A spot of tea – and more, at Harmony Tea Bar

Story and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Don Ho is the very friendly owner of the newest downtown eating and drinking venue – Harmony Tea Bar. Don is amused because he knows that I remember the famous Hawaiian named Don Ho, “But no one under 30 does!” he laughs.

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Don Ho, proprietor of Harmony Tea Bar

The small establishment, located in the same spot that was formerly a fancy shoe store, looks half take-away and half dine-in. There’s a walk-up counter displaying all kinds of drink combinations (examples: sea salt jasmine, and pomegranate green iced teas, coffee and hot teas – sorted as classic, milk, or fruit teas), some lovely pastry selections, avocado toast made with artisanal asiago pancetta bread, and a full tea service which includes a delectable assortment of little sandwiches…and more, as I soon discovered. 

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Lavender Earl Grey tea for two

A Move to Laguna

The tableside section of the room is fronted with a big bow window looking out to all the action on this block of Forest Avenue. The place has barely opened, yet is full of so many customers we have to wait for a table to open up. I’m admiring the different colored pots of tea, and stacked servers dotted with sweet confections and mini sandwiches.

This is the second location for Harmony Tea Bar – the other is in Mission Viejo. Don is very happy to finally have his tea bar open in Laguna Beach. He’s plodded his way through some of the new restaurant blues – “These chairs are not the ones I ordered…I ordered months ago and they still weren’t ready, so I just went out and found these.” 

He says his wife really wanted to buy a house, but first they opened the tea bar in Mission Viejo, and just when they might have been able to get a house, he opens up this second shop. Still, he has assured her, one day they’ll get that house. Such are the joys and setbacks in the life of a restaurateur. 

Don found out about the location becoming available in Laguna Beach by a good customer. That customer, a Laguna local, happens to own the downtown building and thought it would be a perfect fit. They both did. 

Open and ready it is! 

A Four-Course Tea

The highlighted feature of Harmony Tea’s menu might be described as High Tea, but here it is called “Full Tea Service.” No need for white gloves, or pinkies sticking out from delicate cups. This is a modern incarnation. There are pots sufficient for two people accompanied by glass cups. There are no waiters or linen tablecloths. The delicacies – whether savory or sweet – are served on wood planks and stacked wood trays.

We ordered the heavenly fragrant Lavender Earl Grey tea as our starting point.  

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Strawberries with green tea matcha whipped cream

The first food presentation in the full tea service, Berries & Cream, arrives in a clear cup filled with layers of fresh strawberries and matcha green tea whipped cream. It’s really a combo of sweet and savory, as the matcha imparts a slight bitterness to the sweet cream, and, of course, the strawberries are both tart and sweet. 

This would actually be plenty and perfect to accompany a pot of tea – just a little something to keep you on your feet. But we were in for the full deal.

Next up was a real “tell” about a proper tea: scones with clotted cream. I confess I am an Anglophile, and very particular about scones (not dry!) and clotted cream (where can you get anything close to what you’ll find in London?). And it did not disappoint. 

The cranberry, ginger, and orange scone was the best I’ve ever had in this area, and the clotted cream (house-made, with bits of candied ginger) rivals anything on the Queen’s tea cart. Served alongside was a mouth-watering Strawberry-Syrah jam (“Made by jammit jams,” said Don. “I met them at a food conference.”)

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Scone, served with Clotted Cream and Strawberry Syrah Jam

Classics and modern renditions of teacakes and sandwiches were served next, riding aboard a stacked serving tower. On the top were the little sweets: crème brulee cheesecake, matcha macaron, chocolate “fantasy” cake, guava bar, and a chocolate chip tea bread. They may look tiny, but they pack a sweet punch. 

This would have been more than enough for two people, perhaps, but the sweet must be balanced by the savory. Enter the finger sandwiches.

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Sweets on top, and Finger Sandwiches: Caprese Bruschetta, Cucumber Cream Cheese, Curried Chicken, and Egg Salad

I love cucumber sandwiches – this being in the classic style, with cream cheese on crust-less bread and topped with a mint sprig. The caprese sandwich lent a modern approach to the sandwich selections, with sundried tomato bruschetta, mozzarella and basil. The whole really was greater than the sum of its parts, as what looked at first like little tidbits was soon a feast we could barely finish.

The complete tea service would be a delightful afternoon event for fans of all ages… It’s served from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, $30, and reservations are appreciated. 

Stop by and say hi to Don Ho. He’s looking forward to getting to know the people of our town as well as fellow restaurateurs in the ‘hood.

