With so many creative chefs in town, some dishes are almost too pretty to eat.
By Ben McBee
When you sit down to an exquisite meal, it’s not a stretch to compare the flair of virtuoso painters with the techniques of genius chefs. A streak of vibrant red here, dappled shades of green there—each stroke and splash the work of a master artist set against a blank canvas. The talent of preparing and plating food is a craft appreciated by all the senses, but unlike acrylic and oil, the final product is tasty, too.
Before digging in, sometimes it’s necessary to just admire the fleeting beauty and feed your eyes before filling your belly. Laguna Beach is a veritable Louvre of cuisine with more star culinary prodigies than your taste buds will know what to do with.
The Compressed Watermelon Salad at Surf & Sand Resorts’ Splashes captures both the flavor and visual essence of summer. Bright fuchsia strawberry “snow” powder explodes like colorful pyrotechnics around the condensed fruit, which peeks out beneath a canopy of greens and purples. More fireworks ignite with each bite of wild asparagus; shallots; dried, roasted strawberries; and strawberry and black pepper meringue. It’s picnic fare, elegantly elevated to unheard of levels.
“There is a nice tang from the pickled green strawberry,” says Ron Fougeray, executive chef for JC Resorts, the parent company of Surf & Sand, which is his home base. “The whipped feta is silky, while the mint pearls will pop in your mouth. There’s a lot going on with this dish.” (949-376-2779; surfandsandresort.com)
Ocean at Main
Over the course of his career, chef Craig Strong has wowed diners with immaculate plating and his mastery of French and Spanish gastronomy. His squash blossom tempura calls back to time spent in the vibrant port city Barcelona, Spain, and includes cod brandade and romesco sauce.
“We mix our fresh cod with potato, olive oil and garlic,” Strong says. “The brandade is bejeweled with drops of romesco sauce, edible micro flowers and chive strands.”
The unique dish is one of contrast, the crispy squash tempura playing off the soft fish and the romesco providing a resounding tang. Its layout is modern, utilizing negative space, where clean shapes and lighter hues jump off the dark plate. “For anyone who’s visited Barcelona,” Strong says, “the flavors of this dish will remind them of the salty air and the vibrant colors of Gaudí that paint the city.” (949-715-3870; oceanatmain.com)
Studio at Montage
Nowhere does this coastal town’s scenic beauty converge with cuisine of the highest order more perfectly than at Montage Laguna Beach’s Studio. True to its name, the French restaurant is the place where Chef de Cuisine Benjamin Martinek designs masterpieces like the seared Arctic mero sea bass.
“We salt the fish, sear it in clarified butter and roast it in the oven,” Martinek says of the sustainably caught bass. “It’s a rich, flaky fish and should be cooked all the way through to release all the oils.”
Some of his favorite warm weather ingredients help balance the fish’s richness and complete the dish: Shelled fava beans are blanched, chopped and mixed with lemon, pickled shallot, olive oil, white pepper and salt. Seasonal morel mushrooms are sauteed in brown butter and a sweet red onion cream is prepared with herbs and dotted across the plate for an aesthetically pleasing arrangement.
“We give the sea bass a nice char, which looks beautiful against the red onion gel, earthy tones from the mushrooms and various greens from the veggies,” he explains. “We also incorporate a flower or two from our garden.” (949-715-6420; montagehotels.com)
Selanne Steak Tavern
Like a diamond in the rough, beets are a bit dull on the outside. But, when sliced open, their rich crimson tint is a priceless addition to any chef’s culinary palette, and Selanne Steak Tavern’s scarlet beet ravioli will certainly be welcome on your plate. To create this veggie-driven take on a pasta classic, the kitchen staff starts by oven-roasting jumbo red beets and cutting them into thin layers.
“We sandwich the slices around a dollop of lemon-herb goat cheese and punch [the edges] … to resemble ravioli,” says Chef de Cuisine Vince Terusa. “The dish is garnished with oven-roasted hazelnuts, a mix of gem lettuces—frisee, watercress and arugula—[as well as] grapefruit segments, candied oranges … and a golden beet vinaigrette.”
Enticing yellow and leafy green elements adorn the cogwheel-shaped pockets while a delicate shaving of Chioggia beet—also called the candy cane or candy stripe beet—is the piece de resistance; its mesmerizing pattern truly pops on the plate. The savory, smooth filling blends subtly sweet, earthy notes perfectly, punctuated by citrus acidity. Its meticulous composition guarantees you can experience it all in one bite. (949-715-9881; selannesteaktavern.com)
Picasso, Dali, El Greco—Spain has given us some of the world’s most recognizable artists, as well as an artfully delicious way to prepare octopus. For the grilled Spanish octopus dish at Driftwood Kitchen, Executive Chef Rainer Schwarz is similarly inspired and gets the seafood fresh, cooking it in red wine, olive oil, garlic and fresh lemon and herbs.
“One of the most important things about octopus [is] ensuring that it is tender—the sear on the outside helps to release its flavors,” Schwarz says. “It is grilled to order so that it is slightly charred on the outside and then the tentacles are cut up into bite-sized pieces before plating.”
To frame the whimsical ingredient, the octopus is placed on a base of chickpea puree made with za’atar and lemon agrumato. Flecks of diced tomatoes, pepperoncini, basil and fried capers show the flavorsome stippling of an experienced hand. It’s not surprising that it’s a best-seller. (949-715-7700; driftwoodkitchen.com)