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Laguna Beach

 Volume 11, Issue 92  | November 15, 2019


Modern comfort: Reunion Kitchen is North Laguna’s no-longer-hidden gem – and it’s the “House of Yes”

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeffrey Rovner

Comfort food. Ahhhhh. Remember that? Before the craze of kale salads and juice cleanses? When chia seeds were windowsill pets instead of health spores stuck between your teeth? Remember your mom making meatloaf and fried chicken and biscuits? Now imagine all those warm memories wrapped in a modern day twist and delivered to your table by an experienced chef.

Reunion Kitchen + Drink came to town a year ago and, for everyone’s sake, let’s hope it stays. Nestled in the heart of Boat Canyon, it’s my local north Laguna favorite. The atmosphere is a little like Cheers, if Cheers served slow-braised short ribs. Plus, the waitstaff looks more Sam Malone than Norm Peterson.

Reunion is like your grandmother’s cooking when it throws on a chic leather jacket and goes out for a night on the town. But – and this I love – you can be just as comfortable in yoga pants and a ponytail, meeting an old friend for lunch. At Reunion, there’s room enough for everyone, and everyone feels right at home.

The Wizard Behind the Curtain

The feeling they’ve created is very intentional, I realized, after a long conversation with owner Scott McIntosh. For Laguna locals, Scott’s reputation may precede him. He’s been in the restaurant industry, in and around Laguna, a very long time. Scott started in 1975 at Nick’s coffee shop in Long Beach (yes, that’s a distant relation to Nick’s in Laguna and South of Nick’s in San Clemente). From there, he spent 26 years at Claim Jumper and learned all there was to know about high volume food. In 2004, he was recruited by David Wilhelm, and immersed himself in fine dining and trendy restaurants, spending time at Nick’s in Laguna and eventually opening Asada downtown. 

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Owner Scott McIntosh and wife Rosemary

In 2013, Scott opened Reunion Kitchen in Anaheim Hills and enjoyed enormous success. He’s taken that success back to our town, opening the second location of Reunion and its sister restaurant, Asada, next door. 

Scott works with chef Josh Monroy who, he says, “runs the whole show.” Monroy has been with Scott for eight years, starting at the original Asada, and now helps with both restaurants.

Roughly one-third of Scott’s staff is family and friends. He employs all five of his daughters (his youngest will start next year), and his wife Rosemary works harder than he does. From cousins to friends, Scott likes to instill a sense of pride and ownership in his employees. “My dad stressed that it’s better to do it right than easy. I don’t compromise on quality, and I don’t cut corners.” Scott passes along that pride and ethic to everyone he employs.

Bringing New Life to an Old Space

The Boat Canyon building brought some challenges. The interior felt cramped and claustrophobic. The kitchen was much too small for the complexity and precision of Reunion’s recipes. Not to mention, the restaurant wasn’t visible from the street. “I’d driven by there for years without knowing there was even a restaurant in there,” says Scott.

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A warm, chic-yet-casual atmosphere reigns at Reunion

So Scott raised the roof. Literally. He opened the building up by extending the dining room toward the street, lifting the ceiling by six feet, and putting all the intricate refrigeration and heating systems on the roof of the building, buying him critical space in the kitchen. My brief tour of the kitchen bore this out. The space is both beautiful and masterfully designed. “It’s like a big Tetris game,” he laughs.

He also chose a décor that’s warmer and more visually interesting than the prior restaurants. A chain-link chandelier at the center of the room, exposed beams and oblong ventilation ducts give the room an urban vibe, reminiscent of a hip SoHo loft. 

“I wanted it to look a little industrial without being gothic,” says Scott. The dark interior and contemporary black and white photos are offset by an enormous wall of windows that open wide to the outside world.

Let’s Talk About Food

The proof of success is in the pudding, as they say. Or, in this case, the meatloaf. Throughout my many visits, I’ve sampled a fair amount of Reunion’s menu. A few of my favorites: the crispy fried calamari and short rib sliders. While I shy away from a lot of fried foods, the batter on the calamari is light as a cloud. There’s something about the tartar sauce that makes it impossible to stop eating. The Brussels sprouts, seasoned with vinegar and maple syrup, make eating your vegetables more like eating dessert.

I asked Scott his favorite item on the menu. I knew this was like picking your favorite child, but after a long while he confessed, “You’ll never get another patty melt like mine.” There’s cheese fried into the rye bread. “It tastes a little like cheesy Goldfish crackers,” says our server, Cherise. She’s exactly right. With their signature bacon potato salad on the side, even when you’re full, you can’t stop yourself from taking one more bite.