305 Forest Ave    www.harmonyteabar.com


Ti Amo by Il Barone: Love is in the air…along with the fragrance of unique and delicious dishes

Story and photos by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Love was very much in the air ten days or so ago when I visited Ti Amo by Il Barone in South Laguna - and not just for the hand-holding couple sitting at a table on the deck of this most romantic of restaurants, their shared gaze only momentarily distracted by the view of a scarlet sunset flooding the Pacific Ocean with red and gold.

No, love was in the air in many ways. I sat at a table with Laguna business owner Heidi Miller, whose adoration for this restaurant and its (relatively new) owners, Franco and Donatella Barone, became evident when she asked me to eat there with her on the eve of surgery to donate one of her kidneys to long-time acquaintance Bruce W Cook.

You know a restaurant is really great when…

When you know you won’t be eating much beyond ice chips for a few days, and will have to watch your diet pretty carefully after that for a few weeks, it matters where you have your pre-surgery meal. If Heidi’s dining decision that evening is not a testament to the great cuisine at Ti Amo by Il Barone, then I don’t know what is.

Well, maybe I do. It’s the food itself, which was spectacular, and I can testify to that, or at least to four amazing dishes on a menu that offers a wide range of options. I will get to those in a moment.

First let me say that I loved (that word again) the layout of Ti Amo. In the renovated 1928 bungalow, there are three levels, the lower one catering to parties of up to 50 people, a view-blessed raised deck lit by flickering flames, and the street-level dining area where Heidi and I had been led to a nook (or was it a cranny?) that felt private and yet not isolated from the warm hum and ambiance of the Tuscany-themed room. 

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Facci Ri Veccia: the photo does not do this dish justice at all – go see for yourself

I loved the way Massimo, our server (who worked as a chef himself for 30 years), every now and again popped around the corner of our nook as suddenly, but more charmingly, than a rabbit out of a magician’s hat, to share details about the menu and daily specials. 

Then he would disappear to consult with the kitchen, only to reappear with delicious dishes, which he served with a half-bow and a flourish worthy of David Copperfield. 

And so to the food, inspired by Franco Barone’s childhood and youth in Milan, and his mother’s and mother-in-law’s family recipes, some fine-tuned over the decades he spent working at Antonello’s, then Spiga, and his own Il Barone Ristorante, some dishes left exactly as originally prepared, needing no modification to be hungrily consumed and regularly reordered by customers.

We began with Ti Amo’s most famous and frequently ordered starter – the Facci Ri Veccia, a wondrous combination of crescenza and mozzarella cheese and thinly sliced Parma prosciutto, drizzled with white truffle oil on focaccia bread “stretched until it is see-through” in the making, Massimo told us. 

“This will open up your appetite!” he said.

I am tempted to eat several Faccis & forget additional dishes, but…

True, though it was tempting not just to open but to close (so to speak) my appetite by eating the entire Facci and maybe one more. We are talking about an amazing dish here, folks – familiar yet fabulously different, salty yet cheese-sweet, light yet madly satisfying, the perfect texture for a taste-happy tongue. 

Heidi and I had no words: we just blinked happily and nodded to each other.

I restrained myself with difficulty from eating the entire Facci.

The salad! Oh, the salad! I did not leave one scrap of green on my plate. The Pere E Rape consisted of organic beets, arugula, mache, radiccio, freese, fresh pear, gorgonzola cheese, candied pecans and raspberry vinaigrette. The pecans were just the right amount of charred to grab the attention of my taste buds, despite the fact that each bud had been seemingly fully engaged before the snap of the nut hit.

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The salad was pear-fect: fresh and a riot of flavors

Homemade cappelletti alla carbonara followed: delicate rings of pasta with smoked pancetta in a Parmigiano cream sauce. I briefly regretted my indulgence with the Facci and the way I had inhaled the salad, worrying that I would not be able to do justice to this dish.

But I did. I ate almost all the pasta crowns.

Next came the ribeye special, the meat aged for 60 days, served with julienned eggplant and zucchini tossed in garlic and olive oil. The meat was tender and succulent. I could only take a few bites at this point, given all that I had already eaten, but those bites were enough to convince me that I would be coming back here with my husband and recommending the ribeye for him.

A return visit sounded perfect for our upcoming anniversary in January.

Massimo recommended Jordan Chardonnay, Napa Valley, to accompany my meal, and it was just the right wine for my taste, while Heidi reveled in lemon drops.

We were fortunate that both wife Donatella (the “face” of Il Barone, known for her hospitality and hugs) and husband Franco were in that evening and paid visits to our table, regaling us with tales of past and present culinary glories and adventures.

Talk about love: the Barones love food and they adore Laguna

Talk about love – the Barones’ love of food, of their customers, of their longtime staff, and Laguna Beach itself shone through in every word they spoke.  

