Getting Crafty

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Tantalize your palate this spring with craft cocktails from some of Laguna’s hottest eateries.

By Kelly Shannon | Photos by Jody Tiongco

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Executive Chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales of Nirvana Grille plans to experiment with rosemary and lavender accents in this spring’s cocktails.

In a place like Laguna Beach, there’s an artist to be found on every corner. From jewelers and glassworkers to painters and photographers, the local community is far from experiencing a shortage of creative talent. But what about the artists who specialize in another medium?
For Laguna’s star mixologists, the bar is a blank canvas and craft cocktails are this season’s masterpieces. The city’s bartending greats combine knowledge of the past with a keen understanding of contemporary style. Fusing flavors, they create boundary-pushing beverages that leave us constantly thirsting for more, and their ingenuity shines as brightly as their ability to carry a conversation.

With many Laguna eateries now mirroring the seasons by highlighting only the freshest ingredients, it’s no surprise handcrafted cocktails have become a staple on local menus. Laguna’s craft cocktails are offering our palates more flavor, dimension and originality than we’ve ever experienced before, as bartenders deliver new and interesting drinks that incorporate things like house-infused vodkas, flavored bitters, vibrant garnishes and other additives.

Unlike the act of pulling back the tab of a chilled can, the complexity of concocting handcrafted specialty cocktails is an art best left to the experts—so, as the sweet smells of spring punctuate the coastal air, let’s sip our way across the city.

Signature Hits

Walking into Broadway by Amar Santana is like stepping through a portal into vintage New York City. The restaurant is consistently busy; the bar, pleasantly packed. And while it’s the food at Broadway that usually steals the show, the restaurant’s craft cocktail creators are also some of the best in Laguna.

Broadway bartender AnnAlise Ventre, whose youth belies the 10 years she’s spent in the restaurant industry, says the freedom involved in mixing drinks is what keeps her behind the bar. “I love bartending because we get to be so creative,” she remarks. “I love being able to mix different flavors and ingredients and try new things.”

Still, despite her passion for innovation AnnAlise maintains a deep respect for the classics. Her historical knowledge and interest in spirits is akin to that of a dedicated professor. “I love the history behind all of it, learning about the history of spirits and how they’ve come into play today,” she says, comparing the skill of mixing cocktails to cooking. “You have to be able to put something together that not only tastes good, but surprises you and pleases you.”

At Broadway, the attention paid to all of the components of a craft cocktail extends to even the slightest details. “Any juice, any syrup is made here by hand by the bartenders,” AnnAlise says. The restaurant’s Moscow mule, served in the traditional copper cup, is a crowd favorite, and Broadway prides itself on making its ginger beer in house (it’s also served on tap).

Moscow mule at Broadway by Amar Santana
Moscow mule at Broadway by Amar Santana

The harmony between the bar and the kitchen creates a cohesive dining experience. “Every night the kitchen will ask the bartenders what produce we need to order for tomorrow. Because we shop with local produces companies, nothing is shipped,” AnnAlise says. “We make sure to use the most seasonal, local and sustainable produce.”

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Sapphire Laguna’s seasonal cocktails incorporate house-infused mint, espresso and basil vodkas.

In addition to staple cocktails like the Moscow mule, the restaurant embraces seasonality with a list of specialty cocktails that highlights the freshest ingredients possible and changes every few months as new produce becomes available. “Since winter happened so late this year, a few of the winter favorites will stay on our cocktail menu for spring,” AnnAlise says.

A few blocks south of Broadway by Amar Santana sits Mare Culinary Lounge on Pacific Coast Highway, a restaurant that’s become famous for a special craft blend of its own.

Luigi Avalos of Mare Culinary Lounge adds heat to his signature Marerita with Calabrian peppers.
Luigi Avalos of Mare Culinary Lounge adds heat to his signature Marerita with Calabrian peppers.

Tucked beneath the Holiday Inn, the eatery is home to one of the most colorful and entertaining bartenders in town. Luigi Avalos, whose titles include manager, head server and bartender, dotes on his most prized creation, the Marerita. Dreamed up by Luigi, the Marerita is Mare’s trademark margarita, blended with locally sourced fresh fruits and herbs grown on the property. Mare’s bartenders even make their own agave nectar, which is unbelievably clear, pure and delicious, eliminating the need for a sweetener like triple sec.

“We use Tres Sietes Silver Tequila, organic agave nectar, freshly squeezed Perricone orange juice, fresh basil, lime, lemon, [a] splash of soda water and the Calabrian pepper,” Luigi says, eager to discuss the logistics of the restaurant’s food and beverages. “The orange juice cuts the acid from the pepper. Basil gives you the sweetness. You feel the warmth of the pepper, which wakes you up. … But the secret to the Marerita is: Don’t stop drinking it, otherwise it might get spicy.”

