Local food writers dish on the top 14 culinary creations they savored in 2014.
By Fifi Chao, Anita Lau and Rich Manning
In the kitchens of Laguna Beach, acclaimed chefs whip up delectable dishes from the simple to the sublime at establishments around town. In 2014, eateries served everything from the Gruyere hamburger at Brussels Bistro to serrano hamachi carpaccio at Okura Robata Grill & Sushi Bar and wagyu beef tartare at Selanne Steak Tavern.
Often incorporating seasonal and organic ingredients, some entrees come and go while others become menu staples that impress diners again and again. While there are so many great dishes to savor around town, we’ve compiled an initial list that caught the eyes of three top OC food writers. Here, they share the standout plates that graced Laguna restaurants in the past year.
Anita Lau, author of “Asian Greens” cookbook, has contributed to Hong Kong Tatler’s Best Restaurants guide and, locally, has been nominated three times for a Golden Foodie Award. She served as a guest judge on Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and writes a blog, Diary of a Mad Hungry Woman, about her culinary escapades.
1. Fried Chicken at Three Seventy Common Kitchen & Drink
Although the fried chicken at Three Seventy Common Kitchen & Drink is only offered at its last Sunday Social of the month, it is well worth the wait. Juicy pieces of chicken are cured in a salt-and-spice mixture for 24 hours, dipped into buttermilk for about a minute, then dredged in flour and cornstarch. What makes this different from similar plates is that the pieces are first deep fried, then, halfway through, they are finished off in the oven. This results in crispiness without greasiness, and the best fried chicken you will ever eat.
2. Lobster Roll at Slapfish
At Slapfish, you can eat the restaurant’s signature item while gazing at the ocean view across the way. The lobster rolls are delectable concoctions that can only be described as heaven in a bun. Meaty chunks of New England lobster are first poached, then tossed with warm butter and a dash of lemon and mayo, before they are nestled in a buttery brioche roll from OC Baking Co. They’re never heavy and always boast a taste that will have you craving another as soon as you’ve taken your last bite.
3. Australian Lamb Chops at The Deck
When you want dining with a view, The Deck is happy to oblige. There’s no better way to relax than to watch the sun set, listen to the soothing sounds of the waves and indulge in spectacular dishes such as The Deck’s Australian lamb chops. The meat is marinated for 24 hours in olive oil, lemon slices, garlic and fresh herbs, then grilled to medium rare and plated with eggplant, red peppers, baby artichokes and zucchini. Gaeta olives combined with a simple basil pistou add refreshingly bright hints. The dish is finished with a drizzle of rich wine sauce.
4. Serrano Hamachi Carpaccio at Okura Robata Grill & Sushi Bar
Some of the best meals are also the simplest. One of the most addicting things you’ll ever eat is the serrano hamachi carpaccio from Okura Robata Grill & Sushi Bar. Succulent slices of sushi-grade hamachi (yellowtail) are bathed in an intoxicating soy-yuzu (Japanese citrus fruit) dressing, topped with finely diced red peppers and micro wasabi leaves. The serrano pepper slice provides a mouth-tingling spiciness, while the dressing creates a mouth-puckering experience. The aroma of yuzu lingers on the palate, and you’ll find that one order is never quite enough to satiate when sharing.
5. Cajun Prawns at Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen
If you feel the need for heat, then Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen is the place to go. Owner and chef Eva Madray blends the flavors of her Guyana roots with those of the Caribbean, with magical results. The Cajun prawns are plump and smothered in a thick, heady sauce, using spices ground in-house. There’s definitely a kick to this dish that’s not for the fainthearted. It’s well worth the burn, but to cool down your palate, the accompanying grilled pineapple, roasted peppers and passion fruit relish will do the job.
Rich Manning has been covering Orange County’s food scene for various publications since 2004 and revels in the diverse influences on the region’s restaurants. Willing to try almost anything once, he has enjoyed exquisite epicurean adventures, but also finds great joy in simple pleasures like a perfectly cooked hamburger and a dark, creamy stout.
6. Lord Stanley Cut Steak at Selanne Steak Tavern
Naming a steak after the greatest trophy in hockey would be a bold statement even if this restaurant wasn’t co-owned by retired Anaheim Ducks player Teemu Selanne. However, Executive Chef Joshua Severson backs up the dish’s somewhat brazen moniker by crafting a remarkably tender 32-ounce cut of succulent, edible brilliance. The juicy bursts of flavor the beef offers on its own become even more terrifically complex once the generous pat of accompanying bone marrow butter is slathered across its massive surface. The generous dish can easily satisfy two people, so invite someone you deeply care about to join you in devouring this study of pure epicurean indulgence.
7. South Indian Tomato Curried Barramundi at Sapphire Laguna
Chef Azmin Ghahreman is known for thinking globally with his cuisine, and the South Indian tomato curried barramundi at Sapphire Laguna is a premier representation of his refreshing culinary worldview. This fish dish works so well because of the way the flavors of India are detected in every bite. Instead of a profile that is built on bold tastes stacking on top of each other, the components gently march forward together in an excitedly complementary fashion. The many individual pieces included on the plate—the okra, the stone fruit chutney and the tomatoes—are not wasted. Instead, their very presence brings out nuances from the other elements that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Most importantly, these flavors are assembled in a way that prevents them from overpowering the mild sweetness of the barramundi that is the deserved star of this entree.