“It has been a passionate dream of my husband to have a place in Laguna,” Donatella said. “When this property came up [they’ve been owners for six months], we knew we had to act on it. We’ve had great success with the tourists, the concierges always recommend us and we’ve had lines waiting outside in the summer, but locals don’t know us as well – we believe that when they find out what good food we serve, they will come.”

Of that I have no doubt, my certainty reinforced when dessert arrived – a light, ricotta-based cheesecake served with brandied cherries, truly a carnival of taste in one’s mouth. Heidi ordered the tiramisu and raved, rolling her eyes in appreciation.

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Ti Amo desserts: Love on a plate

So many dishes still to taste one of these days: from lamb to veal to swordfish to octopus, and so much more, all served in inimitably Il Barone style.

We ended the evening with homemade limoncello, a delightfully tart final drink, and left reluctantly, loaded with to-go boxes, in my case containing two thirds of a ribeye and half a slice of cheesecake, both of which my husband devoured with delight when I returned home, despite the lateness of the hour.

Yes, Ti Amo by Il Barone, I do love you.

Ti Amo by Il Barone is located at 31727 S Coast Highway. www.tiamolaguna.com.

Phone: 949-499-5350.

Footnote: Within 24 hours of our meal, Heidi would be on the operating table. One of her kidneys would be transplanted into Bruce Cook. Within hours, Bruce’s condition would begin to improve dramatically. Two weeks later, both donor and recipient are home and doing well. Heidi tells me that as soon as she is well enough, she’ll be back at Ti Amo for a post-surgery celebration. Now that’s true love.


Laguna’s newest coffee café: BLKdot

Story and photos by LAURA BUCKLE

Gosh it’s been so long since I wrote anything, I am sure I have a touch of writer’s block…but here goes.

I am back. Having had three months away from reporting on all the culinary delights Laguna Beach has to offer, I am pleased to say that once again I will be gracing the pages of Stu News Laguna with my thoughts and reports of all that is tasty in our wonderful town.

Where have you been? I hear you ask (or maybe not). Well, sadly, it appears I have turned into a true California girl and developed food allergies…“like, totally” real ones though.

Wheat and gluten top the list for me but there is also a lactose intolerance, which comes in a close second. As a self-confessed foodie, this news was pretty devastating, and my initial thoughts were “how do I carry on with my food reporting page?” I literally thought there would be no way I’d ever be able to eat out again. 

How wrong I was.

Laguna Beach has me covered, aside from a couple of places, which other staff writers will review. I have been pleasantly surprised by how accommodating chefs can be and how menus are figuring out how to change their menus to accommodate what I label myself – as one of “the allergics.”   

But don’t worry, I will also be reporting on the rest of the menu, but through the eyes and taste buds of the guest I take with me weekly (who I will ensure is not one of “the allergics”).

Anyway enough about me and where I’ve been, let’s carry on with the report.

I decided to ease in to this gently and this report saw me at the newest coffee hot spot in town: BLKdot Coffee.

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Latte

Located in North Laguna in what was previously Jean Paul’s, this coffee shop and café has been lovingly renovated, updated and restored. Aesthetically it is a contemporary, clean, cool, eatery in an area of town that I feel will really benefit from its presence. This is BLKdot coffee’s second location – its very successful flagship store is located in Irvine, and seeing the people already enjoying its location and vibe at 10:30 in the morning, I feel this place will be just as successful. 

The owner, Mai Tran, cheerfully greeted me. Mai hales from Newport, but having three daughters who have all been in the LBUSD she feels that Laguna has been more home to her than anywhere else.

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BLKdot Owner, Mai Tran

“I always wanted to open in Laguna Beach. My eldest daughter (now age 23 who works in the Laguna Beach location) was very keen to be here as an adult as she loved her school time here.” 

Like many people, finding a location in Laguna Beach proved to be a challenge but luckily for Mai this property became available in an area that has seen much activity, with the opening of many food establishments over the past 18 months (Reunion Kitchen + Drink, Asada, Jan’s, etc.), and also The Well fitness center, which is located next door. (Lets face it, after a workout we all need coffee.)

Joining me for my report was Stu News Publisher, Owner and dear friend Shaena, as we had some business to discuss and we needed a long overdue catch up.

I arrived at the location first and ordered a 16 oz. (BLKdot coffee serves 16 or 24 oz. cups) almond milk latte. One of the things I have struggled with since I had to remove lactose in milk from my diet is a nice creamy latte, as, more often than not, almond milk fails to give you that frothy creamy effect. However THIS latte was perfect! The almond milk was creamy, it frothed, the barista made a pretty pattern… I was “stoked” (gosh, I sound more and more Californian) and the coffee itself was great.