Just a mile down PCH from Mare you’ll find one of Laguna’s newest additions, Selanne Steak Tavern, located adjacent to the Surf & Sand Resort. Though it only debuted in fall of 2013, the restaurant’s bar is something of a throwback to an era of classic cocktailing, and it features a staff that’s fully versed in Laguna’s dining culture.

The bar’s manager, Mike Blash, previously logged time at Three Seventy Common Kitchen + Drink and the now-defunct Sorrento Grille. “I’ve grown up in a bar,” says Mike, an industry professional who has spent the past 20 years accruing experience as a bar back, bartender and bar manager.
A scout of local produce, Mike shops primarily at the Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach and Irvine farmers markets. His cocktail menu always has a seasonal focus, yet also plays to his clientele’s requests. “Simple ingredients are key,” he says. “The more pure the drinks are, the better they taste. All our syrups and juices are made fresh.”

For a taste of one of Laguna’s newest cocktail menus, Mike suggests trying the restaurant’s signature beverage, The Selanne, which is made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, fresh lemon and a secret ingredient made in house.

The Selanne at Selanne Steak Tavern
The Selanne at Selanne Steak Tavern

Seasonally Inspired

While some of Laguna’s top eateries embrace tradition, others are entirely focused on evolution. Sapphire Laguna is decidedly one of the latter.

“Seasonality and global inspiration influence everything we do, and our menu changes frequently to take advantage of peak seasonal ingredients and international flavors,” says Azmin Ghahreman, owner and head chef at Sapphire. “The spring season brings so many fresh and flavorful ingredients to work with. … We are all about making everything from scratch, from our purees to our simple syrups; we even infuse our flavored liquors in house, like our spiced rum along with our mint, espresso and basil vodkas.”

Azmin debuted the restaurant in 2007 to much fanfare, and since then he’s made it a point to serve Lagunans only the freshest flavors from their own community. “I love our charming beach town, and I’ve always been committed to supporting our local businesses,” he says. “I make it a point to purchase locally as much as possible. … You can often find me at our local farmers market on Saturday mornings, where I purchase produce and soak up culinary inspiration from our local artisans.”

Much like his globally inspired menu, Azmin’s craft cocktails have an international flair and they’re known to incorporate fresh seasonal ingredients and unique flavor combinations that excite even the most adventurous palates. He encourages his bar staff to share their cocktail knowledge with guests and help them discover new drinks. “I enjoy experimenting behind the bar with different ingredients to create new flavor combinations,” he adds. “I also encourage my talented bartenders to do the same—some have created signature craft cocktails that are on our menu today.”

Leaving Sapphire, travel a few blocks up PCH and you’ll hit 230 Forest Avenue, one of downtown Laguna’s culinary hot spots. The restaurant’s bar features craft cocktails and some of the most buzz-worthy martinis around. “Our cocktail ideas come from all over, from the places our staff has come from, where they grew up, where they’ve worked. … That’s a factor to our drink menu,” says Rebecca Rule, a bartender and server at 230 Forest.

Seasonal cocktails are fixtures of the restaurant’s menu, and the Market Cooler is already one of its most popular handcrafted warm-weather sippers. The refreshing beverage consists of Bombay Sapphire gin, cucumber, lime and basil—the perfect finish to a day spent on the sand at Main Beach.
More local flair is served up inside nearby Nirvana Grille, owned and operated by Lindsay Smith-Rosales. “We’re going to try some new things,” Executive Chef Lindsay says of this season’s offerings at Nirvana. “Expect elements that capture the lightness of spring, like lavender and rosemary accents in our cocktails.

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The Market Cooler at 230 Forest Avenue is a refreshing combination of gin, cucumber, lime and basil.

“We’ll [also] have a great passion fruit martini that has fresh organic passion fruit puree we make with our house-made simple syrup and a cayenne sugar rim,” she adds. “You get tart, sweet and spicy altogether.” Signature drinks will remain on the menu as well, but seasonally Nirvana will experiment with additional craft cocktails that incorporate strawberries, blueberries, cilantro and chilies.

With so many tasty sips being poured at bars across Laguna this season, no cocktail craving will go unquenched—and with top-notch craft drinks incorporating accents like all-natural sweeteners, herbs and produce, there’s no better time to sample Laguna’s bounty. LBM

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1 COMMENT

  1. Love this place! Great atmosphere and Josh is an amazing executive chef. Everyone covers the food so it’s great to see the bar get some love:)

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