,” he says with a smile. “It’s all about fresh ingredients, and treating every ingredient properly.”

Owners Michael and Cindy Byrne have re-opened the restaurant just three weeks now, and they wanted to make sure to get everything right. “We’re only going to have so many things on the menu, so it has to be good,” said Michael. Being careful to get the menu right, and honoring the space properly is important. “It took 14 months to get a 39 seat restaurant opened, I’m not going to let it fail,” he said. “I have to do the right thing here.”

For now, the restaurant is open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, with Saturday and Sunday following shortly.

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Red King Crab with clarified butter & lemons

Tweaking the menu items, Michael asked the chef to give the oysters “more zip” – and he did it the very next day. “We made sure people left saying, ‘That’s good… Wow!’”

The oysters are amazing. 

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Fried Cornmeal Oysters with Lemon & Cornichons

Chef will also listen to customer’s requests. While I was there, he made a gorgeous catfish dish for a customer who didn’t want the creamy sauce – chef made it with his version of a marinara.

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Catfish Orleans, dusted with flour, sautéed in olive oil with lump crab and chef’s custom-ordered marinara, served over herbed rice

The atmosphere is still warm and romantic, and I would call the menu sexy, even. Nothing like a nice glass of red wine, some juicy oysters, and…what? I opted for the New York Steak, grilled to perfection and glazed with a red wine peppercorn demi glace. It was absolutely tender and flavorful, and left me wanting more even though I couldn’t finish it, the 12 ounces being enormous.

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New York Steak 12oz with red wine peppercorn demi glace

The other half of this romantic dinner was my husband, Richard. He chose the Atlantic Salmon. It was nice and moist with a crispy seared top, and served with spring green vegetables.

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Atlantic Salmon 8oz with cilantro & lime crème fraiche and radish

Chef Robert is making these dishes three nights, and Michael anticipates adding to the chef repertoire with other fine chefs making weekly appearances. He’s also talking about doing pop-up dinners with guest chefs once or twice a month.

“We’re trying the idea of a “house band” of chefs who can pick it up right away, like a music house band.” 

Sounds fun. We’ll stay tuned for all that’s deliciously shaking up at Roux.

860 Glenneyre St | 949-715-3707


Construction on Red Dragon Restaurant ramps up, the Chinese government reportedly owns Montage Laguna Beach, Gail Duncan sells The Art Hotel

By SUZIE HARRISON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

For four years, the owner of the property at 680 S. Coast Highway, a location that once housed the popular Mosun Sushi & Sake and Club M, has kept the place dormant.

Luckily for Laguna Beach, the new property owner, Enshan Zhao, has plans to open an upscale authentic Chinese restaurant called Red Dragon Restaurant in the once hopping place. 

While the site has been mainly vacant for seven years, Zhao started construction in January, according to local architect Jim Conrad.

Red Dragon Restaurant

“It’s under construction finally. It started about 60 days ago. We’re primarily just working on the demolition right now,” Conrad said. “We hope to open spring or summer of 2019.”

The cost of the property was more than $3 million. Plans are to include a two-story, 213 seat restaurant with approximately 8,000 square feet of restaurant space and 2,000 square feet of outdoor terrace space, according to the restaurant’s website.

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Red Dragon Restaurant will replace Mosun and Club M with a five-star authentic Chinese dining experience, specializing in Cantonese and dim sum

“It would have been easier to just to build a whole new building but we have to work with the existing building due to city regulations. We have some grandfathered parking that we’re hanging on to,” Conrad said. “The hardest part is really working around the old building.”

The project will feature a fine-dining restaurant with private rooms, a terrace, an indoor bar and lounge, a rooftop bar and lounge, exterior patio dining area, and a parking lot with160 surface spots, per their website.

“It’s not going to be like what was there at all. It’s really going to be a five-star restaurant, where chefs are coming in from Hong Kong. It will be a fine-dining Chinese restaurant,” Conrad said. “That level of finish for the restaurant takes time.”

He said once the building is pretty much completed, “It will need four months of finish to get it to that level that we’re shooting for.”