BLKdot coffee roasts their own beans off site, but they are brought to the location fresh every morning. I asked Mai just how they make their almond milk seriously as creamy as a regular milky latte and she explained that the almond milk they source is a special barista type that they have spent years sourcing and locating and she, too, does not drink cows milk but missed the creamy latte texture. 

Mai then went onto tell me that they would soon be serving oat milk, which is gluten free and vegan, and has even creamier texture (more on this later).

Shaena (who is not an allergic) ordered a 16 oz. vanilla latte with non-fat milk, which she said was delicious also.

It was then time to order food.  And I couldn’t wait! 

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BLKdot has delicious pastries, including this guava and cheese one

BLKdot coffee offers a range of delicious pastries on display on the counter as well as some fresh pre-made (in house) salads for those on the run, who need something quick. But they also have a breakfast and lunch menu, which, Mai tells me, is still a work in progress, although I personally think it’s just enough.

There are four breakfast choices and five lunchtime choices – all sounded delicious and it was difficult to choose.

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Avocado Boat

As it was 11:30 in the morning, I decided to choose from the breakfast menu and went for the Avocado Boat, which was half an avocado with a scoop of tuna, topped with bacon (optional) and pepper. This was so simple yet so incredibly tasty, very healthy and perfect for little miss allergic, i.e. me.

Shaena, who had probably already run 10 miles before our meeting, went for one of the sandwiches on the lunch menu. She chose the Asian inspired Chicken Banh Mi; perfectly cooked chicken breast served on a French roll with a spicy mayo, cucumber, pickled carrot and daikon, and jalapeño. I could not try this, but, wow, it looked spectacular. 

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Chicken Banh Mi

At the time of my visit, Mai was sourcing the perfect gluten free bread. She is hoping to add gluten free as an option to all of her sandwiches shortly.

As an extra treat Mai brought out the Avocado Toast, which looked amazing, and, as it wasn’t on Gluten free bread, I took it home for my family who all said it was amazing. 

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Avocado Toast

We both really enjoyed our food; it tasted fresh, clean and was well presented. 

As we were ready to leave, we couldn’t help but take a look in the pastry section and Mai very kindly gave us two pastries to try: a guava and cheese croissant and a peach Danish. I took mine home for my pastry-loving daughter who is still asking to go back and get more. 

Shaena inhaled hers after another workout and said it was amazing also. 

For me, this coffee shop will definitely become a regular haunt of mine, especially as I take a Pilates class opposite. The day after my review I popped in after class to try the oat milk latte and that was even better than the almond milk!

Great job, Mai and team – another excellent addition to Laguna Beach.

BLKdot Coffee   656 N. Coast Highway


The Durban Room: It’s very back-east-ish, as three former residents of Durban, South Africa, discover

Dining feature by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Three former Durbanites, newly introduced, met last week at The Durban Room at Mozambique Restaurant to reminisce about our lives in that city several decades ago, and to taste the South African-influenced cuisine offered at this sophisticated speakeasy, complete with piano bar and lounge singer. 

“This place has a real ‘back east’ vibe to it, doesn’t it?” observed Richelle Lavin, whom I’d first met at a book launch party a few weeks earlier. I’d been astonished to learn that she had gone to the same high school in Durban North as I had, albeit years later. 

Indeed, the rich burgundy walls, the photos of Victorian architecture (I loved seeing the picture of the old Durban railway station) the highly-polished bar, comfortable upholstery and the subtle lighting does make The Durban Room feel somewhat back-east-ish, somewhat New-York-ish – a restaurant/bar lounge that’s intimate and inviting at the same time. 

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The railway station, starting point for many adventures up and down the coast

Not to mention that Durban is very back-east-ish itself, given that it’s a port city on the east coast of South Africa, located where the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in 1497 on his way to India. Da Gama was the first European to reach India by sea, opening up the spice route and (unintentionally) ensuring a lasting Eastern influence on Durban cuisine.

In later years, Indians were indentured to work in the sugar cane fields. Their influence on the culinary culture has led to Durban today becoming the curry capital of South Africa (if it weren’t for London, I’d say the world). 

Add to that the influence of the Portuguese, then the Brits, the Boers (Afrikaners), the Zulu and the Xhosa who fought over the land in times past, and you’ll understand why the city is a place where the cuisine is as varied and feisty as its population.

Ah, yes, Durban curry… There’s nothing quite like it, Richelle, Barbara (Richelle’s mom) and I agreed, to bring back memories, and The Durban Room’s version is thoroughly authentic. The lamb, saturated with dark, mildly spicy sauce, fills the mouth with satisfying warmth and flavor without overwhelming the taste buds. 

There are certainly hotter versions on offer in Durban, but Mozambique’s flavorful, tender, fragrant dish is just right for many Americans. 

