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Chefs Do Summer Restaurant Hopscotch

The Montage Laguna Beach has earned a reputation as a fine-dining destination, and with good reason: Chef Craig Strong, who quickly gained acclaim after becoming the chef at Studio at the Montage in 2009. He’s one of the finest chefs in Southern California, and one of the nicest.

It was a surprise when Strong recently announced he’s leaving the Montage to open his own restaurant in the space that used to be occupied by the former Taverna restaurant in downtown Laguna Beach.

Strong reportedly hopes to open this fall. A name for the restaurant hasn’t been announced, but you can bet his legions of fans will follow him anywhere.

I was fortunate to spend some time with him in his Studio kitchen while shooting a video several years ago for “Laguna Beach Foodies.” Strong was gracious, charming, and if I remember correctly, demonstrated a seared scallop dish that was a symphony of flavors in my mouth. I’ll report back once Strong’s restaurant opens.

In April, Montage Laguna Beach announced the appointment of Jeffery Walter as resort executive chef to oversee all dining operations for the luxury hotel, including Studio and The Loft, its casual dining venue. And last month, it appointed Victor Casanova as the new chef de cuisine of The Loft. It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the changes bring to the Montage’s culinary corners.

30801 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 92651, (866) 271-6953, montagehotels.com/lagunabeach

Salt Creek Sizzle

A challenge for new chefs coming into established restaurants is to keep the current clientele happy while putting their own spins on the menu.

Case in point: Salt Creek Grille in Dana Point, which recently hired David Fuñe as corporate executive chef, and Las Brisas in Laguna Beach, where Jay Scollon is the new executive chef.

Fuñe was previously at Splashes at the Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach, Temecula Creek Inn in Temecula, and Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.

Self-described as an “upscale yet casual and affordable American-theme grill,” Salt Creek boasts a scratch kitchen and a menu ranging from burgers to line-caught fish to wood-fired filet mignon. At a recent media tasting, Fuñe said he’s tweaking the menu while introducing new dishes for this summer.

I sampled several of those dishes, including a refreshing watermelon salad, citrus-glazed jumbo shrimp, prosciutto mac and cheese, and crispy Brussels sprouts with bourbon caramel glaze. If that’s an indication of what Fuñe is doing with the menu, it’s a great start.

32802 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point, 92629, (949) 661-7799, saltcreekgrille.com/dana-point

New Menu With View

Chef Scollon has a more difficult challenge. Las Brisas is a landmark in Laguna Beach, so major menu changes might cause regular diners to wonder what happened to their beloved restaurant.

He replaces Matthew Robinson, who departed Las Brisas after less than a year in the kitchen. Chef Robinson created what I called a “wow” hamburger: a patty of sirloin, short rib and brisket piled atop a brioche bun with bacon onion jam, Havarti cheese, foie gras aioli, and a fried egg. That burger is now gone, replaced with one that’s still tasty yet not as adventurous and probably more in line with what Las Brisas clientele wants.

I recently sampled a few new Las Brisas patio menu items while gazing out at the water, including the new burger, guacamole, and pulled-chicken tacos. Good food, great view. I’m curious to see what Scollon does with the dinner menu.

361 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, 92651, (949) 497-5434, lasbrisaslagunabeach.com

Tangata Switch-Up

Another new chef transplanted at an established restaurant is Brian Kiepler, who was recently named executive chef at Tangata Restaurant at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

Tangata is a Patina Restaurant Group concept, and Kiepler is part of the Patina Restaurant family, having previously worked as executive chef at Nick & Stef’s Steakhouse and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

He aims to bring a unique twist to the Pacific Rim-inspired cuisine. I got a sample of the twist during a recent media tasting.

I tried three starters: crab cakes with grilled pineapple relish and chipotle aioli; grilled asparagus with garlic, ginger, soy and tofu; and marinated Japanese tomato salad with miso, avocado, cucumber and shrimp. The pineapple relish and chipotle aioli play off of each other beautifully, elevating the crab cake from boring to exciting. I could have consumed three helpings of the tomato salad, though the shrimp was almost unnecessary.

