The Art of Sharing

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Appetizers take center stage at Laguna restaurants, allowing diners to dig in as a group.

By Crawford McCarthy and Laguna Beach Magazine Staff

 

The appetizer section of a restaurant’s menu has evolved over the years: Where it once was a hiding place for a collection of small plates, it has become a stage for the chef’s creativity to shine on a more accessible scale. The art of sharing appetizers is common practice now—whether soaking up the restaurant’s atmosphere over drinks with friends or ordering to take home and enjoy.

The next time you want to gather your group or host a house party with plenty of flavor, make sure to add these appealing appetizers from Laguna Beach chefs to the top of your list.

 

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Broadway by Amar Santana’s crispy braised pork cheeks, inspired by an oxtail dish at its sister restaurant, Vaca | Photo by Sarah King Photography

Broadway by Amar Santana

“Top Chef” alum Amar Santana is no stranger to big flavor with a side of style. From his restaurant’s signature cocktails to the rich, inviting entrees, every menu item seems to drip with promise—even ingredients that diners may not be familiar with are elevated to new heights. The crispy braised pork cheeks are a must-try, if only for their delicious blend of fall flavors. Inspired by the oxtail dish at Broadway’s sister restaurant, Vaca, in Costa Mesa, the pork is braised in chicken stock, apples and apple juice, then the braising liquid is used to make an apple-balsamic jus that builds texture and tartness. “We add cranberry caramel … to bring back sweetness,” says Richard Ramirez, chef de cuisine at Broadway, “[and] the parsnip puree brings it all together—[a] balance of sweet, tart [and] savory using a handful of ingredients in a few different ways.” (949-715-8234; broadwaybyamarsantana.com)

 

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The Aloha Poke with ahi tuna at Starfish Laguna | Photo by EdVisions

Starfish Laguna

It’s no secret that Starfish Laguna’s Opium Hour is a hit amongst locals, offering deals on starters like Thai coconut chicken satays and banh mi beef sliders, but the Asian fusion menu has plenty to explore beyond 3-6 p.m. as well. The Aloha Poke is a definite crowd-pleaser, with chunks of ahi tuna tossed with mango, red and green onion, jalapeno, yuzu soy sauce, sesame seeds and tobiko roe. Paired with the crunch of taro chips, this healthy option is ideal for splitting with friends. “Savor the symphony of our fresh ahi tuna, tropical mango and a tantalizing blend of flavors in our Aloha Poke,” says Omar Pineda, executive chef for Starfish Hospitality Group. “A culinary masterpiece—enriched with sesame seeds, soy yuzu sauce and vibrant toppings, all accompanied by crispy taro chips—it’s always an unforgettable fusion of taste and texture.” Order this poke dish for a flavorful night out or take it home, where you’ll all remain glued till the last bite. (949-715-9200; starfishlaguna.com)

 

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Nirvana Kitchen & Pantry’s wild mushroom ravioli | Photo by Lindsay Smith

Nirvana Kitchen & Pantry

Certain dishes not only satiate the stomach, but also the soul—and Nirvana Kitchen & Pantry’s wild mushroom ravioli is one of them. Formerly Nirvana Grille, this eatery, serving sustainable California cuisine, has been beloved by Laguna locals for years. While a hearty pasta always hits the spot, especially in the colder months, it’s often dreamed up exclusively as an entree, but this ravioli simply must be shared. “We make our artichoke-basil pesto in-house—that is the base to our sauce,” says Lindsay Smith, chef-owner at Nirvana. “There are complements of flavor with the addition of sun-dried tomatoes, shallots, white wine and cream that add luster and depth to this delicious … sauce. We … [also] sell the artichoke pesto, our ravioli sauce and the raw mushroom raviolis by the dozen in our new grab-and-go market.” Topped with two kinds of cheese—shredded Parmesan and goat crumbles—as well as pine nuts and ribbons of basil, the flavors blend to create the perfect autumn dish. (949-497-0027; nirvanakp.com)

 

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The whipped feta at Ahba, served with toasted bread and tomato jam | Photo by Kailee Walters

Ahba

To say that locally adored eatery Ahba is charming would be understatement. The restaurant oozes a breezy, relaxed style that is emblematic of our seaside town, located in a quaint cottage with a light-strung patio, and the food is equally inspired yet approachable. For a fresh start to your meal, try the whipped feta, which is handcrafted to showcase the chef’s talent and creativity. “This particular dish is a local favorite for several reasons—it’s savory, it’s sweet and it’s served with toasted, seeded bread, making it shareable for groups,” says Logan Petitto, assistant general manager of Ahba. “And who doesn’t love bread and cheese?” Accompanied by a savory tomato jam, crisp pine nuts and shreds of mint and parsley, tuck in until you’ve given your undivided attention to every last bite. (949-549-4556; eatahba.com)

 

Oak Laguna Chef J.J.’s Ajillo Shrimp_Christina Annalisa/Oak Laguna Beach
The shareable Chef J.J.’s Ajillo Shrimp appetizer at Oak Laguna Beach | Photo by Christina Annalisa/Oak Laguna Beach

Oak Laguna Beach

A meal at Oak is an exercise in what makes dining in Laguna Beach great—stunning views, great company, fantastic food and an ocean breeze. And whether you’re dining in or taking out, the shareable Chef J.J.’s Ajillo Shrimp is a must-order. The platter features jumbo shrimp made with garlic, pickled carrots, white wine and a guajillo butter sauce, served with bread to mop up all the goodness. This dish allows you to fully immerse yourself in a dining experience at Oak, with the warm, sauce-coated shrimp offering a garlic-fueled rush and the acidity of the wine binding the flavors; the pickled carrots cut through it all with welcome reprieve. Don’t be afraid to order more bread to soak up every last drop. (949-940-3010; oak-lagunabeach.com)

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