Go for the Gold

Stay for the Crispy Crackle catfish

Ever hear of the Culinary Olympics? Probably not, but they do exist, and they're a big deal among the high-stakes sauce-and-cleaver crowd. Think Iron Chef without the medieval-castle sets, snappy overlord, rockin' music and cheesy English voice-overs. The concept of these games is simple: give a team of chefs a set amount of raw ingredients and a couple of hours to prepare them any way they see fit, and the results are judged in a host of categories.

Simple, but not easy. To master this game, a chef must be resourceful, creative and fast. And Brad Toles, who is captain of Team California, is all three. Toles ranks among the elite of these foodie games. Recently his team won four gold medals at the International Culinary Olympics in Berlin, and Team California is ranked first in the United States (we rule!) and fifth in the world. Think Apolo Ohno in a puffy white hat.

Toles has a day job, too. He's owner and executive chef of Savoury's, a quaint Mediterranean-style restaurant located in the La Casa del Camino Hotel on a busy stretch of Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. Here, you can see for yourself Toles' resourcefulness and creativity (speed is not needed) in his boutique seasonal menu melding Asian and European cooking with a New Age flair that, when thrown together, comes out as something known as California cuisine. Got that?

What I'm saying is you can have both your Brie and pad Thai here, and you'll like it. And in a nod to his Laguna constituents, he also serves "holistic" selections (read: vegetarian), which he describes in menu notes as a "treat for our senses, our souls and our lifelong relationship with a miraculous vessel of life in the body."

Okay, Rod McKuen he ain't, but the dude can cook. When we recently dropped in for a nosh, my wife and I decided to swing both ways—me with the Asian, and she with the Euro. The appetizers lean toward Asian, with Vietnamese duck spring rolls, a sushi sampler and a sesame-ginger crab cake. There's also pistachio-crusted Brie and foie gras with wild mushroom polenta, but at $21, it was a bit steep for me.

Adriana went with the smooth bisque of butternut squash, served with diced minced apples that gave it a cool, sweet flavor. I opted for the crab cake, which exhibited Toles' Olympic flair: a crisp, peppery cake topped with a wasabi scallion aioli and a cucumber-carrot salad. Beneath this lay a spicy strip of raw ahi tuna. I doubt there has been a crab cake like this one anywhere else.

Toles seems to have a greater affinity for Asian food. The entrée selections range from pad Thai and Thai chile barbecued ahi to Mongolian barbecued short ribs and kung pao halibut. But to me, the optimum choice was the Crispy Crackle catfish filet, a monster feast for those who love their veggies. A breaded, deep-fried catfish filet topped with ginger, chile peppers and a citrus fish sauce sits on a roast-corn ragout, a heaping mound of vegetables I listed on my notes as including two types of green beans, carrots, lima beans, snow peas, cabbage, asparagus, onions, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and celery. And I probably missed a few. (Oh, by the way, there was a yummy lobster dumpling included in all this, too.) This delicious meal was thoroughly overwhelming; I ate only half, and the next day, the leftovers filled a regular-sized dinner plate.

Overwhelming aptly describes the pistachio-and-rosemary-crusted organic chicken. (This just in: pistachio is the trendy nut du jour. Look for it at your favorite restaurant.) This entrée was served in a Brobdingnagian bowl that looked like a pith helmet from an army of giants. In it, a roasted half chicken shared space with fingerling potatoes, pancetta and onion and egg salad, all of it covered by a savory pinot noir shallot reduction sauce. Heavy on the pistachio and light on the rosemary, this chicken dish—like the catfish—was creative, spectacular and tremendous.

Looking around the restaurant, I could see other entrées were similarly impressive, and looks of surprise and delight covered the faces of many diners. Obviously, if we who dined that night at Savoury's could award medals, Brad Toles would get the gold. It's not like he hasn't earned it before.

Savoury's, located in the La Casa del Camino Hotel, 1287 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, is open Tues.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. (949) 376-9716. Full bar. Dinner for two, $60-$80, food only. All major credit cards accepted.
 
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