The new upscale Chinese restaurant will serve authentic Cantonese cuisine, a passion of the entrepreneurial owner, who is a self-described hardcore food enthusiast.

“I have a lot of Chinese clients and they all tell me there is no real Chinese food in Orange County. The sort of Chinese American food that the restaurants serve is very different than the authentic cuisine,” Conrad said.

Zhao, a Laguna Beach resident, is in the process of building a second home here.

Montage Laguna Beach

It was recently reported that the Chinese government now owns Montage Laguna Beach, among other real estate assets, after it seized control of Anbang Insurance Group. 

According to a statement by China’s Insurance Regulatory Commission (CIRC), Chinese officials arrested Anbang’s former chairman and general manager, Wu Xiaohui, on suspicion of economic crimes in June of last year. The commission has found that Xiaohui’s actions threatened the insurance giant’s solvency. He is expected to be prosecuted for financial crimes.

Besides the purchase of Montage Laguna Beach in 2016, Anbang also purchased Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel in Dana Point and Loews, Santa Monica, as well as 15 of 16 hotels owned by Strategic Hotels & Resorts. 

It has been reported that CIRC plans to run Anbang under the supervision of the regulatory authorities and its $315 billion in assets for at least one year to help stabilize the company and improve operation and management. 

Ownership of Montage Laguna Beach has changed three times in just two years, which is reportedly not uncommon for luxury resorts. 

Kacey Bruno, Vice President, Communications, Montage International said, “We have no comment.”

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The Chinese government has reportedly taken ownership of Montage Hotel & Spa, Laguna Beach among other luxury resorts and including over a dozen hotels

Opening in 2003, the 250-room Montage Laguna Beach was sold to Strategic Hotels & Resorts Inc. for $360 million, equating to $1.4 million per room. Situated on a 50-foot seaside bluff, the 30-acre property includes 60 suites in addition to the ocean-facing rooms. 

In addition to Montage Laguna Beach, Montage Hotels & Resorts includes a collection of ultra-luxury hotels, resorts including Montage Beverly Hills, Montage Deer Valley, Montage Kapalua Bay, Montage Palmetto Bluff. 

Each resort’s architecture and decor is unique to its surroundings, as exemplified in the Montage Laguna Beach’s Craftsman-style design, reflective of the Laguna’s artistic heritage. This year the company plans to open its first international destination, Montage Los Cabos.

The Art Hotel

It has been a sweet 16 years for owner of The Art Hotel, Gail Duncan. The collection of memories and the relationships she’s built over that span have become as precious to her as the art by local artists that adorn all the rooms.

Now that the hotel has been sold, as of Tuesday, March 6, these invaluable experiences are even more valuable to her, as she also had to leave the place she’s called home for all these years.

“I just left the apartment on Monday (March 19),” Duncan said. “The beauty of it is everyone knows it was my baby. I just fell in love with it and with being of service to people.”

Only a couple of weeks ago, Duncan had to give a presentation to the City Council on the Housing and Human Services Committee that she chairs. 

“From the bottom of my heart that night, it was about at the end letting them know how much they meant to me,” Duncan said. “At the tail end, I really wrangled saying something personal in front of the Council, but I said to them The Art Hotel was sold today.”

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Gail Duncan owned The Art Hotel for 16 years

Most important to Duncan was to express her sincere gratitude for three particular City employees that changed her life.

“If it wasn’t for Gavin Curran, Maggie Lotolc, and Laura Parisi assisting me in the beginning and holding me up at certain points, I wouldn’t be standing here today, just being so thankful,” Duncan said. “I wanted those City employees to be called out. If I didn’t have those City employees shaping me from my foundation, helping me businesswise, I couldn’t have been as successful without their wisdom.” 

It was hard for Duncan to encapsulate and share just a few of the many wonderful experiences.

One of her greatest memories was during the height of the festival season in the summer of 2012. The water heater broke down in her sold-out hotel. She said it was such an amazing example of humanity and kindness. Instead of people getting upset it brought them closer together, and rather than complaints, she received hugs and flowers.

