Driftwood Kitchen: Peaceful ocean-close oasis with plentiful delicious dishes

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Larry Tenney

My recent visit to Driftwood Kitchen took place shortly after hurricanes – spawned by the Atlantic Ocean and whisked into monsters by the warm tropical air – devastated Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico. 

By contrast, here in Laguna Beach, the Pacific Ocean was living up to its name, peacefully lapping the shore just yards from the table where I sat with long-time friend and social media whiz Larry Tenney, who was going to take photographs of our dinner. 

The sun slipped down the sky, settled Humpty Dumpty-ish on the horizon for a brief moment, then fell slowly from view. 

We sighed contentedly, and focused on the menu.

Would we try the grilled Spanish octopus to start, or the yellowtail carpaccio with pineapple vinaigrette?  

Instead we chose the yellowfin tuna tartare and squash blossoms, then ordered and sipped our cocktails – mine called Livin’ on a Pear.

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What to do about the leaf in my Livin’ on a Pear?

I don’t usually drink cocktails, I’m boringly Chardonnay, so this was quite an adventure for me. I had to ask Larry how to cope with the leaf floating on top of this deliciously mint-fresh drink with cucumber undertones. At least it wasn’t an umbrella. I could have injured myself.

“How lucky we are,” Larry said, “to have jobs like this.”

For a while we mused about the randomness of life – how tranquil the setting was right now, and how quickly things could change: Laguna knows tragedy, knows wildfires, knows floods, knows mudslides. What did our respective futures hold? Was this all too good to be true?

And then we forgot about all that, because our food had arrived, and we were hungry.

Larry and I both loved the yellowfin tuna tartare: the crunch and crush of the sesame taco, the cool smooth contrast of tuna on the tongue, the pop of spicy mayo, the dollop of avocado mousse (you can never go wrong in my world when you add avocado) and the colorful sprinkle of topeka caviar titillating the taste buds.

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The four tacos arrived upright in a line, rather like expectant rollercoaster riders

“What’s great about this,” Larry had commented when the tacos arrived, firmly upright like expectant rollercoaster riders, “is the way it is presented. So often poke dishes are plonked onto the plate from a circular mold. Like cat food from a can. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Indeed, though now that image is going to be hard for me to shake. But he was right. This dish looked wonderful and tasted fantastic. 

(Later I would learn from Chef Rainer Schwarz that he had once tried to take the yellowfin tuna tartare off the menu. But hordes of angry villagers had stormed the restaurant, carrying placards and torches, demanding the dish be restored, and so he complied. No, I made that up, but local enthusiasm for this particular dish cannot be exaggerated.)

Larry had chosen the squash blossoms in part because of their likely aesthetic appeal, but they also delivered on taste, he said. They were served with soft ricotta and shallots, in a tempura batter with a chunky heirloom tomato sauce.

I asked the Chef whether much had changed for Driftwood since it opened its doors not that many years ago. 

“Not really,” he said. “What we planned originally has worked out well. Of course we adjust the menu seasonally but we like to keep it simple and very good. Restaurant concepts are always changing, but for now? Why change, we are doing great and people love Driftwood.”

I can attest to that, having on many occasions tried and failed to get a last-minute reservation.

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The wild king salmon sat on a raft of carrots atop a puddle of creamy kale

Schwarz says that tourists make up 70 – 80 percent of summer diners, with the opposite in winter. Tourists love the ambiance and choose the more conventional dishes, he said, while locals are more inclined to be adventurous. (He doesn’t sell a lot of his Seared Hudson Valley foie gras in the summer.)

Well, Larry and I weren’t that adventurous, I must admit. I chose the wild King salmon. Thing is, I’m not really a foodie, I’m just an eater who knows what she likes. And I like salmon. My husband cooks it often. So I thought I’d test out a new version which he might like to emulate.

The salmon arrived, interestingly perched on a raft of carrots atop a tasty puddle of creamy kale.

Well, it was delicious! I ate it all. 

Larry’s butcher steak and pork belly joined us with an air of pomp and circumstance, unabashedly meaty, with the pink and amber colors of the steak, pork, crispy red onions and chimichurri sauce reflecting hues of the sunset. 

“This,” Larry said, “tastes as good as it looks.” 

