AhbA’s dinner menu introduces Laguna to a new realm of tantalizing and unique tastes

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

What’s the best recommendation anyone could give a new restaurant? How about – dropping in for lunch and then coming back for dinner on the same day. That’s a pretty solid endorsement.

On Friday, Tina and Brian Steincke, their son Cole, and Brian’s mother – who was visiting from New York – did just that. Evidently, they live close by and dine there frequently. Tina said, “We love AhbA, we go all the time. It has such a great atmosphere, delicious food; they’ve made it so you don’t want to leave!”

I couldn’t agree more. AhbA, which features Mediterranean cuisine with an Israeli influence, has been open three months for breakfast and lunch (six days a week, Tuesday - Sunday) and started serving dinner three weeks ago. 

AhbA's dinner couple

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Photo by Dianne Russell

Frequent AhbA diners Brian and Tina Steincke

Owner Nick Bennett says, “We’re offering seasonal dinners and keeping it fresh. What’s exciting to us is introducing the area to new tastes, so we’ve added more techniques and innovative flavors. At night it is a more complex style of cuisine. We also want the menu to be value driven to bring in people, so they feel they can come back a couple of times a week, instead of just on a special occasion.”

It’s apparent that the creative collaboration between Bennett and Executive Chef Jayro Martinez brings an entirely new dimension of taste sensations to our town, one that keeps people coming back. According to Martinez, 80 percent of their business is return customers.

Ahba means father in Hebrew, and it seems an apt name for this intimate and warm little hideaway. It’s as if the restaurant is the home of a family member or friend, one where the host welcomes you with open arms. This is the dining room I always wanted – furnished with a long communal table that invites conversation and offers comfort via blankets hung on the back of the chairs (just in case you get cold). 

AhbA's dinner dining room

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Photo by Dianne Russell

Community table anchors inside dining

Bennett graciously welcomes guests, and it’s obvious that he’s proud of this endeavor, and rightly so. “I fell in love with this building,” he says. And it’s easy to see why. It has seating both inside and outside on the front patio and along one side of the building. With the dining room doors open to the front patio, it offers an intimate and relaxed vibe with views of the sunset. Including outdoor seating, AhbA accommodates 70 people.

It seems a match made in culinary heaven that Bennett and Martinez, who are both self-taught chefs, met and eventually blended their culinary visions. Although they are both from Los Angeles and were part of the restaurant scene, their paths didn’t cross until three years ago. Martinez opened a friend’s restaurant Mh Zh in Silverlake and met Bennett there.

Martinez came to Orange County two years ago and became Chef de Cuisine at the acclaimed Social in Costa Mesa, staying there from June of 2018 to May of 2019.

AhbA's dinner Nick and Jayro

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Owner Nick Bennett (on left) and Executive Chef Jayro Martinez 

When Martinez left Social, he realized Bennett was here and they ran into each other again. “Nick happened to be opening here and was on the edge of creating something unique. Our styles complement each other. He gave me a lot of influence in creating the dishes, which are seasonal and suited to the lifestyle here. We put the menu together. It came together organically, according to the vision, and we ran with it. It was a big collaboration. 

 “It feels for us like family. We wake up, come in early, start cooking breakfast as if it’s home. It has a really organic feel. In the evenings, it’s like we’re at a dinner party waiting for guests to arrive. We have a lot of locals coming in, they’ve heard about us by word of mouth. We believe in what we’re doing and the vision. We’re very community driven and we’re getting a following. We’re now on a first name basis with our regulars.” 

AhbA's dinner hummus

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Photo by Dianne Russell

Hummus Dukkah

Once the food arrives, it’s easy to understand why they’ve developed a following.

The first dish we tasted was Hummus Dukkah. It’s made with olive oil, tahini, pickles, including pickled fennel, pickled celery root, cauliflower and carrot, dukkah (which is a middle Easter spice mix), and parsley. 

I love hummus, but this Hummus Dukkah is like no other you’ve ever tasted, rich and beyond creamy and served with the most scrumptious bread – bread to die for – on the side. It comes from Rye Goods Bakery in Costa Mesa and is grilled to a delectable crunch and serves as the perfect scooper for the hummus. My husband, who is not as much a fan of hummus as I am, loved it! Of course, we had to order extra bread, it’s a must! 

In addition to Rye Goods Bakery and Sea Greens, where they get the garnishes, Bennett says, “We work with as many local people as possible “

AhbA's dinner cauliflower

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Photo by Dianne Russell

Cauliflower 

Not surprising, the quality of the libations matched the quality of the fare.

My husband had a wonderful citrusy beer from Off Shoot Brewery in Placentia that specializes in hazy IPAs.

I tasted an orange wine – the 2017 Malvasia onward Suisun Valley, CA, which was light and fruity and a 2016 Pecorino de fermo from Abruzzo, Italy. They were the perfect accompaniment to the bold flavors of the dishes. Lucid Wines curates their wine list.

Bennett says, “We’ve been really excited to add craft cocktails to the menu.” 

Next we had the cauliflower, which is marinated in shallot vinaigrette, roasted and charred, then finished with crispy shallot, fennel purée, and Fresno oil.

The Fresno chili pepper oil adds just the right amount of heat and flavor. Charred on the outside, and perfectly tender on the inside, it doesn’t get much better than that.

AhbA's dinner sweet potatoes

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Sweet potatoes

The gnocchi, with an added garnish of edible flowers, was like nothing else I’ve ever tasted. Martinez explained, “It not the traditional gnocchi made with potatoes, these are made with mushrooms and reggiano.” 

As a result, the little gnocchi pillows are flavorful and cheesy (but with a light touch), bathed in a subtle sauce and not at all doughy. Unbelievable.

Each dish they served had a depth of flavor that started with one taste, then blossomed into another with each bite. 

In an ingenious twist on sweet potatoes, AhbA’s sweet potatoes are salt baked in a spice mix (there is espresso in the mix, however, not an overwhelming amount). They are then flash fried and served with a smoked onion purée and lightly sprinkled with sumac, creating crusty potato edges that are tangy and slightly sweet.

Although one would imagine being business partners is difficult on a friendship, Martinez says, “We’re open minded with each other and both have the same vision, so we do what’s best for the restaurant.” 

Expanding their vision

Martinez and Bennett will be expanding their vision in December when they add more root vegetable dishes and as mentioned above, craft cocktails.

AhbA hits all the points one desires in a restaurant – high quality food, a true dining experience, ambience, and great service (Kelly was wonderful). Most of all, AhbA offers unique and innovative fare – with an emphasis on unique.

Do your taste buds a huge favor and introduce them to the incredible realm of new flavor sensations at AhbA. Without a doubt, you will return again and again.

For more information, go to www.eatahba.com/ or call (949) 549-4556.

AhbA is located at 31732 Coast Hwy between 3rd Ave and 4th Ave. 

Breakfast and lunch are served Tuesday - Sunday. Happy Hour is from 3 - 5 p.m., Tuesday - Sunday. Dinner is at 5 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Mondays.