 “It was just an incredible example of human nature at its finest holding each other up. It was one of the most special situations that I had been through,” Duncan said. “I couldn’t believe how it was the reverse, with people caring so much, helping me get through it.”

The art community and local artists were central to Duncan – after all, she named the hotel, The Art Hotel.

“Twenty-eight rooms each with a different artist. They were kind enough to lend me five or six pieces. There is a little story about them at each of the desks in the room. It was about exposure of the artists. If someone was interested, I would be the bridge to the artist,” Duncan said. “They all trusted me with their pieces. I just had in my heart I am The Art Hotel, I’m going to honor them and give them 100 percent of the sale.”

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The Art Hotel lived up to its name

The hotel had two unveilings in 2016 by the muralist Randy Morgan, who recreated the pool area. Not only was the mayor there but to Gail’s sheer surprise someone from another hotel was there to support her too.

“The murals weren’t about downtown or what’s across the street. They told a story. We ended up having four Art Walks that year and brought the community to the hotel for the first time,” Duncan said. “Randy is the one that mentored different artists, brought them in and exposed them. It just really took The Art Hotel to the best level before I sold.”

Those examples capture the essence of great memories and the many people she grateful for.

Anyway, it was a great ride. I learned a lot. I feel very connected to Laguna Beach. We all end up being family in town in some way or another,” Duncan said. “I will end up going into community service and will work even harder on Housing and Human Services.”

New Ownership of The Art Hotel…the next chapter

The new owners of The Art Hotel Rick Mangu and his wife Vicki are no strangers to Laguna Beach. They’ve lived in various parts of Orange County most of their lives. Nor are they new to hotel ownership. But they are very excited about this particular venture.

In an interview last week Mangu explained that they’ve only owned the hotel for a week. “We took it over last Tuesday, March 6.We used to live in Southern California before, so we know the area well. My daughter was one of the first graduates of Sage Hill High School on Newport Coast. We have family that lives in Crystal Cove and friends here,” Mangu said, explaining that they had to leave the area to take care of his elderly parents. Family is extremely important to Mangu.

“I am very happy that we are back in Orange County, and I am very honored actually to be in Laguna Beach,” Mangu said. “It’s amazing, you know, you go all over the world and to end up back in Laguna Beach, I dream of those things.”

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The Art Hotel is in good hands

As for owning other hotels, Mangu said, “It’s a friends and family type of deal. We try to do it as a small group of family and friends invested. That way I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket. I have been there and done that and now I am back again.”

The new owners are working with a design firm to make improvements to the exterior and update it to 2018, Mangu explained.

“We’re thankful to Gail. She is a great lady. I am very happy with her; she has helped us out quite a bit,” Mangu said.

Duncan stayed on the property to help the new owners transition and will continue through the summer. She feels the same and appreciates kindness of the new owners. 

“I get to still be there through the transition period. I get to experience enjoying the guests for at least a day or two through the summer, through the transition, and then let them have their dreams,” Duncan said.

The community is so vibrant and healthy there’s a lot of different activities. I think Laguna, I just find it kind of peaceful,” Mangu said. “I am very happy to be here. You don’t get a second chance all the time.”


Selanne Steak Tavern’s wine director, Vito Pasquale, earns advanced sommelier designation 

Selanne Steak Tavern, the upscale steakhouse and tavern housed in a chicly transformed historic 1934 home on Pacific Coast Highway, is proud to announce that Wine Director Vito Pasquale has earned the coveted advanced sommelier certification from the American Chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, the premier international examining body for the wine industry.

To attain advanced sommelier status, Pasquale had to pass the accrediting body’s five-day extensive wine service program, which includes lectures and interviews and two and a half days of blind tastings, a service test and writing a theory paper.

“We are extremely proud of Vito’s recent accomplishment,” said Kevin Pratt, co-partner of the restaurant with Teemu Selanne. “He has been an integral force in helping us gain recognition for our carefully selected and cared for wine collection. And, under his direction, Selanne Steak Tavern has earned Wine Spectator magazine’s “The Best of Award of Excellence.”