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Larry’s butcher steak and pork belly dish came in sunset hues

Between happy bites, we chatted about a long-ago sandcastle-building event in Daytona Beach that we’d worked on during our years at a PR agency, back in the nineties. About our adventures with the Party Smart campaign, an NFL quarterback, and the Talking Pump at the 76 gas station on the Grapevine. (It’s a long story.)

Conversation flows at Driftwood; it’s the kind of restaurant where you feel very much at ease, with the noise level – at least outside – is low and the ambiance peaceful. (Except when Larry roared with laughter, sending sea gulls into panicked circles. He has that kind of laugh…)

Finally, dessert. Which I never eat, because calories, except I did, given that it was sticky coffee cake with Chantilly cream, and who can refuse that? Plus I was on assignment. I had to eat it. 

My taste buds thanked me.

Before paying the bill, we chatted to our server, JR, who loves working at Driftwood Kitchen. He told us that the staff are very close-knit and often all dive into the surf together (fortunately not while we were there, that would have been a bit of a shock, but of course they only do that in the downtime – and apparently the Chef is a very good belly-boarder, though he doesn’t surf). 

Then we found out, just before we left, that JR had worked for FEMA in the past.

Once again Larry and I contemplated the sadness of the devastation to our east, and our good fortune, to be here, in this place, at this time – because who can live in Laguna and not feel immensely grateful for the sun, the sea, the wilderness, our friends, and good food?

And so the evening ended at this magical ocean-close oasis, as the lights of Laguna homes turned the purpling hillsides into artwork, crickets began to chirp, and the ocean grew dark and secret. 

Driftwood Kitchen is located at 619 Sleepy Hollow Lane. Phone 949-715-7700.


Golden Foodie Award for “best service” honors Selanne Steak Tavern in Laguna Beach

For the fifth time in Golden Foodie’s six-year history, Selanne Steak Tavern has been recognized in an outstanding category.  On Sept 24 at the Annual Golden Foodie Awards ceremony, emceed by Food Network celebrity Simon Majumdar and held at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa, an audience of 250 people was on hand as Selanne Steak Tavern was presented a Golden Foodie Award for Best Service.

The other four awards that Selanne Steak Tavern has received include; Best Steak for the restaurant’s outstanding menu execution, service and overall program in 2016; Best Wine in 2015; and Best New Restaurant and Best Steak in 2014.

The Golden Foodies – the People’s Choice Food Awards – honors excellence in the world of restaurants, chefs, bartenders, food, drinks and hospitality. Results are culled from online nominating and voting by industry professionals, avid restaurant devotees and other influencers.

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Submitted photo

Sommelier Vito Pasquale and Chad Sisco

 “To be recognized again by the Golden Foodie Awards is an ongoing testament to the devotion and professionalism of each member of our outstanding staff,” said Selanne Steak Tavern’s co-owner Teemu Selanne. “Kevin Pratt and I are thrilled our restaurant has won this industry validation especially on the heels of being recognized by Wine Spectator magazine for our wine program.” 

Selanne Steak Tavern recently garnered the “Best of Award of Excellence,” granted to only 1,168 restaurants globally from the prestigious magazine. Located at 1464 S Coast Hwy, Selanne Steak Tavern opened in Nov 2013 and is owned by Hockey Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne and local OC businessman Kevin Pratt. 

Housed in a reimagined 1934 historic home along the Pacific Coast, it’s an upscale contemporary steak house with an upstairs dining room, downstairs tavern and bar area, a wine room for more intimate dining and two patios for alfresco dining. 

 Selanne Steak Tavern is open for dinner only, starting at 5 p.m. For reservations, call 949-715-9881 or visit www.selannesteaktavern.com.


Ivory: Unique dishes – and there’s parking!

Story by MARRIE STONE

When I entered Ivory Restaurant, my first impression was, “This place feels chic and sophisticated, trendy and beautiful, but without an air of pretention.” 

The noise level is delightful for maintaining a civilized conversation (which I loved), yet the subtle remixed rhythms of European electronica still made for a young, cool atmosphere. 

More important, no one at Ivory is trying to be anything they’re not. They’re simply—and genuinely—delighted to be there. And that authenticity, combined with the classy coastal atmosphere, attracted my attention.

A Ukrainian Foundation

When I had a chance to talk with owners Alexander Pavlovsky and Olga Bevz, my feelings began to make sense. Both Alex and Olga grew up in the Ukraine, where eating out wasn’t just a luxury—it was nearly beyond the realm of possibility. “Ever since I was a little girl, I always loved gathering places and great food,” says Olga. “Eating out wasn’t a common thing, so I was fascinated with this concept of a restaurant.” 