One of several entrees on the menu I tried is the brisket burger with Swiss cheese. Nothing fancy, but the brisket with garlic and mustard aioli took the dish from standard to delicious. For dessert, the pavlova with assorted berries and fruits was light and refreshing.

You don’t need admission to the museum to dine at Tangata, which is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, though it’s a perfect spot to dine before or after touring one of the Bowers’ many eclectic exhibits.

2002 N. Main St, Santa Ana, 92706, (714) 550-0906, patinagroup.com/tangata-restaurant

Summer Events

• Tickets are going fast for a pair of noteworthy local food and wine festivals.

Up first is the Pacific Wine & Food Classic, back for its second year at Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort Aug. 18 and 19. More than 50 of the region’s top chefs and restaurants will serve signature dishes at the event, including Alejandra Padilla of Five Crowns, Brian Huskey of Tackle Box, Cathy Pavlos of Provenance, Elyssa Fournier of Mixed Bakery (she had some sensational desserts last year), Rich Mead of Farmhouse, Ross Pangilinan of Mix Mix Kitchen Bar.

I thought last year’s wine selection was hit and miss, but the food side offered some real treats, including memorable tacos by Chef Ivan Calderon of Taco Rosa and Taco Mesa—he’s back again this year.

Organizers have no doubt improved on their initial offering, which overall was a good start to what’s becoming a popular annual event. Some VIP tickets are already sold out, so order yours soon before they’re all gone.

Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort, 1131 Back Bay Drive, Newport Beach, 92660, pacificwineandfood.com

• There’s the Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival, which returns for a fifth year Oct. 4 to 7. This classy ode to fine wine and creative cuisine has already become one of the top food and wine events in California.

In addition to grand tastings from more than 40 restaurants and dozens of wineries at the Newport Beach Civic Center on Oct. 6 and 7, there are numerous VIP events that elevate the festival’s status, including chef dinners, wine-tasting panels, a yacht party, Riedel glass seminar, mixology and cooking battles, and other interactive events.

Highlights: an opening-night reception and dinner at Resort at Pelican Hill with James Beard Award winners and Top Chef stars; a Fire It Up BBQ at Balboa Bay Resort prepared by chefs Hubert Keller, Joe Flamm, Carrie Baird, Fatima Ali, Brian Huskey, Christopher Scott, Joe Sasto, Devin Alexander and Rachel Haggstrom; champagne and caviar tasting with a flight of champagne paired with five mother-of-pearl spoons of caviar and special bites by Chef Alan Greeley, who retired and closed his Golden Truffle restaurant last year but returns for this exclusive event.

The festival is two months away, but some of the events are already sold out, so visit the website and get tickets soon.

Newport Beach Civic Center, 100 Civic Center Drive, Newport Beach, 92660, newportwineandfood.com

• In closing, here’s a wonderful tribute to Fifi Chao, the Business Journal’s longtime Executive Dining columnist who died last fall.

At this year’s Western Foodservice & Hospitality Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Aug. 19, one seminar is “PR Bootcamp for Restaurants: In Memory of Fifi Chao.”

The seminar’s description says it all: “How does an enterprising restaurant attract the attention of credible food and beverage journalists along with legitimate food critics? Is a public relations firm perhaps needed or realistically even affordable?

Who better to provide some insightful answers than a high-profile panel of experienced food journalists and restaurant critics?”

This distinguished panel was the brainchild of Fifi, the beloved restaurant critic and food writer for the Business Journal for over 26 years until she retired last year due to illness. Fifi’s impression, based on a lot of experience, was that chefs and restaurateurs could benefit from sound, practical advice on how to approach the editorial food media.

The panel members—Andrew Harris of the “SoCal Restaurant Show,” and food writers Anne Marie Panoringan, Farley Elliott and Gretchen Kurz—wholeheartedly agree. PR Boot Camp for Restaurants is a tribute to her memory.

I’ll be there to enjoy the tribute and applaud the panel for its insights on helping fledgling restaurateurs get the attention they need.

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