8. Wild Mushroom Ragout with Sweetbreads at Driftwood Kitchen
When Executive Chef Rainer Schwarz came onto the scene at Driftwood Kitchen (which opened back in June), he wasted no time pushing the boundaries of what Laguna Beach residents and visitors should try. That bit of culinary kinetics resulted in what’s arguably one of the best dishes on the menu, a favorite of locals. You don’t need to know what sweetbreads are—in fact, it may actually be better if you don’t know. Just realize that, in this particular dish, they are cut-with-a-fork-edge tender and subtly sweet. Meanwhile, the slightly whimsical bunch of mushrooms acts as a perfect foil by cutting down on the sweetbreads’ inherent richness with an undercurrent of earthiness. It is genuinely poised to be an epicurean revelation for everyone that makes their way down to Laguna. And, as an added bonus, this impressive meal can be enjoyed with the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean in full view. Add a sunset and it can’t get much better.
9. Roasted Bone Marrow at Broadway by Amar Santana
Bone marrow is sometimes referred to as “God’s butter.” If this is the case, chef Amar Santana seems capable of summoning the hand of the Almighty when he puts together his interpretation. The perfectly roasted marrow at Broadway by Amar Santana is precisely as it should be from a textural standpoint: slightly gelatinous as it is scooped out of the bone’s crevice, yet easy to slather on pieces of crostini. Its inherent creamy, meaty essence is smartly cut by the sweet yet earthy presence of the mushroom oxtail marmalade. While this makes the transition to the traditional parsley salad accompaniment smoother, it also tamps down the marrow’s natural flavor as it brings a new layer of depth to the bite. It’s a touch of complexity that adds intrigue without sacrificing integrity, and the result is nothing short of divine.
Fifi Chao is a wine, dining and travel columnist for the Orange County Business Journal and also writes Chao’s Dinesty, a private subscription newsletter about restaurants, wine and travel. Additionally, she organizes culinary tours around the globe as well as VIP food-and-wine-matching dinners with chefs.
10. Wagyu Beef Tartare at Selanne Steak Tavern
It’s a thrill when a beloved standby appears on the menu in an even better incarnation. Chef Joshua Severson makes a steak tartare that sings with texture and flavor. Elegantly marbled Australian wagyu beef is diced and combined with French whole-grain mustard, minced fresh thyme, finely chopped shallots, Italian olive oil and sea salt. The beautiful red meat is presented in a marrow bone “canoe.” Wild arugula in a black truffle vinaigrette, a lightly fried Vermont quail egg and homemade fingerling chips finish my favorite appetizer.
11.Limoncello-Infused Radiatori at Mare Culinary Lounge
Owner Alessandro Pirozzi makes memorable dishes from the finest ingredients including his own limoncello liqueur—quality vodka infused with pristine lemon zest. All pastas are made in-house daily from imported semolina flour. These two specialties form the base for his limoncello-infused radiatori with lobster. Shallots, garlic and Calabrian chilies get a few shakes in the saute pan, then a dollop of Alessandro’s own Meyer lemon butter sauce is added, along with a generous dash of white wine. Live Maine lobster finalizes the dish before it tops the lemony pasta. I’m in heaven.
12.GruyEre Hamburger at Brussels Bistro
The burger at this subterranean pub quickly rose to the top of my burger list—it’s such an unexpected find amid the bistro’s menu of Belgian specialties. Executive Chef Thomas Crijns serves this hefty sandwich on a wooden board and doesn’t mind changing cultures to nest the burger in a terrific Italian ciabatta roll. The patty—10 ounces of Angus beef—is seasoned only with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add melted Gruyere cheese, caramelized Belgian endive and homemade whiskey mayo and therein is the making of the other-than-usual burger.
13. Sumac Salmon at K’ya Bistro
Some dishes are memorable because layers of carefully balanced flavors unfold in each bite. Chef Craig Connole constructs a real winner in the Sumac salmon. (Sumac is mostly known to local diners as the spice on tables of Persian and Middle Eastern restaurants, which can be sprinkled on rice or other foods.) I love its gentle nuances. To start the dish, quinoa is cooked in vegetable stock. Diced, roasted seasonal vegetables are then folded in. Salmon fillets are coated with sumac and za’atar (another Middle Eastern spice), then pan roasted. Arugula lines the plate, topped with the quinoa mixture and salmon. A drizzle of balsamic-honey-preserved lemon vinaigrette goes over and around the salmon for a wonderfully tasty seafood entree.
14. Raw Cashew-Almond Salted Caramel Pie at Nirvana Grille
Nirvana Grille co-owner and Executive Chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales is completely into sustainable, organic and healthful food. And her delicious raw cashew-almond salted caramel pie is the perfect finale to a meal. It begins with a crust made of lucuma (a natural sugar made from fruit), macadamia nuts and almonds. Then, a layer of raw cacao is drizzled on, topped with agave and Himalayan pink salted caramel, a creamy layer of cashew milk, almond milk and coconut custard, then a bit more raw cacao and sea salt. It has the yin-yang of sweet and salty and delights the taste buds in so many ways.