Alex shared Olga’s childhood experiences. “We were friends a long time and both realized we had the same concept in mind,” says Alex. “Owning a place for people to gather and enjoy their experience.”

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Photo from website

Ivory’s exterior is attractive

Together, they began looking for a coastal location, modern and fresh. Ivory fit the bill, with a white décor and old world elements that gave the space a chic vibe. The room is small and intimate, appointed with luxurious leather couches and flowing white drapery. They were inspired to add an outdoor patio with a living wall of jasmine. “Ever since we did that,” says Olga, “it’s become a hit. Especially during the warm summers.”

Ukraine meets California for a perfect culinary union 

Did that Ukrainian influence find its way onto Ivory’s menu? Da! (Actually, in Ukrainian, it’s “tak.”) Alex and Olga strive for exclusive offerings that are difficult to find in other Orange County restaurants. Their blini, for example, is a quintessential Ukrainian dish infused with a Californian touch: Crepes filled with braised short ribs and a mushroom sauce. Alex is quick to point out these are nothing like French crepes. You won’t find this taste or texture elsewhere. That culinary homage to their homeland makes Ivory’s menu utterly unique.

This winter, Alex will expand the Ukrainian influence to include pelmeni—a Russian boiled dumpling, filled with veal. It will be presented in a way consistent with Ivory’s style, incorporating both the influences of Southern California and Alex and Olga’s heritage.

Other signature & standout plates

Chef Jesus Duran joined the Ivory team as a line cook and quickly demonstrated unparalleled creativity and passion toward food. He moved through the ranks, becoming their trusted head chef in February of 2015. “When he came in,” says Alex, “we fed off a lot of his ideas and improved the menu to provide an excellent food and tasting experience.” 

What sets Jesus apart? He’s a wizard with meat temperatures and textures, says Alex. The octopus ceviche, for example, is a very tricky protein to get just right. “Jesus has perfected the process,” says Alex. “There’s a very narrow window of cooking time to get the right texture.” Jesus knows just the sweet spot.

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Shrimp, Ivory style

Another signature favorite is the Boom Boom Shrimp (an homage to Laguna’s old Boom Boom Room), a light and crispy shrimp marinated and served with a creamy aioli. My recent visit to Ivory proved that the hype over this appetizer was justified. The flavor combinations and crispy texture tasted just right. We also applauded the goat cheese and beet hors d’oeuvres, which I hadn’t associated with Ukrainian cuisine until I spoke with Alex and Olga. Beets—of course! The fresh cucumbers and pears on the side made this a delightfully light dish.

Let me not forget the prawns in a citrusy asparagus risotto. The lemon leek buerre blanc sauce created a light finish to the heft of the risotto. Against my better judgment, warning me against eating a full serving of risotto, the plate returned to the kitchen clean. And, surprisingly, I didn’t have that overly full feeling I’m often left with after a hearty carb-rich meal. 

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Beets – of course…

Alex also worked with Jesus to create the blackberry duck. “Duck isn’t something you see on a lot of menus,” says Alex. “We wanted a standout dish to differentiate us from typical fare.” The duck is complemented by farro and a side of blackberry sauce.

“The sweetness of the port and darkness of the berries work really well together,” he says. I must return to test this for myself!

The Dirty Russian & other drinking delights

Olga and Alex wanted to ensure their specialty drink menu represented their heritage, as well as a variety of options for their guests. There’s an old Soviet Union hangover cure that involves pickle juice. Actually, maybe it is just pickle juice. Alex decided to experiment. The result is a twist on the classic dirty martini, using pickle juice and adding pickled tomato, as well as good vodka. Diners can’t get enough.

This winter, Alex will bring his own family tradition into the restaurant. For years, he’s personally made a cranberry infusion for the enjoyment of his friends and family. Fresh cranberries, muddled with sugar and vodka, infused for over a week—what’s not to love? Plus, probably some antioxidants. “It creates this amazing tasting beverage,” says Alex. “Our version of the cosmopolitan.” 

It will go on the menu in a few weeks, plenty of time to become a local favorite this holiday season.