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Durban curry: there’s nothing like it, whether served with rice or as Bunny Chow inside a scooped-out half-loaf of bread

Not that curry was necessarily the dish of choice when we were growing up. In those days, it was the cheap option, often served in dives where anti-apartheid theatre or music played on Sunday nights. Serving alcohol was against the law on Sundays, unless dinner was provided – hence curry, which denizens of dark bars could usually afford – also known as bunny chow when served in a hollowed-out half-loaf of bread. 

We never dreamed there’d be a gourmet version.

Richelle and Barbara were in heaven, as was I, over the peri peri prawns, the peri peri sauce a Portuguese influence that made up part of the delicious and varied sampler plate that we ordered as an appetizer. 

“That peri peri sauce is the real thing, so authentic, spicy with a warm lingering aftertaste,” Richelle said. “And the samoosas! The pastry’s light and flaky, the perfect bite-size appetizer to wake up the taste buds.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. The Durban Room understands that samoosas should not be leathery pouches containing a solid lump of meat or vegetables, as is true in some Indian restaurants, but instead, the pastry shell should be closer to phyllo and inner fixings should complement each other in taste and texture, with just the right amount of crunchiness. Bravo, Chef Braulio Melo.

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Photo for Mozambique by Mike Altishin

The sampler plate is great, though I was tempted to eat only samoosas all night

The plump prawns in the sampler dish burst with flavor and were exuberantly spicy, setting up great expectations for the entrees, each of which turned out to be up to the task.

The boerewors (farm sausage) was good, nicely spicy, a little dry for me, but then I’ve never been much of a boerewors booster – however, those who do love boerewors should know that it is made daily on the premises to exacting standards.

Barbara chose to detour from the Durban theme (though she remained coastal) for her main course and she raved about her Chilean sea bass, served with asparagus and mashed potatoes. “The fish was light and fluffy,” she said. “The sauce was creamy and exceptionally tasty. It’s a new favorite for me.”

A word here about the wine list: South Africa, mostly in the Western Cape area, produces incredible wines. I’m not a sophisticated wine drinker: “I’ll take the house Chardonnay” is generally what I tell servers, or otherwise I tend to choose wine based on its name, rather the way I’d select possible winners in a horse race, so I asked for the Indaba Chardonnay, Indaba meaning meeting, which is what we were doing right then, we Durbanites, and the wine was perfect, light enough to pair with the curry, but tasty in its own right. 

Richelle, more knowledgeable than I about viticulture, confirmed that Mozambique offers an excellent selection of South African wines.

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Barbara took a detour from the Durban theme and loved the Chilean sea bass

Richelle enjoyed her Fleur de Cap Pinotage. “This is a lovely light drinking wine. However, a true treat would be the Rust en Vrede Cabernet Sauvignon,” she said – apparently one of Nelson Mandela’s favorites. 

I must mention here how conducive to conversation The Durban Room is, a rare quality in many restaurants these days where loud music or bad acoustics tend to leave one more or less speechless, unable to do much except nod or smile in response to chatter one can’t actually hear. 

On this night we were particularly fortunate to hear the accomplished Francois Dean on the piano. What a fabulous singer and musician! At the Durban Room, diners enjoy voluptuous lounge music from Thursdays to Sundays, ranging from jazz, blues, funk and R&B – the mood changing with the deepening of the night, and sometimes with the appearance of additional musicians and celebrities. That evening, Star Jones sat at the table next to ours.

So it was that our conversation covered quite a bit of ground. Barbara and I found out that we had both worked at The Three Bears furniture store way back when. We talked about the paddling pools on Marine Parade and the time the high tide engulfed them. The surfing culture, how Shaun Thomson used to come into Kelly’s Steakhouse where I worked during my vacations. 

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Richelle’s peri peri prawns were very very good 

But mostly we talked about food, from the ghastly – for example, the dry, chewy frikkadels (meat patties) my mother used to make, served with slimy overcooked cabbage – to the glorious – in my case, the fudge my Scottish father loved, my memories of those times such a comfort, recalling how at eight years old, I stood on a stool and helped my dad stir the mixture until the texture was just right. (My father would die a year later.) 

Finally, the three of us sampled the Portuguese hot butter pudding, served in a martini glass. “The sweet, warm flavor of the pudding just melts in your mouth,” Richelle said.

She also enjoyed an Amarula on the rocks, a popular South African after-dinner drink. “Sweet and creamy, this drink is the perfect sipping cocktail for after dinner, a fun dessert replacement,” she added, “or try the restaurant’s Dark and Stormy Continent coffee drink with a shot of Amarula.” 

What’s great about The Durban Room, in addition to the warm, sophisticated and yet welcoming atmosphere, and the unobtrusively excellent service, is that the menu provides a wide range of delicious choices for everyone’s taste. Certainly no diner is forced to choose a South African-influenced dish.

