Even the food is festive

Click on photo for a larger image

Avocado toast at The Grove looked quite festive this week


Chef Arthur’s awesome menu + a rockin’ live band =  memorable NYE Party at Skyloft this year 

Chef Arthur Ortiz has pulled out all the stops on this year’s New Year’s Eve prix fixe menu with items such as Marsala Duck Medallions, Grilled Steak with a skewer of Cajun Shrimp, a hearty California Smoke Platter, and more.

On New Year’s Eve, Skyloft has two prix fixe menus seatings, with the first from 5 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. for $80, and the second from 8 p.m.- 1 a.m. 

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mike Altishin

Steak filet wrapped in bacon

The second Skyloft NYE seating, priced at just $120, includes the prix fixe menu, your table reserved all evening long, lively music with Venson Quarles & The Just Funk Band, and a midnight bubbly toast. Patrons interested in just the live music party after 9 p.m. (no prix fixe menu) pay a $20 cover.

For more infromation or to  review the New Year’s Eve menu, visit www.SkyloftOC.com/nye-menu. To reserve seating, call (949) 715-1550.


Gu Ramen’s hot broth and chill vibe draw a diverse and enthusiastic clientele

Story and photos by JENNIFER ERICKSON

Gu Ramen Taps and Tapas, located at 907 S. Coast Highway, at the corner of Thalia, began drawing ramen aficionados from as far as Los Angeles as soon as it opened on June 6, 2015. So far the momentum hasn’t slowed, as had been the case with two previous, short-lived tenants in the space. 

Perhaps that’s because Gu Ramen boasts not only bowls of noodles and toppings steaming in their signature tonkotsu broth, but also what some web reviewers call “a chill vibe.” 

Earlier this week I interviewed Kitiphong (“Kiti”) Thongdetsakul, who co-owns the restaurant with Wicha Thossansin, and he seemed to agree. He attributes their success to “good food, good drink, good wine, and good atmosphere.” 

Click on photo for a larger image

A bowl of Gu Ramen’s noodles with their signature broth and pork belly

Besides their pork- and chicken-bone broth, double-simmered for 16 to 18 hours, they use high quality ingredients and meat, Kiti said. And he has nothing but praise for their current executive chef Michael Rudolph, who, he said, is working on some surprise menu items for the New Year.

The tasty food can be washed down with selections from a respectable line up of craft beer on tap, bottled beer, reasonably priced wines by the glass and bottle, or an extensive list of sakes. For those eschewing alcohol, there’s a fridge filled with specialty soft drinks, such as Fanta, Mexican Coke and hard-to-find Asian sodas.

While most reviews on Yelp, Google and Facebook are raves, or at least complimentary, the most common complaint among detractors is that the food can be slow to reach them on busy nights. But ramen is generally made to order, and with a small kitchen, the orders can pile up. Asked about that, Kiti assured me that they prefer to have the customer “wait for a better quality of broth and noodle” than to hurry the process and serve sub-par food. “We’re not here to rush the customer, we’re here to satisfy everybody,” he said, such as those who routinely pick up their bowls at the end of the meal to slurp every last bit of broth.

Eclectic playlists and alluring videos add to the chill vibe

Besides the inevitable observations on the merits of the ramen and other items on the menu, many reviewers note the eclectic playlists of mostly 80s and 90s music, usually accompanied by their alluring music videos displayed on the two flat TV screens behind the bar. It’s not an ambiance you’ll find at other ramen places, Kiti proudly noted. He said he relies on whoever is working to orchestrate the music playlists, which they’ll often tweak based on reading the room.

My theory is that most people come to Gu Ramen for the food the first time but keep returning for the aforementioned “chill vibe.” 

The first thing I noticed when I ate there over a year ago was the diversity of the clientele. Single men and women of different ages and walks of life dotted the bar, while the booths along the opposite wall seemed to be crammed with every age group, ethnicity and gender. There were young couples on dates, older couples sharing a meal with friends, young women on a girls’ night out, hipsters, surfers, and business executive-looking types. All were talking, laughing, eating and slurping as those retro tunes rounded out the music of their conversation and the vintage, sometimes racy, videos supplied background eye candy.

Often, walking into a new restaurant or bar for the first time, you have an immediate sense of some degree of belonging, indifference or alienation, depending on the other customers. Maybe you’re older than the crowd, or younger, or more or less affluent, under- or over-dressed, or more of an outsider. 

But the second I entered Gu Ramen I felt the ease of anonymity. I didn’t stick out in any way. My husband and I were just two more people coming in to partake of the food and ambience, assuming we could get a seat on that busy Friday night. Luckily, we did. 

Click on photo for a larger image

Tapas like this Senbei Ahi Tartare hit all the right taste notes

A return there on a recent Monday night at around 6:30 p.m. confirmed my initial observations about the vibe and the food. The Senbei Ahi Tartare - poke-like tuna studded with edamame and mounded on crunchy rice crackers, and the Buta Belly Sliders - glazed marinated pork belly and sweet and spicy sauces on a soft pretzel bun, were as mouth-watering as I had remembered. As were the ramen.

For the sake of diversity this time around, my husband ordered the Chashu Yaki Rice Bowl, which was basically hibachi fried rice with pork belly and an egg. This was flavor packed comfort food at its best. It almost made me jealous. Almost. But my chewy noodles bathed in the long-simmered pork and chicken bone tonkotsu broth, and garnished with pork belly, garlic oil, sprouts and other goodies, kept me quite happy. 

Click on photo for a larger image

Look no further than the Chashu Yaki Rice Bowl for your next comfort food craving

The playlist also seemed the same, though instead of music videos the flat screens over the bar displayed Monday Night Football with the sound off. No one seemed to mind.