A local advantage

A few other things make Ivory particularly palatable for locals. Free, easy and plentiful parking. All the time. If you live in town, I hardly need to tell you this is a treat. 

After some research, I also discovered their happy hour is nearly unmatched in Laguna. Served from 5 to 6:30 p.m., you’ll enjoy 50 percent off appetizers and well drinks. They also have a reasonable prix fixe menu—four courses for $35. 

But, more than that—at least for me—are all the benefits that come from its location off the beaten and overcrowded Laguna path, nestled in the Canyon near the Sawdust Festival. This means the beach bikini crowd isn’t strolling by the front window looking for a seat. This intimate setting makes Ivory a perfect choice before a night at the Laguna Playhouse, with whom they partner often for various events. 

“Unlike other places in Laguna that get continuous walk-by clients,” says Alex, “we’re a destination. We work harder to provide a better experience. As a result, Laguna locals love us. We have a loyal support-base, and don’t rely on drop-in business.”

For those who want a place where they can relax, away from the frenetic crowds and beach scene, Ivory fits the bill.


Tortilla Republic will contribute 20 percent of sales on Sept 27 to help rebuild Mexico City 

On Wed, Sept 27, Tortilla Republic will support and stand with Mexico City to help citizens after the recent earthquake.

Tortilla Republic Nachos: every bite helps

On that day, Tortilla Republic will be contributing 20 perecent of its sales to UNICEF’s effort to provide food, water, shelter, protection, and health care to Mexico City after the devastation of the recent earthquake. 

Along with the other sponsors, Herradura Tequila, will be serving $8 margaritas. For more information on upcoming events, visit www.tortilla republic.com


At 242 Café Fusion, artful sushi pleases the senses

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

If you’ve ever wondered what outer space might taste like, (and you don’t plan on making that trip anytime soon), or secretly wanted to feast on the sublime colors of a Monet painting (most museums frown on licking the paintings), visit 242 Café Fusion Sushi. All your wildest food fantasies, including some you’ve never even imagined, will come true.

In Laguna, we are surrounded by an abundance of the creative arts, but never have they been more evident than in the artful sushi of Miki Izumisawa, owner and chef of 242 Café Fusion. She has been in the rare category of female sushi chefs for more than 25 years. 

And if the definition of creativity is to focus on the connection between unrelated things, she possesses that quality with a capital C. She concocts dishes that are visually stunning, and unexpectedly co-mingles ingredients that would surprise the most educated palate, unearthing taste buds one never knew existed.

 

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Photo by Lynette Brasfield

Chef Miki Izumisawa puts finishing touches on Aroma of Space Roll

“We would like you to enjoy our ‘Art’ with all of your five senses, so that it becomes a healing energy in your body,” Miki says. 

Before coming to Laguna, Miki worked for Nobu in Las Vegas, and she says that 25 years ago, the chef there, by combining different culinary traditions, introduced fusion-sushi cuisine. When she opened Café Fusion in 2000, she upended the twist on conventional sushi even further. 

The choice of this location for her restaurant was serendipitous, Miki believes. The very same yin-yang symbol she has tattooed on her upper back was etched into the concrete in front and on a block in the back of building. Since yin-yang represents the fusion of the two cosmic forces, or two halves that complete the whole, it does seem as if fate led her here, a perfect place for her to combine elements of diverse cuisines into exquisite fare.

 

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Photo by Lynette Brasfield

Monet’s Garden

Miki comes to creativity naturally. She studied in Japan with the renowned Naka Bokunen, a woodblock print artist famous for his Okinawan landscapes. As an expression of her love for nature, these colors and scenery translate into her dishes. She explains, “I name the dishes out of aspects of nature to convey the significance of nature.”

(And she gives back by donating part of Café Fusion’s revenue to nature conservation groups such as WWF, “To send out love and appreciation to our planet Earth,” she says.)

“Each dish is a handcrafted piece of art where our cooking ingredients come together like paint on a canvas. The main themes of my art are Nature, Gaia (Mother Earth), Space, and Feelings,” Miki says. 

An example of this is Monet’s Garden, a sashimi style dish which combines the lush lavender and greens of Monet’s landscapes with the simplicity of the fish (albacore, salmon, yellow tail, white fish, spicy tuna, and the pure flavors of the sauce (light soy vinegar) and toppings (Lotus root, tomato, ginger, which she pickles herself, mustard greens, salt Koji, purple cabbage, and Yuzu lemon Chia seeds). When I finally took up the chopsticks to taste it, it was impossible not to feel guilty about spoiling the beautiful design. But it was worth it!