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Photo by Kim Hardin

The Portuguese hot butter pudding was sweet and warm 

But we three ladies, we Durbanites, we would have loved to see a few more South African favorites on the menu. Not that I expect The Durban Room to serve anchovy toast, or Marmite toast, or cheese and tomato sandwiches grilled with butter on both sides of the bread – though I’d enjoy all three – or mieliepap (corn porridge), which I wouldn’t – but perhaps more dishes with an Eastern flair, such as Indonesian rijstafel? I mean, Americans love their peanut butter…

Perhaps bobotie (minced lamb with a hint of curry, incorporating raisins and almonds, with a milk-and-egg topping)?  

Maybe desserts invented by our Afrikaner fellow-countrymen, such as melktert and koeksusters? 

Of course, many of my South African food memories are bound up with personal experiences, both happy (fudge) and sad (frikkadels), and nostalgia is not a flavor that can be added in any kitchen. 

So I’d best leave the menu decision-making to Chef Melo, who clearly knows what he is doing.

Please, do go to The Durban Room. It’s intimate, it’s inviting, the food is amazing, conversation is audible, and the atmosphere is, indeed, very back-east-ish. 

Durbanite or not, you will love it, I promise. 

Group bookings and holiday group party reservations are also welcome at The Durban Room – it seats 50 for dinner, and handles 80 in a cocktail reception format.

Mozambique Restaurant is located at 1740 S. Coast Highway. Visit the http://www.MozambiqueOC.com website for announcements of the upcoming piano lounge live music schedule.


SLICE: It’s pizza on a whole other level

Review and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

With vision and dedication to the project, an impossibly small, slice-shaped piece of property has become the commodious and welcoming Slice restaurant. 

I was happy to pop in the other night – a weeknight – and find the place abuzz with families, couples, and individuals all sharing a long table and neighboring counter. Cary and Suzanne Redfearn, firstly, designed the attractive space to include the communal seating, already enjoyed by loads of your soon-to-be new friends. 

And then there was the aroma of something delicious in the giant, authentically Italian, gorgeous, 7,000-pound pizza oven. Even better, owner Cary Redfearn was there to provide a little depth as to the whole concept that is Slice.

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Cary Redfearn happy to have opened his newest restaurant in Laguna, Slice

“I wanted to do quick service, with elevated product,” said Cary. “There’s more than I ever imagined!”

Getting started

Cary told me that the research into creating a fantastic pizza restaurant was more than being a super-experienced restaurateur for more than thirty years, more than even falling in love with Italy while taking cooking classes there. 

“I spent time at Las Vegas [a pizza purveyors convention]. There were 1100 vendors – with tomatoes, olive oil, …an oven company!” he said. “I changed because of that show.”

What you don’t want

Cary had a vision for Slice, and it started with what you don’t want.

“I didn’t want to do Napoli pizza floppy in the middle – I wanted it crispy all the way through.” He calls it “Neo-Neapolitan.”

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Slice’s custom order bar and 7,000-pound Italian pizza oven

Ever the able student, Cary found a school in LA teaching about such things. “The instructor said, ‘You need to come to my restaurant.’” 

It was South End, in Venice. Cary went, and knew it was exactly what he wanted to create in Laguna. “Mario,” Cary told the instructor, “that’s what I want to do.”

So Mario headed south to impart his expertise. “After two days [teaching],” Cary says. “It’s like a light went off!”

It’s about the dough

“I’m 24-hour fermentation, augmenting the dough – 24 hours ahead,” Cary says, clearly excited about the dough process. The flour used in the dough comes from one of the oldest mills in Italy. This is a man who cares about the product. 

“Dough has a look, a feel, and a sound – I know how it’s supposed to be,” he says with a laugh. “My life has been run by dough lately! 

“I didn’t want to let people down by not serving great pizza. I wanted to get the dough right – just the way we wanted it.”

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Here in sophisticated Laguna Beach, we value that authenticity. We can be pretty picky about our pizzas. I found the pizza dough absolutely on point – crispy, with bits of char, still chewy and full of fresh, properly risen yeast and wheat taste. 

And the other stuff

All the ingredients were chosen by Cary’s exacting standards.

Take the tomatoes, used for the base. Bianco Dinapoli tomatoes, from California’s Central Valley, won out because they are super-fresh, not pre-cooked, they are organically grown and steam peeled – and because they are the least acid of any tomatoes Cary tried. And he tested a lot! The cheeses – mozzarella, ricotta, burrata – are all fresh, made by Angelo Franco, in LA. 

And then there are custom options of all the freshest variety. One of the delicious concepts at Slice is that you can create your own custom pies.

Signature pizza or customize?

