Soil to Soul

Orange County’s freshest farmers, farmers markets, food purveyors—and the chefs who love them

You sit on some of the most fertile land in America, Orange Countians. Dirt that propelled us into the national spotlight, that spawned millions of beets, celery, lemons, avocados, cattle and Valencia oranges. So what did we do? We threw asphalt and subdivisions on top of farms and ranches and never looked back. And while some might celebrate this as the inevitable march of progress, doesn't it disgust you that the most prominent reminder of the county's agricultural past is probably the ugly gray monoliths carved with oranges that decorate Highway 22?

Get back to the farm. This issue is devoted to everything wholesome and green, from farmers markets to chefs who use organic products to create magnificent dishes to the county's last farmers, those stubborn men and women who continue to coax bountiful harvests from tiny plots of land despite knowing that selling off their farms could bring them millions. Also featured are Orange County's first vegetarians (big surprise: They were a bit loco), a tucked-away tofu factory, and everything you need to know about reconnecting with the soul—and the soil—of Orange County.

THE RESTAURANTS
The prices tend to be steep, and the portions never quite fill the belly. But few restaurants better exemplify the beauties of the Slow Food Movement like Britta's Café, where you can track the seasons by the menu. The best time to visit is Saturday for breakfast, just after chef/owner Britta Pulliam makes a dash through the Irvine Farmers Market in case she's inspired to stray from her menu. Right now, the omelets with summer veggies—usually squashes, spinach and tomatoes juicier than oranges—will make you forget every previous egg you ever ate. 4237 Campus Dr., Ste. B-165, Irvine, (949) 509-1211; www.brittascafe.com.

Even Argentines will see the vegan light at Avanti Café, where Tanya Fuqua and Mark Cleveland eschew meat and dairy in favor of fanciful, flavorful creations. Avanti is proof of green cuisine's mainstreaming: When the café opened two years ago, most of the food would satisfy only a green-tea-sipping, Downward Dog-posing sissy. Nowadays, folks can dine on everything from pizzas with fake, delicious cheese and shop-rolled pastas to the best margaritas in OC: puckery, with grapefruit and spice overtones, it's summertime in a glass. 259 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 548-2224; www.avantinatural.com.

Sapphire Laguna is nearly impossible to dine in these days because of all the well-deserved publicity it's received (including in this paper). But do try, and not just because chef Azmin Ghahreman's creations skip the globe or because his cuisine is high-end dining at its finest. Just look at the pictures on Sapphire's website: The burly Ghahreman studies bushels of bell peppers, holds grapes from a vine, stands next to a tomato cage holding a plump heirloom. Who knew that for someone so enamored with organic cuisine, Ghareman could be such a ham? 1200 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-9888; www.sapphirellc.com.

Nothing personifies the possibilities of locally produced food like Ramos House Café. First, consider the location: not a gleaming new development, but rather a century-old house in California's oldest continuously resided-on street (Avenida Los Rios), with chef/owner John Q. Humphreys living and working in the restaurant and growing the herbs and even a couple of the vegetables for his Southern-skewed menu out back. And the entertainment isn't canned music or ESPN loudmouths, but simplicity: tolling bells from nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano, chugging trains a stone's throw away from your table, and the aroma of the county's best breakfast. 31752 Los Rios St., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 443-1342; www.ramoshouse.com.

The grapevines outside Onotria are slowly crawling their way around wires—perhaps Massimo Navarretta will have enough grapes to squeeze some wine this year. If not, no problem: Navarretta is the county's premier practitioner of the Slow Food Movement, and as such he is privy to artisan wines, meats, cheeses and even olive oils from Italy. And for the stuff he doesn't import? Don't worry: Everything else is organic—even the vinegars. 2831 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 641-5952; www.onotria.com.

Old Vine Café isn't even a month old, but it's already impressing eaters with an affordable small-plates menu, breakfast-through-dinner hours and a wine list that belies its claustrophobic dining room. Not all the dishes are prepared with organic produce, but that's fine: The true green goods are in a small refrigerated case, where chef Mark McDonald stocks artisan cheeses, meats, olives and spreads, most from Spain. Old Vine also mushes its own jams and butters with produce from San Clemente's Morning Song Farms—try the macadamia nut butter jam, a spread as delicious as it sounds. 2937 Bristol St., Ste. A-102, Costa Mesa, (714) 545-1411; www.oldvinecafe.com.

So there was a double suicide-by-cop at the Montage this past spring. Who cares when it still boasts the wondrous Studio, the oldest of the Laguna Coast's high-end resort restaurants? Though the menu claims they specialize in French items with a California twist, the meals are really California cuisine at its finest—caught-that-day seafood, meats herbed to perfection, and vegetables so refreshing and crisp you can taste the fingers of the Mixtec laborers that picked them just a couple of days ago. Only dine here when someone else is paying, though: As great as the vinegar-braised short ribs may be, the $55 price tag will have you considering a purchase of pesticide stocks. At the Montage Resort & Spa, 30801 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-6420; www.studiolagunabeach.com.

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