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Vito Pasquale earns advanced sommelier certification from the American Chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers 

Pasquale has worked at Selanne Steak Tavern since it opened in 2013. His responsibilities are to curate, manage and maintain the restaurant’s wine inventory of over 2,750 bottles of global selections. In addition he directs the restaurant’s ongoing sommelier education and training program, working in tandem with Executive Chef Joshua Severson for the wine list to complement the chef’s contemporary steakhouse menu.

Prior to joining the Selanne team, Pasquale held positions at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, AnQi Crustacean at South Coast Plaza and at the former Two 40 South Restaurant & Bar in Brea.

Selanne Steak Tavern is open for dinner only, nightly starting at 5 p.m. For more information or to make a reservation call (949) 715-9881 or visit www.selannesteaktavern.com.


Selanne Steak Tavern kicks off spring and brunch season with Sunday Brunch on Sunday, April 8

Spring kicks off “brunch season” in Southern California, and beginning Sunday, April 8, Selanne Steak Tavern brings Chef Joshua Severson’s crave-worthy gourmet fare to be shared with friends and family for the first time to this award-winning Laguna Beach restaurant. Severson’s newly created brunch menu is inspired by classic brunch favorites infused with his own creative twists using seasonal, local and regional ingredients. 

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Avocado Toast

 Brunch fans can enjoy such sweet and savory dishes as Pancake Soufflé with Vermont maple syrup, California berries, sweet vanilla bean cream cheese; Selanne’s Benedict with Nueske’s ham, poached egg, avocado, tomato marmalade, house hollandaise and croissant; andTeemu’s Brunch Burger made with Kobe beef, kurobuta pork belly, fried egg and tomato jam.

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Bananas Foster

Other soon-to-be favorites include: Bourbon Caramel Pecan Sticky Bun; Chicken and Waffles; Steak Bacon and Eggs; and Cured Salmon Scramble. Lighter selections feature Strawberry Salad, Shrimp & King Crab Cocktail and Avocado Toast. Hearty sides like Hash Browns Au Gratin, White Grits and other choices are also on the menu. A kids menu will also be offered.

 Guests can dine alfresco on the veranda or the upstairs patio with indoor seating available in the cozy tavern and wine bar. 

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sundays beginning April 8.

Selanne Steak Tavern is located at 1464 South Coast Hwy.

For more information, go to selannesteaktavern.com or call (949) 715-9881.


Laguna Beach Beer Company is opening in the Canyon soon, crafted by two lifetime locals

By SUZIE HARRISON

Perhaps, it’s an only in Laguna Beach kind of phenomenon, but the forecast looks good regarding the question, “If April showers bring May flowers what do May flowers bring?”

Beer, and lots of it, in the form of tasty microbrews via a 24-tap draft system. Yes, beer fans will be able to say cheers at the opening of Laguna Beach Beer Company sometime in May, if all goes according to plans. 

With a passion for craft beer, Laguna Beach Beer Company was co-founded in 2014 by lifelong Laguna Beach residents Brent Reynard and Mike Lombardo. Now it’s time to bring it home.

“The original vision was to open a small brewpub in Laguna first, build up the brand, then open a larger production brewery somewhere outside of town,” Reynard said. “However, before we could solidify a location in Laguna, an opportunity to purchase a production facility in Rancho Santa Margarita popped up. So as they say, we put the cart before the horse, but it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.”

Laguna Beach Beer Company found its local home in the canyon’s Civic Art District. Located at 859 Laguna Canyon Road, formerly Serra’s Bar & Grill, the restaurant and brewery will not only fill a void in that space has been vacant for a decade, it also provides Laguna with a much-needed local microbrewery, made by locals, for locals, and well, tourists obviously too.

“When we started looking a few years ago, it [the canyon] was one of the only places with the square footage we needed that was available,” Reynard said. “We really liked the proximity to the festivals, the visibility from the canyon, the parking, and having a trolley stop right in front isn’t bad either.” 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Laguna Beach Beer Company will serve cold, delicious craft brews from 24 taps 

The total space is 2600 sq. feet with seating for 80 and about 350 sq. feet of patio space with polished concrete floors and open ceiling with wood paneling for a beachy feel. 