I met a couple there, Mark and Kobea, who had just received their favorite pie. “We came here once, and we were hooked,” Mark said. Theirs had olives, tomatoes, fennel, zucchini, prosciutto and burrata. It looked amazing.

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Kobea’s favorite pizza

We tried two pizzas from the menu, and I have to say – no hyperbole – I was a little weak in the knees! The first was the “Shaw’s Cove,” a combination including shrimp, pesto, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, fresh oregano, and topped with wild arugula. I loved the way all the different flavors worked together, and the rustic, natural appeal of whole shrimp, curled while cooking in the oven, and the cool, fresh arugula added at the end so it stays nice and crunchy.

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The Shaw’s Cove pizza

The other pizza we tried actually had me coming back for more the next day. Called the “Lolita,” it looked innocent enough, all smooth and white, dotted with green olives and topped with egg. But, one bite into that creamy garlic ricotta sauce countered by the zingy castelvetrano olives and I was swooning. I seriously woke up the next morning, planning to head out for another Lolita pizza.

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The Lolita pizza

Wait, there’s beer!

The signature pizzas are all 11-inches, perfect for sharing. Meanwhile, to wet your whistle there is a whole other universe happening at Slice. It’s like you travel into the future and, looking back, think why didn’t this exist before? 

Here’s what you do for adult beverages: you get a wristband. The wristband has a magnetic thingy on it that knows your bill (attached to your credit card). You swipe the wristband at the dispenser of your choice (some 14 different beers, and 14 different wines), and pour away. You get charged only the amount that you pour. So, say you want to try a little of the Session IPA, but just a bit because you’re eyeing a different microbrew, you just get charged that little bit. All the info about the varietals, as well as the prices are listed at the tap.

Photo by Shaena

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Beer and wine taps at Slice

Meanwhile, over at the soda station, there’s another world going on as well. Out of a soda machine, unlike any I’ve ever seen before, you can dispense away – up to 160 varieties of soda combinations (as well as other Coke products, like Vitamin Water)! Tech savvy kiddos can even check it out on the computer or phone beforehand, and the machine will identify you and your preference when you’re there. Whoa. Someone from the future dropped off a Coke machine at Slice.

Slice is open daily from 11 a.m. Learn more at slicelb.com

477 Forest Avenue, Order ahead at (949) 715-3993


Harvest Restaurant’s growth reaps bountiful new menu items

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” 

Mark Christy would tell you he’s been planting so many seeds at The Ranch since its inception that he should be driving one of those giant John Deere tractors with a matching hat on his head. 

As golf course, hotel rooms and spa have all matured, the resort’s primary restaurant, Harvest, seemed to be on its own gestation schedule. 

But now, Harvest is – as an old church hymn sings – “bringing in the sheaves.” 

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Photo courtesy Diane Armitage

Harvest: A perfect finale to a hard day’s work

By far one of the most stunning restaurant settings in Laguna Beach, Harvest is a feast for the senses. I love sitting at the tables on the windows, especially when said windows have been rolled back into the walls. It’s a soothing place where you can come alone to regenerate your soul, or carry on a low decibel conversation with your dining partner without the need to holler. 

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Photo courtesy The Ranch/Harvest

New Chef, new mojo – executive chef Kyle St. John

In September, with the announcement that Chef de Cuisine Kyle St. John had been elevated to Executive Chef status, our soothing restaurant’s menu began to stir with signs of life, new ideas rustling in the wind.

Although Harvest’s restaurant menu had, to date, offered some memorable items, it hadn’t reaped the giant fanfare that had been expected. 

Now, that’s all changing. (In other words, it’s harvest time, baby!)

In my estimation, a Chef de Cuisine or Sous Chef is often the most innovative and talented cook in the kitchen. (This might have something to do with the fact that the Executive Chef has to become more of a business executive of the kitchen with P&L statements, food cost predictions, labor and scheduling, and the comparative price of fresh orange juice in six states.) 

Chef Kyle came on board as Chef de Cuisine at the Ranch exactly one year ago, undoubtedly dreaming up new innovations for the menu all along. While a few changes were made under the most recent Executive Chef, Chef Kyle is finally enjoying a run at the menu on his terms. 

And that run, folks, is looking mighty fine.

What a difference a few changes make

When I sat down for lunch this week, I arrived unannounced with a girlfriend buddy. It was only a matter of minutes, though, before Chef Kyle was introducing himself at our table. He’s a happy guy, producing a happy menu – no better place for a chef to be. 

He served up a number of fun dishes on the current menu that bear his signature, including a revamped Caesar Salad, a giant bowl of creamy Pimento Mac ‘n Cheese, and a crazy-good Fried Chicken Burger. 

The Caesar was created true to form, shaken (never stirred) with a very light touch on anchovy mixed in. 