 

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Photo by Lynette Brasfield

Ocean Bubble

When I ask which are her signature dishes, Miki replies with a smile, “Everything is signature.” Her reputation has drawn celebrities to sample her cuisine, Pink visited only a few nights before, and in the past, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf have dined there. Also, Freddy Krueger of Nightmare on Elm Street fame has dropped in.

Another of her dishes that reflects the nature theme is Ocean Bubble, a carpaccio of salmon, yellowtail, and white fish, topped with chopped grape and sweet onion, jalapeno and mustard green sauce with a foamy topping (salt water dashi) as frothy as a wave. The taste surprise was the jalapeno, a wonderfully spicy contrast to the mellow fish and lacy foam. 

At Café Fusion, not only has Miki challenged the traditional role of male sushi chefs, she has taken it a step further. Yin-yang also means a starting point for change, and it’s apparent in her all female team. A force to be reckoned with.

 

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Photo by Lynette Brasfield

(l-r) Marie Grow, Candice Benson, Miki, Ana Garcia, Evelia O’Campo

A newcomer, Marie Grow, who is training with Miki, came from Seattle, and has only been at the restaurant for a few days. She explains how such a young woman became interested in being a sushi chef. “An uncle introduced it to me after he went to Japan to study sushi. I always liked cooking, and I started as a server for three months.” Marie is clearly happy to be at 242, and says, “Miki doesn’t waste anything, everything is usable here and adapted into another dish, even salmon cheeks and fins.” 

Because Miki has no family in the US, and hasn’t been back to Japan in five years, it appears as if this team of women is her family. In her spare time, (if there is spare time, she works every night), Miki likes to hike in Bishop, Lone Pine, Shasta, and Yosemite, where she takes photographs. And as for her favorite foods, (doesn’t everyone want to know what chefs eat?), she likes kale and Italian food.

Nearing the end of the meal, Miki introduces the Aroma of Space Roll, a culinary trip to outer space, in more ways than one.

Miki says, “According to astronauts, space smells of raspberry, pineapples, rum, something burnt and charred metal.” Her interpretation of this aroma is pineapple sautéed in butter, freeze dried raspberry topping with a smoked flavor, seared tuna, yellowtail, salmon, albacore and black snapper. The sauce consists of Koji with salt, black sesame garlic, spice seaweed, and oolong tea. She finishes it with 10 different toppings, (black pepper corn, green pepper corn, pink pepper corn, all spice, goji berries, raisins, blueberries, cranberries, walnuts and pistachios) to represent 10 stars.

This is a dish that exemplifies Miki’s ability to meld together unexpected flavors and textures, smooth with crunchy, sweet with savory, the buttery pineapple and a sudden pop of a goji berry or pistachio. The tastes just don’t stop. And I didn’t want them to.

I’ll be back to sample more of Miki’s signature dishes, which just happen to be everything on the menu!

242 Café Fusion Sushi is located at 242 N Coast Hwy, 949-494-2444. For more information, go to www.fusionart.us.


Would I rue going to Roux? The answer is nooooo! Quite the opposite

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

In March, my son Dylan and his wife Ann, who live in Brooklyn, New York, were scheduled to meet us in New Orleans for a few quick days together – precious days, given the distance between us. 

But quirky weather cancelled their flights, making the trip impossible for them, and that left my husband Bill and me feeling quite miserable, despite the great jazz and sensational food we enjoyed on Magazine Street. 

So when I heard that Dylan and Ann were going to be able to fly to Laguna over the Labor Day weekend, and that Roux, a new Creole restaurant less than half a mile from us, had opened – and then, that our regular food columnist Laura would sadly not be able to do the Roux review (which sounds like a dance, but isn’t) – I immediately offered to write the necessary report, thinking the restaurant a thematically and gustatorily perfect choice for the four of us.

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Photo by Ann

The Chef Tyler’s Brussels sprouts were amazing

The only snag is that I’m not an observant food writer. I like almost all food, with the possible exception of poi. If someone cooks a dish for me, then I’m pretty much guaranteed to love it, no matter what. My palate does not discriminate: it welcomes all flavors equally. 

