Business is booming—and blooming—for Russ Bendel.
When Bendel was named the Business Journal’s Restaurateur of the Year in 2018, he had just opened Olea restaurant in Newport Beach, his third notable local eatery after Vine in San Clemente and Ironwood in Laguna Hills.
They say success breeds success. Bendel assumed ownership of the popular Sapphire restaurant in Laguna Beach from Chef Azmin Ghahreman in early 2020, and on Dec. 2 he officially opened his latest endeavor, Bloom Restaurant + Bar, in San Juan Capistrano, across from the city’s famed Mission.
It’s the fifth restaurant for Bendel and his partners: Chef Jared Cook, Beverage Director Gabe Whorley and Operations VP Kyle Simpson.
Bloom is in the officially designated historic Ferris Kelly building, which served as San Juan Capistrano’s original City Hall in 1930. Irvine-based Steiner Studios has showcased the authentic brick building and original architectural components of open-air archways and high exposed open beam ceilings.
New design features include warm amber lighting, a large backlit bar, and a glassed-in exhibition kitchen. The 2,400-square-foot space seats around 90, which includes 22 in the bar area.
The dinner-only operation will unveil weekend brunch this year.
“After the original city hall this was a pharmacy, then a small fire station, then a Diedrich coffee, then Starbucks bought Diedrich,” Bendel—whose father, also named Russ, is CEO of Irvine’s Habit Burger Grill—told the Business Journal soon after Bloom opened. “Starbucks decided they wanted a drive-thru location, so they moved. We came in and demolished everything down to the soil, poured new concrete, so other than the brick walls, Bloom was built from scratch inside a historic building.
“It’s a killer spot with a beautiful view of the mission.”
Bendel said it was always a dream to be in San Juan Capistrano, and this was his favorite possibility. Bendel is such a fan of the community that he and his family became San Juan Capistrano residents last year.
Bendel signed a lease for Bloom in January, but it took nearly the entire year to get Bloom opened.
“There were a lot of moving parts with the historical component of this building,” he said.
The Bloom menu also has many moving parts. While Chef Cook has designed menus for the other restaurants that are somewhat similar, he saw Bloom as a chance to craft something new. Three dishes are holdovers from the other restaurants, the other 25 are new creations.
“We are not far from our other restaurants, and I was burned out on doing the same stuff,” Cook said. “I said it’s time to do something really awesome in San Juan. I want a game changer down here, I want the local spot, I want the best menu around. It’s more work and new dishes, but I am very proud of this menu.”
“We are dead center between Vine and Ironwood, and we wanted something different between the two,” Bendel added. “And then we have Sapphire in Laguna, it’s like a triangle.
“The only similarities are the oysters, the mac and cheese, and a burger. This one is a different take on a burger. It’s no Mexicali burger (at Vine), that’s my gold standard, although this one is insane.”
The OCBJ Review: By Christopher Trela
A recent trip to Bloom Restaurant + Bar, shortly after its opening, saw me sample several dishes, from starters to dessert.
First out was Hamachi and Mexican white prawn ceviche with cherry tomatoes, cucumber, grilled hearts of palm, avocado lime mousse, cilantro, crispy espelette pepper potatoes.
“I like ceviche, so I did my little twist on it,” said Chef Jared Cook. “The shrimp are poached, and the Hamachi is raw. Instead of tortilla chips for scooping this is a fork and knife presentation with the crispy chips on top. It’s a little more refined and upscale and sexy.”
And visually pleasing with the stacked ingredients, and thoroughly delicious. The combination of the raw Hamachi and cooked prawns beautifully interacted with the other ingredients, and it was a nice change to have the chips incorporated into the dish.
Next came caramelized sweet onion-mascarpone dip with rosemary focaccia crostini.
“When I grew up, I had Lipton’s French onion dip, so I wondered how can I make a real version of that,” Cook said. “I take sweet onions, chop them up and cook them down. I add cherry vinegar, honey, a lot of mascarpone, and a little mayonnaise. I wanted to make the onion dip of all onion dips.”
I’d say he succeeded. The onions are front and center but not overpowering thanks to the mascarpone. The crispy crostini were the perfect vehicles for getting the dip to my mouth.
Cook raved about his new quail dish. so naturally I had to try it. Dubbed BBQ Texas Ranch Quail, the dish is decorated with green tomato chow chow, celery leaf coleslaw, apple cider and mustard BBQ sauce.
“The quail is farmed in Texas. We ate quail that we shot when I went hunting with my dad,” Cook said. “We have the standard coleslaw mix that we use at the other restaurants, which is delicious, and we add a little mustard cider vinegar barbecue sauce, and micro celery. The quail is unbelievable. I have a green tomato chow chow underneath, which is relish cooked down from green tomatoes, cabbage, vinegar, onions, and mustard seeds. This is one of the dishes I am most excited about.”
His excitement was justified. This is a delicate dish made hearty with the barbecue sauce, and the coleslaw is indeed delicious.
Those were three excellent dishes from the starters menu, but before selecting an entrée, Cook brought out a beautiful plate of crispy zucchini flowers stuffed with creamy Manchego cheese and roasted garlic, with hazelnut romesco and saffron-cava aioli.
“The squash blossoms are crisp, not tempura batter like you typically see,” Cook said. “I did more of a rustic country fried thing that I grew up on. The filling is mascarpone with a little grated Manchego and lemon zest and roasted garlic. Hazelnut romesco is on the bottom, with champagne aioli going on here.”
This dish was a standout not just because of the squash blossoms, but the sauces that enhanced the flavors of the fried coating and the mascarpone.
I was ready for an entrée, but one more sample dish came out: herb roasted giant bone marrow bones with cambozola cheese, melted garlic, capers, shallot, golden raisin and parsley salad, accompanied by thick toasted rustic bread.
The dish normally comes with three bones but thankfully my plate had only one, and it was impressive not only for taste but for presentation—the bone came atop cut herb branches, adding to the aroma. I gleefully scooped the marrow mixture onto chunks of the rustic bread.
Finally, the entrée: applewood bacon wrapped meatloaf accompanied by truffle mac and cheese, wild mushrooms and a sherry reduction, plus assorted veggies. The meatloaf is a combination of ground Jidori chicken, prime beef, and Kurobuta pork.
“The mac and cheese is our signature cheese blend with truffle, the meatloaf is a mixture of Jidori chicken, American Kobe beef and Durham pork ground up,” said Cook, who noted that he whips bacon into a puree and adds it to the beef mixture. “It makes the whole thing super flavorful and moist. Then we wrap it in bacon. This is an all-American dinner plate. That’s what we are doing here, refined American.”
The meatloaf was, as expected, delicious, and the mac and cheese was beyond good.
By this time I was full, but one more refined American classic came to my table: Tahitian vanilla bean and blood orange cheesecake with pistachio crumble. This is a creation of Chef de Cuisine Holly Hart, who told me this is her go-to cheesecake recipe.
The presentation is stunning, and the cheesecake has a mousse-like texture that’s creamy and rich. The crust and pistachios added a nice crunch, while the berries and sauce offered a different taste with every bite. I’m not normally a cheesecake fan, but this is among the best I’ve had and would order it every time.
Summary: Russ Bendel and company have scored their biggest hit yet. I was there on a Thursday night and the place was packed with a waiting list—and this was after being open only six days.
Bloom Restaurant + Bar: 31760 Old Mission Road, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 503-2654, bloomsanjuancapistrano.com