 “The corner location also gives us the ability to create the open-air feeling we wanted with roll up doors on two sides giving it a breezy, light and airy feel,” Reynard said. “The lease gives us control of the space for 12 years.” 

Wendy Jung, City of Laguna Beach, Senior Planner, said, “The CUP was approved by the Planning Commission on Feb. 15, 2017 for microbrewery and restaurant use with outdoor dining areas.” 

“We have been working on this space for about two years. We had to get the normal permits including city, state and federal. We hit hurdles around every corner,” Reynard said. “I don’t recall a time when there wasn’t a seemingly insurmountable issue in our way. I attribute our success to perseverance and the lack of a ‘Plan B.’ This was it, I had no back up plan, so we had to make it work.”

“Conditions of approval were included in the CUP Resolution,” Jung said.

The layout will include a section with about ten 55-gallon oak wine and whiskey barrels, where they age some of their beer, along with high top and low top tables with a few large wood tables for groups. And for sports fans, they will have six 65” TVs to show sports.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Construction is ramping up at the new Laguna Beach Beer Company brewery and restaurant site, with an anticipated May opening date

“We will have a menu of flatbreads and sandwiches and a 24 tap draft system. The beer list and menu items will be similar to the RSM location with a few additions unique to Laguna,” Reynard said.

Currently, the Hazy IPAs are the rage and top of the Beer Company’s best-seller list. 

“I love the Hazy IPAs and our Thousand Steps IPA. For me, its hard to go wrong with a hoppy IPA. However, I love our darker beers such as the one we call ‘Scotchman’s,’ which is a Scotch Ale,” Reynard said. “It’s a style that you don’t see every day, strong dark and delicious.”

The idea for Laguna Beach Beer Company started brewing for Reynard while he was in college.

“After graduating from UC Berkeley in 2000, it was 2008 during business school while earning my MBA that I began homebrewing,” Reynard said. “I developed a passion for brewing and by the time I graduated from UCI in 2010, I knew beer was going to be in my future. I have always pursued entrepreneurial ventures.”

He wrote a business plan in 2013 and when his partner jumped on board in January 2014, the dream began to take shape.  

“We started by brewing The Greeters Ale at a friend’s brewery, a recipe we developed while homebrewing, and selling kegs of it to bars and restaurants. We sold our first pint at Hennessey’s in Laguna Beach in October 2014,” Reynard said. “By the end of 2016, three beers, The Greeters Ale, Second Reef Blonde Ale, and Canyon Road Red Ale were being poured at around 100 locations in Orange County.” 

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Courtesy Laguna Beach Beer

Company Facebook

What I love the most is watching families having fun together and groups of friends sharing an experience over a pint,” said cofounder Reynard

Laguna Beach Beer Company will have happy hours, specials, and events that will be posted on their website, https://lagunabeer.com. The hours will be 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. As for parking, there are 75 parking spots in the parking lot shared by the tenants, plus metered and street parking right out front.  

“Five years after starting the company, finally opening the Laguna Beach location, the goal that has been on our minds since day one,” Reynard said. “It’s incredible to say the least. It has always been a dream. What could be better than living and working in Laguna Beach?”


Harvest: It’s The Ranch’s fine dining side

Review and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

The Harvest vibe is one part earthy and downhome, and one part refinement and elegance. It’s a nice mix as you sit in the big lodge space and look out at all the green surrounding this pristine canyon location. The chef’s creations reflect that mix too, as locally sourced ingredients blend with Asian, European, and Americana influences.

I love visiting The Ranch at Laguna Beach and feeling like I’m on vacation, even if it’s just for lunch. And, of course, lunch at their Harvest restaurant is a perfect topper to a round of golf. Last weekend, I enjoyed a full two days (and nights) there and was delighted to partake of several meals worth noting.

My second favorite fish in the whole world is branzino, which is a European sea bass. (My first favorite is fresh-caught Atlantic striped bass, but that’s for home cooking, and a whole other story). I’ve seen branzino as a special at only a few restaurants, so I was very happy to find it right there on the menu at Harvest.

