Raw Done Right

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The Driftwood Kitchen Seafood Tower_Anne Watson Photography
The Driftwood Kitchen Seafood Tower | Photo by Anne Watson Photography

Find the best of ocean-to-table dining at this town’s impressive restaurants.

By Crawford McCarthy

 

The sound of crashing waves is more than just the background music of Laguna Beach—it is a calling to chefs, an invitation to wade through a literal ocean of potential ingredients and flavors to delight guests. Ironically, in a profession that calls for a cook to manipulate ingredients to achieve their fullest potential, some of the very best seafood dishes are those which require no cooking at all. From sushi to seafood towers, and everything in between, raw preparations are king when it comes to presenting the best of the sea’s bounty in Laguna.

 

A Labor of Love

Mother Nature was in a good mood when the humble oyster was created as they are the perfect, sustainable, self-contained packets of flavor. Mind you, it takes quite a bit of work to open an oyster for the uninitiated, making them that much more special.

While they can come from various regions, and vary in size and taste, most commonly you will find the crisp Kumiai oysters from Mexico on menus. Of course, other types are carried throughout the year depending on their availability, and seasonality, so it’s always best to ask what’s hiding in the back.

Comedor at La Casa Del Camino has a beautiful offering—Baja Kumiai oysters served with a white soy mignonette, chives and yuzu pearls; these are only offered occasionally, as the menu frequently changes, but for those who happen to dine at Comedor on the right day, they’re well worth it.

Selanne Steak Tavern-Oysters-5
Oysters at Selanne Steak Tavern | Photo by Mark Keraly

Selanne Steak Tavern also presents a wonderful bevy of bivalves to be enjoyed with ice wine mignonette; and they’re made even better when paired with a recommendation from the establishment’s incredible sommelier. Meanwhile, at 230 Forest Avenue, oysters on the half shell come with vodka pomegranate granita, while Brussels Bistro offers Kumiai oysters with “delicate cucumber notes and a crisp salty brine.”

 

Sourcing the Seas

At the oceanfront Montage Laguna Beach resort, diners are advised to go with the tide and try one of The Loft’s popular raw dishes: the soy-wrapped bigeye tuna. This lunch entree brings together the tuna with matcha soba (a Japanese noodle), sugar snap peas, Fresno peppers, wakame (a type of seaweed), tobiko (flying fish roe) and sesame vinaigrette.

And both The Loft and Mosaic Bar & Grille offer a tuna poke bowl, but with different accouterments. The former comes complete with rice, avocado, smoked trout roe, roasted seaweed, macadamia nuts and a chile-garlic crunch, while the latter includes mango, avocado, edamame, seaweed and rice. For both options, the resort looks to local fish companies for the tuna.

“Van Dixhorn Fisheries is our favorite source for seasonal, local whole fish,” says Ben Martinek, the resort’s executive sous chef. “In the late summer months, as the water warms up, they bring us a steady supply of large, whole and locally caught bluefin tuna.”

Martinek chooses fish ranging from 180 to 200 pounds and ensures every bit is used.

“We have two chefs break down the fish,” he says. “… We then air dry the loins overnight and break into portions in the following days.”

The importance of overseeing this process cannot be understated, as Martinek explains. “It is a great educational and team-building activity for young cooks to see and be a part of—the team always gets extremely excited when the tuna arrives,” he says. When breaking down the whole fish, they can also use the trim and other obscure cuts, rather than only buying the loin.

“Lastly, we have 100% control of the freshness of the fish, from the day it comes out of the water to the day we slice the last of the otoro.”

The otoro is the most prized cut, being the fattiest and most tender. It’s used in weekly specials at The Loft, such as otoro by the slice, prepared in a traditional sashimi style, and chutoro crudo with Meyer lemon, Kaluga caviar, avocado, radishes and smoked extra-virgin olive oil. Notably, chutoro comes from the belly area of the tuna, like otoro, but on the side of the fish.

 

Pleasure Cruise

People eat with their eyes first. It is safe to say then that presentation matters, and nothing gathers more jealous stares from fellow diners than a seafood tower. Driftwood Kitchen presents a seafood tower for the ages. The waterfront location inspires its menu’s ocean-to-table focus.

MLB The Loft - Ahi Tuna Poke Bowl_courtesy of Montage Laguna Beach
Ahi tuna poke bowl at Mosaic Bar & Grille at Montage Laguna Beach | Photo by Montage Laguna Beach

“The Driftwood Kitchen Seafood Tower is literally a seafood lover’s dream,” says partner and Executive Chef Rainer Schwarz. “It’s filled with Maine lobster tail, king crab leg, poached jumbo Mexican shrimp, oysters on the half shell, Spanish octopus ceviche and tuna tartare.”

The Cliff Restaurant also presents an impressive, two-tiered seafood tower, complete with a dozen wasabi scallops and chilled prawns, plus six snow crab claws, lemon and cocktail sauce.

For those seeking something smaller than a tower, but equally stunning, then Broadway by Amar Santana is the place to go. There, the Japanese hamachi sashimi with citrus miso dressing, furikake, tempura flakes and avocado sorbet will delight your senses.

Indeed, from a freshly shucked oyster, to an intricate crudo to a fresh poke bowl, there is no limit to the wonders of raw seafood. It is one thing to live in a place where ocean views are a daily gift, but to be able to enjoy the bounty of the sea is another thing entirely. Endless flavors and presentations await those ready to take the plunge and, thankfully, there are plenty of restaurants and chefs in this Pacific Riviera ready to satiate that curiosity.

 


Just Roll With It

When it comes to raw seafood, the ultimate option is sushi—both an art form and a practice in perfection, presenting flavors that delight and entice. Laguna Beach has no shortage of great sushi spots ready to handle a diner’s every wish.

Salmon Supreme at Seabutter
Salmon Supreme at Seabutter

Salmon Supreme at Seabutter

While not a traditional roll being that some of the fish is cooked, this explosion of flavor highlights the salmon in a way that will have you understanding why bears go into rivers to catch them. The roll features salmon tempura and spicy tuna, with seared salmon and a lemon slice on top.

A dish at Rebel Omakase_ashley ryan
A dish at Rebel Omakase | Photo by Ashley Ryan

Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeno at O Fine Japanese Cuisine

Yellowtail has a great flavor, and the jalapeno works with it beautifully. The ponzu sauce lends its unique, citrusy pop to round out this flavorful bite that is mandatory ordering for any outing.

The entire meal at Rebel Omakase

This downtown spot offers a proper omakase experience—this is a trust fall of a meal as you put yourself at the mercy of the chef. However, it is worth the suspension of choice, as every morsel shines bright from start to finish.

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