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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 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. 

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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.

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