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.