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Scott’s favorite: the patty melt, with cheese fried into the rye bread

My husband tried the fried chicken just to see what the fuss was about. “It has all of the flavor and crispiness that I love about fried chicken without the heaviness and greasy aftertaste,” he says. “It’s the best of fried chicken without the guilt.”

Scott’s goal is to modernize everything they do. “Sure it’s fried chicken,” Scott says. “But there’s something I’m doing that will make you go nuts. I selectively grab those recipes that have that effect on people.”

Short ribs aren’t just short ribs. They’re braised for six hours in red wine, veal stock and coffee beans. “You’re not going to find these short ribs on anyone else’s menu,” says Scott.

He’s particularly proud of his sauces. The mustard sauce for the salmon, the citrus dressing on the salads. “There are certain flavor profiles that make guests say, ‘I don’t know what that was, but I know I want to go back.’”

Health Conscious Clients—Come On In!

For all this bashing of health food, I confess I’m often on the nutrition train. At least I like to ride the train, even if I sometimes fall off. So when I saw Reunion moving into my hood, I was a little nervous that the loaded potato skins and lemon bar brulee would pull me off track for good. Butter cake? One hundred yards from my gym’s front door? Four blocks from my house? Lord, help me. Fortunately, it’s easy - and downright pleasurable – to eat pretty clean at Reunion. Two words: poke bowl. 

I’m not the first person to lament how hard it is to find good poke in Laguna, which remains a total mystery to me. Reunion has your back. The mango relish and sesame dressing are to die for. Each time I order it (and I order it a lot), I vow to eat half and take the rest home. That’s happened zero times so far. I can eat my weight in Reunion’s poke.

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Director of Operations Bryan Weerheim and Chef Josh Monroy

Scott laughs a little about clients who ask for lighter and healthier options. “That’s not what sells,” he says. “Our new menu will have a lot of health conscious items, so it’s a little lighter. But it’s all about striking a balance. I know what people ask for, and then I know what they actually order,” he says. Suffice to say, it’s not always the same thing.

Did Someone Say Cocktails?

Michael is Reunion’s bartender extraordinaire. He’s been in Laguna even before Nick’s. He’s gone from Tabu to Javier’s. He’s as personal and friendly as he is knowledgeable. His drinks bear that out.

I recently opted for the cucumber breeze, given it was a balmy night. The combination of the cucumber and mint with an effervescent base made this especially refreshing. I can’t wait for winter, when I have my eye on the apple cinnamon crisp: angry orchard cider, cinnamon, and fireball. I don’t know what makes cider angry. And I have no idea what to expect from a fireball. But who cares. Yes, please! 

For beer drinkers, which I confess I’m not, Reunion offers rotating local and seasonal brews. For wine lovers, which I confess I am, you’ll find a wide assortment of all your favorites.

A Local State of Mind

I’ve always thought that if Laguna Beach were Manhattan, north Laguna would be considered the upper east side. Not the swanky elite upper east side, like Fifth Avenue, which might be reserved for Irvine Cove. Or Park Avenue, which I think is more like Emerald Bay. Boat Canyon would lie a little more on Manhattan’s eastern strip, towards the river. Boat Canyon is more like Lexington or Third Avenue. It’s a neighborhood that’s established and comfortable in its own skin. An old-school sort of atmosphere that doesn’t put on airs, isn’t trying to prove itself, but holds a certain quiet dignity and sense of fun.  

Reunion Kitchen fits right into that mentality. It doesn’t apologize for serving turkey potpies and cowboy ribeyes, even as Jan’s Health Bar sits over its right shoulder. I love that.

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Turkey potpie, served by Cherise, is simply delicious

Laguna locals are very much on Reunion’s mind. At its core, Reunion is a neighborhood restaurant, by and for Laguna’s longtime residents. “When I build these restaurants,” says Scott, “My intent is for them to be here for 20 years. When it comes to restaurants, no one loves or cares about them more than I do.”

Both Reunion and Asada deliver to your door. And Scott has something special in mind for Laguna residents, though it’s a little early to say exactly what. But there’s a late night menu (beginning at 9:30 p.m.) that allows locals to hang out, and gives them a place to go after they get off work. A quiet way to unwind after a long day.

“The center itself is a best kept secret,” says Scott. The availability of parking and ease of getting in and out makes the location particularly convenient for anyone who’s tired of fighting Laguna traffic. 

The House of ‘Yes’

Scott’s philosophy, he says, is to be “The House of Yes.” Servers are not allowed to say no. If they must, a manager comes out. “Unless we physically don’t have an ingredient, we don’t say no. Even if we only sell a few plates of something a day, even if I take it off the menu, the answer is always ‘yes.’”

For me, the answer is also ‘yes.’ I look forward to saying “yes” to Reunion for a good long time.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut is our Chief Photographer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists. Scott Brashier is our photographer.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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