The thing about branzino is that the whole fish is mild and sweet, right down to the skin. It’s roasted or grilled and served whole, with head and tail, as is more customary in Europe than in California. Chef Kyle St. John has interpreted the Whole Branzino dish at Harvest served with spiced lentils, chorizo, blistered tomatoes, and salsa verde. So good, I had it two nights in a row!

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Whole Cyprus Branzino

Accompanying the branzino, we ordered another amazing seafood special – Hamachi. It was light and citrusy, and just melted on the tongue.

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Hamachi Special

The menu changes seasonally at Harvest, and right now I’d beat the doors down to have the Wild Mushroom Pappardelle while it’s featured. They make the pappardelle pasta in-house and gently toss it with white wine, garlic, truffle tremor cheese, and the most delicate and fresh assortment of wild mushrooms. You just have to say “Aww!” when you see the teeny littlest ones, and OMG when you take a taste of that wild, earthy and sinfully rich flavor.

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Wild Mushroom Pappardelle

On the lunch menu, my skinny selection – due to low carb count – goes to Harvest’s fabulous Grilled Salmon Salad. The perfectly medium-rare chargrilled salmon is served with mixed baby greens, artichokes, Greek olives, pickled onions, and feta cheese drizzled with red wine vinaigrette.

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Grilled Salmon Salad

Go ahead and work up an appetite on the lovely Ranch golf course, then feast on fine dining with a view at Harvest. You will be happily satisfied with a day well spent.


Brunch made better: Sunday mornings may become Selanne’s favorite time of week – or at least mine

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photography by Jeffrey Rovner

Selanne Steak Tavern has long been on my short list of special occasion spots in town. Since its opening five years ago, it’s the place where I’ve celebrated birthdays, Father’s Days, anniversaries and “just because” evenings out. Life’s too short and uncertain, I’ve decided, to delay gratification. And Selanne is one of those places that make indulgence worth every bite.

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Brunch is served with style at Selanne

So imagine my delight when I heard they’d begun offering my favorite meal: Sunday brunch. It’s the one meal that dares you not to spoil yourself. Sensible salads are for weekdays. Brunch is for elaborate benedicts and sticky desserts masquerading as breakfast. And, if you’re not holding a cocktail before noon, there’s a feeling you’re missing out on something. 

Consistent with our calorie conscious town, however, there are plenty of light and healthy options on Selanne’s menu. And enough mocktails, French pressed coffee, and assorted teas to make you feel part of the festive crowd.

Now that the brunch is entering its seventh week, Chef Joshua Severson and his team of creatives, including a dedicated pastry chef and masterful bartender, have had time to perfect every dish, and the results are delicious.

Eating in style

If you’re familiar with Selanne, you’ll know its warm cottage charm. The building is beautiful, the architecture straight from high-end magazines with well appointed furniture, dramatic chandeliers, and cozy nooks and corners. What I love about the space are all the options – their rooftop deck and spacious outdoor veranda, that wonderful European bar and statement staircase, the quiet wine cellar. I love the outdoor fireplace. I love the entry wishing well. Whatever your mood, whatever the weather, they’ve created an intimate setting that accommodates it.

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Brunch is better this way…along with warm cottage charm

Because I’ve never met a breakfast dish I don’t like, I allowed our server Stephen Ronnow to design my meal. I watched Stephen work over the menu like a composer arranging a symphony, mixing sweet and savory, crunchy and smooth. I started with an amuse bouche and pastry basket, moved to an avocado toast, and then onto the main meal – chicken and waffles and “Kevin’s” Bananas Foster French Toast (“Kevin” is co-owner, Kevin Pratt, who was dining at a table nearby. Hats off for designing this creative dish, Kevin). As almost an afterthought, Stephen added hash browns au gratin, a dish I haven’t stopped thinking about since. 

The beauty of breakfast drinks

In addition to a full bar, there are a few creative cocktails on Selanne’s menu. The Diablo is a specialty of bartender Neil. Casa Amigos Blanco Tequilla, lemon, crème de cassis, and ginger ale. I’m going back for that one.