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Creamy Pimento Mac ‘n Cheese

Although we talked with Chef more than 20 minutes, when we finally dug into the creamy mac ‘n cheese, it was still steaming. It’s noted on the menu as a “side dish,” but this can easily feed a family of three (but you might have to fight over it). 

The Fried Chicken Burger was a masterpiece. You’re going to need help with a knife and fork as this is a giant with a hefty chicken breast, fresh tomato, mini haystack of arugula and house-made bread and butter pickles. The menu claims Thousand Island dressing for added goo, but there’s a hint of curry somewhere in this mix, whether in the breading for the chicken or the dressing itself. Whatever the case, it makes for a perfect meld of savory goodness. 

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The fried chicken burger is a masterpiece

After all that comfort food, Chef sent out the final piece de resistance, “The Last Piece of Apple Pie.” A single wedge in an empty pie pan, this is a heap of Grandma-like love with freshly peeled and baked apples, a perfect flaky crust and ice cream drizzled in caramel sauce. It has all the guilty trappings of finding that last piece of homemade pie stuffed behind the leftover turkey from Grandma’s holiday meal…and stealing away with it like some kind of Christmas Grinch.

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Photo by Diane Armitage

“The Last Piece of Apple Pie”

While Chef Kyle is happy with item changes and additions he has inserted into the existing menus, he loves the new changes coming down the pike. Complete menu changes for both lunch and dinner will be debuting before Thanksgiving.  

For starters, let’s start with starters

Chef Kyle is innovating several new small plates and shared appetizers for the new menus. That info is enough to get an ovation from me. This is exactly what Harvest has needed, as this is the kind of restaurant that speaks to relaxing and lingering with friends. 

He’s also creating a “legitimate” soup and salad section with classic French Onion, soup du jour and a lineup of salads that include a Harvest Garden salad made of “whatever comes out of our garden,” he says with a grin. 

And then it’s on to even bigger changes with a bigger picture in mind.   

Sustaining delicious sustainability is a commitment

Chef Kyle was raised in Montana on a 1,200-acre farm that produced just about everything on the family’s dinner table. His love for cooking firmly established, he moved to be near his next love – ocean water – first on the East Coast, and then broad jumping everything in between to land in South Orange County. In SoCal for 18 years, he moved to Laguna Beach four years ago, and now lives with his new bride, Laura, in North Laguna. 

With the combined farm background and local love for Laguna and all things surfing, Chef Kyle is a perfect fit for The Ranch’s significant commitment to sustainability 

Chef Kyle has taken the initiative into his kitchen with continued efforts to maintain the restaurant’s rare award, Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly Restaurant Certification. This means, in part, that some fish menu items are wholly local, caught that very morning in the waters off Dana Point. 

Further, Chef Kyle is working hand in hand with San Juan Capistrano’s Ecology Center to boost his own harvest out by “Scout Camp” at The Ranch. It’s an acre-sized garden of completely organic herbs, root vegetables and leafy greens.

Debuting delicious new menu items is an art form

As Chef talks about the new entrées and dishes he will be debuting shortly, every item connects back to the sustainability and organic theme. 

His new Beer Braised Short Rib, Bone-In Ribeye for Two, and Half Chicken (done Coq au Vin style) will be sourced organically. 

Chef’s debut of Whole Fried Branzino, Bacon-Wrapped Scallops, and mussels and oysters will be arriving fresh daily. 

Even new share and small plates such as Pork Belly Bites, done banh mi style, and the Confit Duck Wings will be loyally and thoughtfully sourced. 

Granted, we all admire and support any chef’s efforts toward sustainability. From a foodie standpoint, though, it’s just darn exciting to see so many enticing new menu items in the “winter harvest” at Harvest

Look for menu changes in about two weeks. Lunch menus will be the first to debut the largest number of small plates and shared appetizers but, in short order, we will be seeing them migrate to bar and dinner menus, too. 

Breakfast at The Ranch is served 7 – 11 a.m., Lunch from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Bar menu runs interference from 3:00 – 5:30 while the kitchen preps for dinner. 

And dinner menu plays 5:30 – 10:00 p.m.

Kya

Shaena Stabler is the Owner and Publisher.

Lynette Brasfield is our Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

The Webmaster is Michael Sterling.

Katie Ford is our in-house ad designer.

Alexis Amaradio, Cameron Gillepsie, Allison Rael, Barbara Diamond, Diane Armitage, Laura Buckle, Maggi Henrikson, Marrie Stone, Samantha Washer and Suzie Harrison are staff writers.

Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Laura Buckle and Suzie Harrison are columnists.

Mary Hurlbut, Scott Brashier, and Aga Stuchlik are the staff photographers.

We all love Laguna and we love what we do.

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