“Break a leg” was said to the cast several times as we left our front row center seats, following virtuoso performances by Chef Amar and a chorus line of incomparable line cooks. Our Broadway-bound trio had arrived early; by the time we left, eager guests were gathering outside, in the cool night air of Laguna Beach.
All agreed the impresario behind the boffo performance was Chef Amar himself. Along with partners Ahmed Labbate and Rich Cadarette, Chef has created an environment where food has the starring roles and the stylish open kitchen, (“the most visible of its kind in Orange County”, he says) is the stage.
Before the curtain went up, Ricky Yarnall’s repertoire of cocktails had patrons abuzz. Vintage (the Loucette, Remember the Maine), Classic (Moscow mule, Mai Tai) and Modern all vie for the spotlight. Yarnall’s newest creation, the Spurgeon, pays tribute to William Spurgeon, the founder of the nearby city of Santa Ana. Spot-on ingredients further each role, like Prohibition-style Templeton Rye, rosemary water, ginger beer, Cherry Herring, and Absinthe, to name a few. A nice touch was the classic Glencairn glass used for premium whiskies. “Ours is a craft cocktail bar; there are only about five in Orange County”, says Yarnall. Indeed, artisanal Bourbons, including Whistle Pig, Rowan’s Creek, and Noah’s Mill, along with Death’s Door Gin are all waiting in the wings for their star turn.
Appealing to Broadway’s multi-cultural audience was an equally diverse menu featuring perfectly proportioned offerings. From our coveted front row seats at the open kitchen’s chef’s table, we watched the professional line cooks wield tweezers, ladles, molds, and spoons to put finishing touches on their sumptuous creations. Standout starters included Roasted Bone Marrow with braised oxtail marmalade and marinated anchovies, Roasted and Pickled Beet Salad with puffed black rice and nasturtium, and Crisp Brussels Sprouts with Chinese sausage, cilantro and sweet and sour sauce. Entrees dazzled with standing ovations for the Grilled Smoked Pork Chop with prosciutto wrapped salsify, New York Steak with smoked marrow bordelaise, Loup de Mer (the celery truffle jus added a wonderful smokiness to the Mediterrean sea bass, so that my Lagavulin 16 single malt Scotch went perfectly with it). From our vantage point, the Seared Maine Sea Scallops were the most popular entrée. Beautifully prepared and served with Israeli couscous risotto, summer squash and stewed tomatoes, it was a standout.
Menu and bar items change occasionally. On this night, starters ranged from $8 to $18; entrees ranged between $28 and $39. Cocktails were $12. Both the spirits and wine list are extensive and well-chosen.
Chef Amar, his co-stars and cast, have created an inviting and shimmering bit of Gotham, just a few blocks from the sands of Laguna Beach. Bravo!