Pickled produce is making a comeback as Laguna chefs use it to garnish appetizers, pizzas and everything in between.
By Bria Balliet | Photos by Jody Tiongco
Pickles have been a revered snack for centuries—even famous historical figures, from Christopher Columbus to Cleopatra, couldn’t get enough. But today, brining isn’t just for cucumbers. Local kitchens are taking inspiration from dishes like Korean kimchee (various vegetables soaked in vinegar and spices), sousing everything from apples to cabbage for tart garnishes and side dishes.
“I think the gastronomic phase of cooking is on its way out, and getting back to the rustic, actual cooking and preserving of food [is making] its way back in,” explains Kenny Raponi, executive chef of Laguna’s Tabu Grill.
The salt and tang of vinegar-soaked veggies perfectly complements heavy dishes like pork belly, a local favorite. “Nowadays we use [pickling] to not only preserve food, but we use it to balance out a dish,” Kenny says. “It adds an acidity and it helps cut through richer, heartier components.”
Here, we’ve rounded up some of the places around Laguna that offer these innovative additions so you can satisfy your sour tooth.
Starfish’s dedication to Asian-inspired fare extends to the tangy trimmings on its appetizers and small plates. The eatery stays true to Korean flavors by topping barbecue pork buns with pickled red onion and tacos with various brined vegetables, but it steps outside the box with its lobster roll sliders. Served on warm bread with Maine lobster and Sriracha aioli, the miniature East Coast-inspired bites are then sprinkled with preserved jalapeno for a tart and spicy kick.
Adding a bit of brine to the main course, the restaurant’s five-spice baby back ribs—which are first dry rubbed with star anise and cinnamon, and then coated with katsu barbecue sauce—are amplified by the hot and sour flavor of Starfish’s pickled vegetable slaw. (949-715-9200; starfishlaguna.com)
Broadway by Amar Santana
While chef-owner Amar Santana’s innovative dish selections change regularly, there are a few pantry staples he keeps on hand.
His arsenal always includes house-made piccalilli—English-style brined vegetables seasoned with turmeric, mustard and other spices. “I actually made this batch I have about two years ago,” Amar says. “That’s what is so amazing about having pickled stuff. It’s a preservative, so basically you … can always have it handy and use it for anything.”
His interest in pickling also extends to seafood: Brined clamshell mushrooms accompany the Mediterranean branzino dish, and he plans to serve marinated shrimp and mussels this spring.
“I use white wine and a little bit of vinegar so it’s not very pungent,” the chef explains. “It’s more mellow, more light, but it still has that [pickled] taste.” (949-715-8234; broadwaybyamarsantana.com)
Celebrating the flavors of global cuisine, chef Azmin Ghahreman’s Sapphire Laguna boasts an array of tastes ranging from Asia to the Middle East. Known for its slightly sweet and savory flavor, the kalbi (Korean beef short rib) pairs beautifully with the acidity of the kimchee and the tang of the accompanying scallion-ginger relish. Similarly, the crisp texture of the vegetables complements the tenderness of the meat.
Another Asian-inspired dish, the braised Vietnamese beef cheeks, receives an additional layer of flavor from pickled herbs. Those who prefer poultry will want to try Sapphire’s Jidori chicken, which features apple cabbage sauerkraut. (949-715-9888; sapphirellc.com)
Inspired by flavors of the South Pacific, Tabu Grill serves Asian-fusion cuisine such as seafood, pork and steaks with fresh vegetables and savory sides, like forbidden black rice risotto and house-made macaroni and cheese. Throughout the menu, brined accompaniments add a complementary flavor. Pickled onions atop the poke appetizer, for example, are the perfect finish for a plate that marries coriander, bay leaves, garlic and other seasonings to create a soy and ginger essence.
The pork gyoza—served with spicy peanuts and a ginger-soy dipping sauce—also gets an added kick from vinegar-soaked daikon, carrots and chilies; meanwhile, the braised pork belly is served with a quick-pickled coleslaw. “It’s not actually pickled in the sense where it’s curing and being preserved in the juice,” Kenny explains of the coleslaw. “It’s just added to the juice for a few hours to get that extra acidic taste into the vegetables.” (949-494-7743; tabugrill.com)
Helmed by Executive Chef David Fuñe, Splashes Restaurant at Surf & Sand Resort is known for its dedication to local ingredients and California coastal cuisine. The restaurant’s lunch menu includes a selection of gourmet flatbread pizzas, several of which include an unexpected bite from produce that is carefully pickled in-house.
“Pickling is, for me, a delicate thing,” David explains. “I don’t want something to be too pickled if I’m having something that has a mild flavor because it will take over.”
Striking a balance, the forest mushroom pork-belly flatbread comes adorned with rich brie, soy caramel and black garlic; a layer of brined baby apples helps cut through the heaviness.
“Through the cooking process, apples get really sweet,” David says. “So we thought the slight pickling process [would] help keep the acid level up there for that particular flatbread.” (949-376-2779; surfandsandresort.com)