From chef’s tables to open kitchens, it’s like going to dinner and a show at several Laguna restaurants.
By Ben McBee and Laguna Beach Magazine Staff
Sitting at a chef’s table or counter, as they often are, diners find themselves front and center for all the action. See the flames as the steak hits the grill, smell the sauce as it’s combined with the pasta and marvel at the artistry as everything is plated right before your eyes.
Historically, chef’s tables originated as a way for restaurateurs to entertain their friends and family at work, usually tucked away in a corner, surrounded by the din and commotion of the kitchen. Over time, the concept took on a more privileged undertone and that space began to be reserved for VIPs and posh invitees. However, in Laguna Beach and beyond, these types of interactive experiences are becoming more accessible to the general public.
Exhibition-style kitchens also offer a glimpse into the magic involved with bringing a menu to life. Perhaps fueled by the wide range of cooking shows and culinary competitions on TV, a growing number of diners are getting to see their delicious dishes take shape. There’s something inherently exciting about watching food evolve from a few chopped ingredients to a fully formed dish with layers of texture and flavor, which makes it all the more satisfying once it hits the palate. From Broadway by Amar Santana to The Drake, Ahba and more, these eateries go above and beyond the traditional format to create an experience that’s both memorable and engaging, weaving an aspect of storytelling into their recipes and ambiance.
Inspired by the pioneering hotel of the same name in New York City, The Drake brings a Big Apple vibe to the beach through elevated cuisine and live music, seven nights a week. At the chef’s counter, patrons can savor a meal crafted by attentive hosts.
“There are eight seats at the chef’s counter that provide an experience unlike any other provided throughout the restaurant,” says Sous Chef Nick Gstrein. “… I often joke that even though we have a performance on stage, the real performance is … [at] the chef’s counter on the opposite side of the room.” Some guests are disappointed at first when steered toward the chef’s table, Gsrein says. “But with a bit of convincing and breaking the ice, by the end of the meal, they ask what seat numbers they are so they can reserve the same chef counter seats for the next visit,” he says.
At Roux Creole Cuisine, many guests request the chef’s counter, so it’s advised to request it specifically when making a reservation, but there are usually a few spots open if one or two diners drop in and want to sit there. “Guests enjoy watching the chefs and line cooks preparing the meals,” says co-owner Cindy Byrne. “… Chef Robert [Villanueva] interacts with diners while cooking, sharing cooking tips and background/history of ingredients and ethnic spices. … [And] chef Robert will sometimes offer tastes of certain sauces or dishes.”
Guests at the nine-seat counter order from Roux’s regular menu. The best dishes to watch being made, Byrne says, are the gumbo, jambalaya, and shrimp and grits, which are made within view on the stovetop. The Catfish Orleans, plus weekly specials including the BBQ NOLA Rib-eye steak and halibut, are also eye-catchers due to the sauces and presentation, adds co-owner Michael Byrne. Of course, those at the counter also get to watch other guests’ orders being prepared, right down to the final plating. “It’s like a well-oiled machine,” Michael Byrne says. “When it’s busy, it’s really fun to watch.”
At Broadway by Amar Santana, guests order off the regular menu during the week, but on Fridays and Saturdays, special tasting menus are available at the popular, six-seat chef’s counter. “You can get an up-close view of all the action in the kitchen as well as interaction with the chefs,” says Broadway business partner Ahmed Labbate.
Broadway is known for serving up tempting dishes like roasted bone marrow, grilled charred Spanish octopus, grilled skirt steak, branzino, Brussels sprouts with Chinese sausage and sweet-and-sour sauce, and many other new additions that change seasonally.
At The Drake, when staffing permits, an individually tailored tasting menu can be crafted for the chef’s counter experience. “Each course is generally miniature versions of items that are on the menu itself,” Gstrein says, adding that he asks a few questions about a guest’s tastes and allergies before handwriting a lineup. “We don’t tell the guests all the items they are going to get because the element of surprise is also part of the experience,” Gstrein says.
Highlights at The Drake include a Duroc pork chop as well as a venison loin served with goat cheese and green onion “champ” potatoes, lingonberry preserves, honey port wine reduction and a white wine-poached Bosc pear. “Not many restaurants offer venison along the coast,” Gstrein says. Both the Umami Mushroom-Crusted Halibut and the tuna tartare appetizer, made with succulent Hawaiian yellowfin tuna, wasabi and Sriracha, also get the mouth watering.
As homage to the Southern California melting pot, The Drake’s New California fare draws on flavors from around the world. “We go out of our way to be engaging with the customers, tell our story about the restaurant, and about each dish that is brought to the guests,” he explains. “… We are not only chefs and servers, but also tour guides [who] can create a unique dining experience for each guest.”
A similar air of hospitality awaits at Ahba, where customers will appreciate the inventive array of vegetable- and protein-packed plates as well as a burgeoning cocktail program.
“I’ve always really liked the idea of an open, exhibition-style kitchen. It blurs the lines between home and restaurant, giving our team members the sense they are cooking for guests rather than strangers,” says Ahba chef and owner Nick Bennett. “It [adds] an enticing element and allows the guest to get a feel of where their food comes from and the care that’s put into it. There’s a level of fun to it that helps with repeat visits as well. The guests feel as though they are part of our family.”
This back-and-forth dynamic provides a morale boost to the cooks, making it a win-win for all involved. “It adds an element of showmanship that [otherwise] wouldn’t be present in a more traditional kitchen,” Bennett says. “We are all on stage, so we are accountable to perform. It also allows the kitchen to see [the] guest reactions and that, ultimately, means a lot to us.”
Nick’s in Laguna Beach also features an exhibition kitchen that can be seen from the dining room through large glass windows. Whether ordering a burger, the baby back short ribs or pan-seared Chilean sea bass, guests can get a glimpse of the fast-paced chefs at work, from chopping to mixing, grilling and plating, while waiting for their food to be served.
At Roux, which also boasts a full exhibition kitchen behind the counter, Michael Byrne notes, the only thing you don’t see is the salads being made and the dishes being washed. This view of the culinary action combined with New Orleans flavor and decor completely transports guests for the evening. “When the door shuts behind you, you don’t feel like you’re in Orange County anymore,” Michael Byrne says.