With passion and commitment, Co-Owner/Chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales transforms Nirvana Grille

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The most important thing Chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales wants people to know is, “Nirvana Grille is not the Nirvana Grille they knew a few years ago.” Due to the vision and dedication of Smith-Rosales and her husband Luis Rosales, co-owners of Nirvana Grille, the entire feel of the restaurant is evolving.

With passion close up

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Chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales

Of course, the quality of the food doesn’t need revamping. Among Smith-Rosales’ many accolades, she was named “Great Chefs of Orange County” for the celebration of Food and Wine at the Balboa Bay Club, named one of the “Top 10 Chefs in Orange County Under 40,” and she has been featured on the front cover of OC Metro Magazine, in Laguna Beach Magazine as among the top 14 local chefs, and chosen as one of the Roosters Foundation’s “Culinary Masters.”

Nirvana Grille has been a staple on Broadway for over a decade and remarkably will celebrate its 11th anniversary on March 15 (Smith-Rosales was only 28 when it opened), and she admits that she always wanted to have her career unfold here. 

Collaboration

“From the time I started cooking, I knew I wanted to be here because I was born and raised in Laguna, and it’s small. I met my husband at the Ritz-Carlton back in 2002. He helped open it and worked there for 16 years. Then after being together for years, we opened the restaurant in Mission Viejo. We envisioned opening at that location first, and we also catered. Luis was out front as the server. It took off quickly, and we wanted to see if we could open another one.”

With passion good food

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The food experience of the guests is always the main objective

Lucky for Laguna, they had their sights set on this town.

“We heard a place in Laguna was available, so we looked at it. It kind of just happened. I was four months pregnant at the time, but we decided we could handle it. The property owners (who originally wanted a bank here) loved the menu, and that we were husband and wife, and I was a female chef. It worked out, and he didn’t raise our rent for five years.” 

Smith-Rosales designed the interior, and Gregg Abel, her godparent, was the architect. Soon they were ready for business. As fate would have it, her older son, Diego, was born the day before the Pageant of the Masters opened in 2008. “We started here in Laguna after two years in Mission Viejo, and we ran them concurrently for four years until November 2012 when the lease was up there.

“Our first year here was constantly unfolding, and this year has been a huge one for transitioning as well. Now we have a great local following, but since we’ve evolved over the years as a family and in other areas, I wanted to reflect that change here.” 

Back in the kitchen

“When my younger son, Mateo, who is now two and a half, was born, I took time away from the restaurant and was here only twice a week. Although I still did events off site, marketing, and catering, I didn’t have to be here every day,” she says. “Then in June, we parted ways with our sous chef. We weren’t being innovative, and I wasn’t finding ‘crave-able” things on the menu, and I figured that if I wasn’t, neither were our customers. Unfortunately, the next chef didn’t work out, so I decided to be in the kitchen again.” 

With passion rockfish

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Pan-seared Rockfish dish

And it appears as if Smith-Rosales is very happy to be back there. “I’m having a ball in the kitchen with my staff. We’ve never laughed so hard, and now they see me in a different light. I’m not just coming in trying to fix or pick at things. It’s all about the experience of our guests.”

To that end, she and her husband have switched roles. During the week, she’s in the restaurant five days, and he comes in two to three days. However, she still makes sure she spends a substantial amount of time with Diego and Mateo. “Diego now realizes his role in the family, and is taking responsibility for chores, so when we do have time together, we can spend it having fun.”

Not surprisingly, Diego loves to cook. “He has three things he makes: tacos, blackened salmon, and a special recipe for mashed potatoes,” she says. “And he loves to eat. When he was younger, he’d eat lentils and broccolini and zucchini.” 

Sophisticated fare for a child, but I suppose not when your mother is a chef.

Innovative ideas

Smith-Rosales admits, “It’s hard to make it here. Laguna is saturated with restaurants.”

They typically change menus with each season, and the new spring menu will be rolled out on April 2, from Tuesday through Sunday. The new items will be up to 50 percent off, depending on the dish. They also change the wine list, so they might have some wine bottles that they’re discontinuing on special. 

 “I can put a menu together pretty quickly, but it wouldn’t be a lot of new stuff, and like I did with the fall menu, I’m trying to be intentional about creating things that people loved, and so we always have our staple dishes, but I need to be inspired and intrigued, the dishes need to be ‘crave-able,’” she says. “There are two on the menu that I crave every week, the Pan Seared Rockfish and the Chicken with Farro Risotto.” 

Smith-Rosales has already implemented some other appealing ideas. 

For late night customers, beginning on March 1, Late Night Nirvana Bites, are now served on Friday and Saturdays from 9 - 11 p.m., and then at 10 p.m., the space is transformed into a lounge with a couple of VIP tables and a dance floor and blue lights. When it’s warm, they’ll open the outside patio with a firepit and the upstairs as well. 

With passion behind bar

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Gertrude, Chef Smith-Rosales, and Enrique behind the bar

From 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Friday nights, patrons can dance the night away to ‘80s music and on Saturday, move to Latin beats. There is no cover charge. The demographic for their setting is 30 - 50 years old, and what she’s always interested in is what the crowd is looking for. Enrique Zarate, who has been with Nirvana for 10 years, and is the lead server and bartender for the dance parties, spurred Smith-Rosales on to start them. 

A weekend place to grab a late bite and dance the night away

“I want the people in Laguna to know there’s a place to get something to eat after work. And a place to dance that doesn’t look like a storage room or a dive bar.” 

She has also introduced a Laguna Pride 365 event every Friday (the first one was on March 1). Local Craig Cooley and his organized group met upstairs from to 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. (Around 40 people attended.) It’s open to the public. “After their meeting, they came downstairs to dance,” says Smith-Rosales.

As an additional perk, although OC Restaurant Week ended on March 9, Smith-Rosales says, “We will continue the three-course set menu for $30 and $40 a person for three weeks until the new spring menu is introduced.” 

With passion late night

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Late night fare

Other significant alterations will happen in the fall when the entire center gets a facelift. Major changes (done in phases) will take place inside Nirvana Grille as well.

But that’s not the transformation that Smith-Rosales is concerned with now. It’s the feel of the place. She says, “We know the evolution is not going to happen overnight. We’re being realistic. We are building it and thinking of things as we go.”

Just to add to the appeal, here‘s a couple of things that residents may not know: Happy hour is all night, every night of the week. They have an inside and outside patio (both allow dogs) and a parking lot!

It certainly seems as if Smith-Rosales’ vision for Nirvana Grille is headed in the right direction to be true to its name – nirvana – the place to achieve a perfect state of happiness. It’s just a matter of getting the word out.

Nirvana Grille is located at 303 Broadway St, #101.

For more information, go to www.nirvanagrille.com or call (949) 497-0027.