Macaroni and cheese has been an American staple since day one. In fact, legend has it that Thomas Jefferson invented the combination. While this origin is debated, there’s no doubt that the Founding Father was enamored with it: He went so far as to source a macaroni machine from Italy, and later helped popularize the dish when he served it to dinner guests during his presidency.
Since then, variations of this classic comfort food have been enjoyed in homes and restaurants across the nation, from the iconic boxed Kraft dinners—introduced in 1937, when they provided affordable family meals during the Great Depression—to gourmet versions served at the finest eateries. Today, chefs are elevating macaroni and cheese through the use of high-end ingredients, innovative combinations and creative additions.
Laguna Beach restaurants are offering diverse takes on this creamy combo as well, and while reminiscent of the favorite flavors many recall from childhood, the iterations often feature gourmet tweaks to satisfy adult palates.
Belgian eatery Brussels Bistro offers a decadent interpretation of this American classic. Its macaroni and cheese features Gruyere with a generous amount of salty cubed ham incorporated throughout. A light sprinkling of minced herbs on top adds color and a bit of freshness to this rich entree. The dish is served piping hot; breaking through the exterior layer of browned cheese releases a steady flow of deliciously scented steam. Every bite offers the perfect ratio of cheese to pasta, as the spiraled noodles’ layers capture the creamy sauce. Despite the large portion, after the final spoonful it’s hard to resist scraping the sides of the bowl for the last bits of crunchy, oven-baked Gruyere. (949-376-7955; brusselsbistro.com)
K’ya Bistro Bar
Macaroni and cheese, in various forms, has been a longtime favorite on K’ya Bistro Bar’s menu. As if its three-cheese version wasn’t satisfying enough, K’ya has now upgraded it to four—Gorgonzola, jack, cheddar and Parmesan—for an even more intriguing taste. But what makes this interpretation of the traditional dish particularly special is the fresh herb flavor from the addition of basil pesto. Chef Craig Connole says the ingredient is combined with the cheeses, cream and a little salt and pepper; the mixture is then cooked until it becomes a gooey sauce that’s stirred together with classic elbow macaroni. It’s topped off with a layer of crunchy toasted breadcrumbs and, for a final sophisticated touch, a bit of truffle oil. (949-376-9718; kyabistro.com)
Selanne Steak Tavern
When planning the initial menu for Selanne Steak Tavern, chef Joshua Severson prepared five elaborate macaroni and cheese recipes for owner Teemu Selanne and his teammates to sample—while they liked the options, they asked for something “a bit more basic.” So, he raided Teemu’s refrigerator and created a toned-down version with the ingredients on-hand. The result has been a staple on the menu since the restaurant opened, although Joshua admits he’s enhanced the original. Today it’s made with artisan Italian pasta; a fondue sauce consisting of bechamel, five cheeses and seasoned with chives, garlic, basil and parsley; and a crispy brioche topping. A dollop of Parmesan foam makes for a one-of-a-kind finish. (949-715-9881; selannesteaktavern.com)
Lumberyard also recently revamped its macaroni and cheese recipe. The former dish featuring bacon and bleu cheese has been replaced with a three-cheese version consisting of sharp cheddar, jack and Parmesan. (For dedicated fans of the original, owner Cary Redfearn says those previous ingredients can still be added upon request.) Potent flavors of onion and garlic cut through the richness of the creamy cheese sauce, but it’s the noodles that steal the show here. Like Thomas, Cary appreciates the impact of homemade pasta. “We are now proud owners of Dolly—a wonderful new pasta machine from Italy—and we are now making all of our pastas in house. … You can taste the difference,” Cary says of the fresh macaroni. (949-715-3900; lblumberyard.com)
Three Seventy Common Kitchen & Drink
Chef-owner Ryan Adams says that Three Seventy Common Kitchen & Drink’s version brings him back to his childhood. “Our baked mac ’n’ cheese is a dish that reminds me of the warm, comforting food that grandma used to cook, and I like to share those nostalgic food memories with others,” he says. While Ryan says he tries to avoid straying too far from the classic taste of macaroni and cheese, the cheddar he uses is aged for two years, offering a sharp, distinct flavor. The recipe begins with a roux made from onions sauteed in butter mixed with flour, and then milk, thyme, salt and pepper are added, followed by the white cheddar. The sauce is combined with precooked macaroni and topped with more cheese before moving to the oven, where it gets bubbly and crisp. It’s sprinkled with breadcrumbs and toasted one more time just before serving. (949-494-8686; 370common.com)
—Written by Katherine Duncan | Photos by Jody Tiongco