Also, because I’m not much of a cook  (though I’m famous for my cottage pie, I will say), I barely know the difference between herbs and spices. I even pronounce herbs with an audible h! Blame my South African upbringing.

Plus I seem to have writers’ block when it comes to describing food. 

I know delicious when I taste it, and that’s about it.

Fortunately my dear daughter-in-law Ann is a great cook with an excellent culinary vocabulary, and Dylan has an imaginative turn of phrase, so I turned to them for help.

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Shrimp and grits: “a Mardi Gras in my mouth”

Thus it is that I offer their observations: Dylan described his shrimp and grits starter as “a Mardi Gras happening in my mouth.”

Ann suggested that the dish tasted so celebratory because of the quality of the homemade stock and the unique, subtle blend of seasonings, including bay leaf, garlic and thyme. The shrimp were “fat and tasty, and the rice was great,” said Dylan.

“Those grits were the best I’ve ever tasted,” Ann said. Her mother is Southern, so that’s some praise indeed.

Ann also explained why I found Chef Tyler’s Brussels Sprouts so amazingly tasty. “They were cooked perfectly, charred perfectly but in such a way that they retained their soft texture inside,” she said. 

“Some chefs carry the charring too far and the Brussels sprouts arrive burned and dry. But these Brussels are nice and big and succulent and the garlic brings out the slightly bitter taste in precisely the right way,” Ann added.

(This is not how we usually talk to each other, but the occasion demanded such exchanges of information.)

The service was terrific. The ambience, too, is delightful: dark wood and fleur-de-lis décor offer Louisiana charm, while the restaurant retains the casual yet intimate and buzzy vibe of the former Café Zoolu. 

My lovely daughter-in-law was also a fan of the ratatouille. Our server, whose name I have forgotten, which is a terrible thing for a food reviewer to admit, and which is just one reason why this is very likely the last food report I will ever do, told us that “you won’t find dishes with lots of cheese and tomatoes in New Orleans cooking.”

Ann concurred, believing that the ratatouille benefited by not being dominated by tomatoes, so that the flavors of eggplant and zucchini had a chance to introduce themselves independently to the taste buds. 

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Photo by Ann

Crab presented in a shell

She was also impressed with the presentation, especially her Creole Stuffed Crab starter featuring the crab in its original shell (or a close facsimile, I cannot be sure).

“What do you think, Bill?” I asked my husband about his Roux Catfish.

“Good,” he said. “Very good!” High praise indeed, from a man who talks in superlatives only when St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball is the subject matter.

The dessert, oh, the dessert! I never allow myself dessert because of the calories, but as a food reporter, I had no choice, did I?

We tasted the cheesecake, which was fluffier and lighter than New York cheesecake – “It’s Italian style,” Ann explained.

(Dylan wasn’t talking much at this point – his mouth was fully involved, like a California wildfire. An adjunct professor now for a decade, still, when he is taken out on the town, he reverts to college-age behavior and makes the most of every restaurant meal. It warms my motherly heart.)

Then came the bread pudding. “The bourbon sauce was awesome,” Ann noted. “The texture of the pudding was just right, silky and not too eggy.”

I could only nod in agreement. My mouth, like Dylan’s ,was busy, preferring cuisine to conversation.

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Photo by Lynette

My fortunate fellow food-reviewing family pre-Roux: Bill, Dylan, Ann

A word about the wine list: Among others, it lists wines that are “interesting,” which I felt was the perfect way to stimulate diners to try a little variety.

 With our fish dishes, we drank an excellent Leth Gruner Veltliner, an Austrian wine. Ann chose a glass of Evolution Pinot Noir from Oregon to go with her Hanger Steak, her entrée, which was served on a bed of garlic sweet potatoes and which she enjoyed very much.

“Most people would find this wine a little too light to accompany steak, probably they’d order something a little more full-bodied,” she said. “For sure, it would go great with all the seafood dishes. But I love this wine.”

Just as we all loved Roux. The food is simply – what’s the word I’m looking for?

I know! Delicious! 

(I failed to realize that, as a fill-in food reporter, I was supposed to have chatted to the chef before leaving…ah well. What is true is that Chef Norm Theard’s dishes spoke to me, Dylan, and Bill loud and clear, while engaging in a more nuanced conversation with the lovely, more culinarily conscious Ann.)

Who needs to fly to New Orleans, anyway, when you can get an Uber to Roux at 860 Glenneyre?