I opted for my usual breakfast drink, the “Breakfast of Champions Bloody Mary.” As the name implies, it’s more than a drink…it’s a breakfast. Garnished with a jumbo fresh shrimp, a plump olive, a tiny pearl onion, and a thick slice of lime, I could have been happy drinking my brunch. Thankfully, though, this time it was only an add-on. 

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Breakfast of Champions Bloody Mary and pastries – so good

My favorite thing about Selanne’s drink menu is their offering of a mimosa flight. Selanne’s serves an array of fresh flavors – blood orange, peach, cherry, mango – and allows guests to mix and match. If you’re dining with a large party, or you’re up for drinking a bottle of champagne on your own, the table can try all the various flavors. Assuming you have nowhere to be on a Sunday afternoon, this isn’t a bad way to while away the morning.

The sweet…

Selanne’s pastry chef is a master of whimsy. Her creations are seasonal, using fresh and local ingredients. The artisan breadbasket included a blackberry scone, lemon Danish, bear claw, blueberry muffin, and a chocolate croissant. The mixture of fruit against chocolate, crumbly muffins against flaky croissants, all of it light and airy, made for a wonderful way to wait for the main course. 

My eye wandered to the next table, enjoying the Bourbon Carmel Pecan Sticky Bun. It comes in a cast iron skillet, hot from the oven, and looking over-the-top. It’s rich, thick, and gooey. And, Stephen promises, beyond belief.

But Kevin’s Banana Foster French Toast took the prize for me, and I’m rarely a fan of the overtly sweet dish. The bananas were marinated in Kahlua. The French Toast was thick, crispy and perfectly soaked. Best yet, Selanne’s uses mascarpone whip that acts as the ice cream, creating a gooey sandwich of spiked flavors. I haven’t tried anything like this one.

And the savory

I gravitate toward the savory, and Selanne’s has plenty of options to accommodate – the brunch burger (with wagyu beef and pork belly, topped with an egg), the Selanne Benedict (with Nueske’s ham), and my usual favorite – the cured salmon scramble with crème fraîche.

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Avocado toast – it’s really all about the bread and the combination of flavors

I consider myself a kind of avocado toast connoisseur. For me, it’s all about the bread, which can make or break this breakfast staple. Anyone can smash an avocado on a piece of toast. Here, it’s the combination of flavors – lemon, espelette pepper and slices of pickled radish – that make it something special. The citrus and spice is a wonderful blend. Not to mention the sunny-side egg that tops the dish. 

I don’t know whether chicken and waffles fall into the sweet or savory category, but the perfect blend of both is made better by the preparation of the chicken. Even though it’s fried, the batter is so light and airy that it lacks the heavy grease I usually associate with fried chicken. Better yet…the meat inside. It’s a tender, juicy rotisserie chicken breast. A single bite remained that I absolutely couldn’t finish. I shamelessly asked to take it home, knowing it wouldn’t make a meal, but it would still make a memory. 

But, for some reason, the dish I continue to return to in my mind is the hash browns au gratin. Perhaps because by the time I got to it, I was far too full to finish it. It was “the dish that got away.” The few forkfuls I had make this side alone worth coming back to finish. The Yukon gold potatoes are topped with a thick layer of crucolo cheese and scallions. It’s a perfect combination of potatoes au gratin and hash browns. How this is done, I couldn’t possibly tell you, but the result is magnificent. 

An evolution of flavors and creations

Selanne’s is committed to constant evolution—with the seasons and with their own creative energy. The addition of Sunday brunch is a great example of their willingness and ability to stretch their menu and meet new culinary trends, all with their own artistic imagination.

Co-owner Kevin Pratt says, “We’re extremely happy to add Sunday brunch to our offerings, and I’m proud of Chef Josh and his team for delivering creative twists on classic brunch dishes. We’re having fun with the menu and it will continue to evolve.”

And I’ll continue to be a loyal recipient of that evolution.

Selanne Steak Tavern      1464 S Coast Hwy