Kiti told me that they try to accommodate the customers, so during football season, they’ll usually have the games on early on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays. 

Click on photo for a larger image

Football replaces the usual music videos on early Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights in season

Though a sparser crowd, as expected for an early Monday night, Gu Ramen’s  clientele was just as diverse as on our inaugural visit. There were couples, singles and groups of varying ages and backgrounds, including a trio of 30-something guys apparently having a “chill” time.

I decided to invade their privacy and find out what brought them there. 

Click on photo for a larger image

Local guys enjoy beer and...where did those sliders go?

It’s “pretty much the only place in Laguna you can get ramen,” said one, while the others cited “spicy food and beer” and “really good food” in general. It was not the first time these guys, who turned out to be locals, had been here, but it was the first time they’d ordered the Buta Belly Sliders, which they liked so much they had consumed all evidence, leaving only their beer by the time I took their photo. (They assured me more food was on the way.) When I asked if they were there for the football, they said no, adding that they got a kick out of the music video fare usually on display. See what I mean about the vibe?

Click on photo for a larger image

Buta Belly Sliders get devoured quickly

As a foodie, I sadly admit that extensive ramen knowledge is one of my weak points. That said, I have at least read a lot about ramen, such as in the coveted “ramen issue” of Lucky Peach Magazine (a sort of holy grail for some). And I have eaten ramen in two other places – Ivan Ramen in New York City and Kagari, in Tokyo, both of which establishments have cult followings, as so many of these places do.

Based on that experience, I can say that though each place has its own standout dishes, Gu Ramen easily holds its own in the taste department. And as ambience goes, they knock it out of the park. Ivan Ramen in New York has a bustling, diner-like atmosphere where hurried and hungry New Yorkers come in to grab seats and quickly get their ramen fix before being displaced by others. It’s lively, but the atmosphere is more about eating and running than hanging out. 

If anything, Kagari, on the Ginza in Tokyo, is even less about hanging out. After a two-hour wait on line outside in the cold to occupy two of the nine available seats there, once you sat down, it was all about the food. The one similarity to Gu Ramen was the diversity of the customers. There were businessmen, mothers with daughters, and groups of college kids bumping elbows with nattily dressed women and goth-clad teens.

Gu Ramen alone seems to have combined its ramen destination identity with a neighborhood bar atmosphere and diverse customer base. 

Personally, I have to admit that I crave the food and the vibe just about equally…and finding a good IPA on tap doesn’t hurt either.

Call 949-715-0825 for more information.


Chef Craig Strong offers cooking classes at Studio, Montage Laguna Beach 

Acclaimed Executive Chef Craig Strong of Montage Laguna Beach’s signature fine dining restaurant Studio will be giving a series of interactive cooking classes starting Sat, Jan 13. The classes will be held at Studio, located at 30801 Coast Highway, panoramically perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, and will include hands-on cooking experiences complete with tips and tricks from Chef Strong, lunch with wine pairing, recipe sharing and a Studio apron.

The series includes: Spanish Cooking 101 on Sat, Jan 13, at 11 a.m. Strong leads the way for participants to learn how to throw a Spanish-themed party, complete with tapas and paella. On the menu: Gambas ajillo, Serrano ham con pan and Tomate, Brandade in Pequillo Sauce, Patatas Bravas and Chicken Paella with Shellfish.

Click on photo for a larger image

Submitted Photo

Since 2009, Strong has helmed the kitchen at Studio with its highly acclaimed modern French cuisine with California influences

Another event included is the Sweet Tooth: Pastry Basics on Sat, Feb 17, at 11 a.m. Participants will learn to make decadent desserts just in time for Valentine’s Day – from classic recipes with techniques demystified by the Chef. On the menu: Lemon Tart, Warm Chocolate Cake and Crème Brûlée infused with garden herbs.

Additionally, there will be an Italian Love Affair with Pasta on Sat, March 17, at 11 a.m. Students will make three types of pasta - hand-rolled, dumplings and noodles with a variety of delicious sauces to compliment each. On the menu: Ricotta Cavatelli with Basil Sauce, Fettuccine Alfredo and Trofi with Checca Sauce and Mozzarella.

Cost for each class is $150, plus tax and gratuity. Class size is limited. For reservations, call (949) 715-6420.


Chef Arthur’s awesome menu + a rockin’ live band =  memorable NYE Party at Skyloft this year 

Chef Arthur Ortiz has pulled out all the stops on this year’s New Year’s Eve prix fixe menu with items such as Marsala Duck Medallions, Grilled Steak with a skewer of Cajun Shrimp, a hearty California Smoke Platter, and more.

On New Year’s Eve, Skyloft has two prix fixe menus seatings, with the first from 5 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. for $80, and the second from 8 p.m.- 1 a.m. 

The second Skyloft NYE seating, priced at just $120, includes the prix fixe menu, your table reserved all evening long, lively music with Venson Quarles & The Just Funk Band, and a midnight bubbly toast. Patrons interested in just the live music party after 9 p.m. (no prix fixe menu) pay a $20 cover.

For more infromation or to  review the New Year’s Eve menu, visit www.SkyloftOC.com/nye-menu. To reserve seating, call (949) 715-1550.


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.

Click on photo for a larger image

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. 

Click on photo for a larger image

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.  

Click on photo for a larger image

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.”)

Click on photo for a larger image

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.

Click on photo for a larger image

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

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.

Email: Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com for questions about advertising

949.315.0259

Email: Lynette@StuNewsLaguna.com with news releases, letters, etc

949.715.1736