Editor’s Note: After we’d scheduled our dinner, Diane Armitage, a REAL food writer, sent us her report, which readers will enjoy… it also gives a little more background about the owner and chef.

 

Ain’t No Blues at Roux!

By Diane Armitage

Obviously, the tiny restaurant space at 860 Glenneyre Street has some serious mojo going on. For years the host to Michael and Toni Leech’s well-loved Cafe Zoolu, she re-invented herself for a soft-opening last weekend with a soft-spoken Chef and a rowdy rabble of happy Laguna fans.

Now, she is Roux.

I don’t believe it’s fair to do full-fledged reviews on a new restaurant until she’s gotten her legs under her. I’ve been on the other side - the restaurant development side - too many times! No matter how great all the pieces are, and no matter how ready you think you’re going to be, the initial opening of a restaurant is just too chaotic. (Actually, it’s more like an Oklahoma tornado. You do your best to take cover and ride it out.)

So, this isn’t a review of my dining experience on the second night of Roux’s existence … it’s just an observation on what I think the future holds for Laguna’s latest culinary addition.

In short, Roux has a long and happy life ahead of her.

Significantly spruced with the glow of New Orleans about her, Roux still bears the trappings of all that has been wonderful with previous chefs there - namely, the awesome Chef’s Counter that provides an unobstructed view of imaginative food in the making. I sat myself directly across from the co-owner Chef himself and enjoyed two hours of spying on practiced greatness in action.

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Chef Norm Theard

Chef Norm Theard is a classically trained French chef, which becomes immediately apparent as you see how he runs his French-inspired kitchen - rarely do any of the cooks need to step out of their four-foot “well” of specificity and, for the most part, they work in breezy, friendly silence.

This is going to be a locals’ hang out right from the start. For one thing, longtime residents and Saloon owners Michael and Cindy Byrne are co-owners in this project and I can’t think of a person in the five-state area who doesn’t adore this couple. 

Secondly, ROUX still has enough of the old Café Zoolu vibe to assure locals that the building’s appreciation of local love is still in play. 

Chef Norm Theard lives above the shop

Thirdly, there’s Chef Norm Theard who’s relocated to Laguna Beach because he’s committed, man. In fact, he and his wife live above the restaurant now. As local restaurants go, that’s always a sign of good will and longevity.

As the onslaught of family and friends ordered every imaginable thing on the menu, the team worked methodically and quickly, producing a raft of truly innovative dishes. New friends sitting next to me ordered the Roux Salad tossed with Pork Andouille dressing (that’s a first for me).

Many people believe that a restaurant’s greatness can be decided in the tale of the soups, but when I have the option, I think a chef’s proclivity can be just as easily determined by trying his or her grits. I dug into Chef’s Shrimp & Grits appetizer, the grits melding with bay leaf, garlic, cream, thyme and Yvonne sauce (typically a popular Orleans-instituted sauce of butter whisked to brown, and then removed from heat in the nick of time for added lemon juice and red wine vinegar). Everything in the dish was perfectly cooked and just the right temperature (grits are fussy, man).

My neighbors allowed me a photo of their Hanger Steakbefore mopping the plate clean. It’s a hearty portion of grilled steak atop garlic sweet potatoes, Ratatouille (a painstaking dish in and of itself), and a drizzle of parsley butter sauce. 

Photo by Diane Armitage

Roux Catfish

Noting that this will be the item I try on my next return, I order the Roux Catfish, which claims to be Chef Norm’s favorite. (When in a Hurricane 5 soft opening situation, always opt for the Chef’s favorite.)

Chef Norm imports this catfish because it’s “lighter and sweeter” as opposed to what some would term “muddy” tasting. Personally, I think this guy could dredge the Mississippi for catfish and it would still be spectacular. Simply sautéed in olive oil and secret spices, laid on a bed of Creole rice and Ratatouille, and crowned with shrimp, lump crab and browned butter sauce, the entire entrée simply melts in your mouth.

Alas, I arrived after the Blueberry Bacon Goat Cheese Cobblerhad sold out. I settled instead for Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauceand am sure I emerged the dessert winner of the evening.

As I said, this isn’t a formal review, just an opinion of her first howdy-do to the community. As her namesake proclaims, I think Roux is already a foundational element to Laguna’s growing culinary greatness.

Kya

Shaena Stabler is the Owner and Publisher.

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