I recently realized it's been at least a decade since I ventured to Laguna Beach—a city now forever ingrained in America's collective consciousness as "The Real Orange County." (Thanks, MTV!).
My previous forays were limited by money, as in the lack of it. As a fiscally challenged college undergrad, all I could really do at this quaint seaside burg was to take some touristy photos, gaze into gallery windows at art I could never afford and wonder how far my student Visa card could stretch at one of its many fine restaurants before it was declined. Then I'd sulk back into campus and eat a few 29-cent Del Taco tacos for supper.
Now older and with a slightly higher credit limit (and an expense account—thanks, OC Weekly!), I made my triumphant return. And to my delight, my first stop, a new restaurant called Sapphire, was worth the wait.
Located inside a Laguna Beach landmark called the Old Pottery Place, this upscale eatery is the haunt of one Azmin Ghahreman, the globe-trotting former executive chef from the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort. Chef/owner Ghahreman is firmly in control of both the front and back of the house, cultivating a jovial presence in the dining room while ensuring that his kitchen churns out food as comforting as it is eclectic.
Sapphire is designed with the breezy charm of a roadside fruit stand: A coarse, undulating basket-weave texture blankets one wall, while exquisite blown-glass sculptures dangle precariously as lamps. A concrete fire pit acts as a centerpiece on an outdoor patio where al-fresco diners can gaze out to an elevated view of PCH and the ocean beyond.
Since we were early for our dinner reservation, we strolled next door into Ghahreman's gourmet shop. With its immaculate collection of artisan cheeses, locally crafted foodstuffs and imported goods from Europe, it's the kind of store I'm used to finding in Napa Valley or New York's Upper West Side, but not Orange County. Impressed, we chatted up the friendly blonde behind the counter and asked her what she usually ate at the restaurant.
When our table was ready, we took her recommendation and ordered the Malaysian black-pepper shrimp as our first appetizer. This turned out to be very sage advice, indeed. Three ocean prawns the size of a toddler's fist were huddled together inside the deep trough of a plate, flecked with translucent shavings of toasted garlic and Chinese long bean. As I sank my teeth into a turgid morsel, I heard a squeaky crunch that led to a meaty mouthful more satisfying than the sweetest lobster. Riding along was a lip-numbing dark reduction with the latent burn of black pepper and the salty earthiness of fermented black bean.
In homage to Japan, Spain and Hawaii, the Ocean Trio appetizer was an exhibition of tastes from three cultures with an affinity for seafood unblemished by fire. Presented in bite-sized portions lined up on an oblong plate, they ranged from the raw to the acid-cooked. Soy-soaked cubes of glistening ahi speared on a toothpick were dubbed "tuna lollipop" and tasted like Hawaiian poke. Spanish-style escabeche was a thick scallop steak firmed up with citrus juice. Finally, sashimi made its appearance as sweet slivers of raw kampachi drizzled with ponzu and a smattering of sprouts.
Taking inspiration from Southeast Asia, Ghahreman's duck saté starter was blatantly theatric. Presented on top of a smoldering hibachi grill, this was a dish designed to elicit oohs and ahhs. The point was to pluck a skewer, hot from the grates, and then unthread the sizzling duck meat into a chilled lettuce cup. Unfortunately, our cumin-and-turmeric-marinated morsels weren't exactly sizzling: The dying embers in our grills did little more than keep the duck lukewarm. Nevertheless, enough temperature contrast remained between meat and lettuce to create a thrilling sensation. Tart shreds of mango salad and refreshing snips of mint further enhanced the experience and proved that the chef knew his way around Asian ingredients.
In the first entrée, he showed he's also adept with Mexican, French and Italian flavors. Mashed together from ingredients and techniques indigenous to these distinct regions is a dish consisting of a duck-leg confit, polenta and mole sauce.
The waterfowl's hindquarters surrendered under a gentle tug of my fork into red-meat ribbons easily mistaken for braised beef. Its succulence was matched by a crisp skin that would've stayed crispy if it hadn't been smothered under the velvet sheen of the cherry-chocolate mole. Eaten with an impossibly creamy polenta, this was a rustic and hearty dish substantially lightened by cut-up chunks of raw baby corn so sweet they could've doubled for Halloween candy.
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By far the best dish of the night was the sautéed square of barramundi. With a crackly crust and a pearly flesh that tasted of fresh, cold milk, this perfect piece of fish was surrounded by a Technicolor potpourri of baby summer vegetables and olive-oil-poached tomatoes. Colorful to a fault, delicious to the last crumb, it was art on a plate—a fitting dish to eat in Laguna Beach.
Another masterpiece was dessert of basil panna cotta, which came highly recommended by our friend at the gourmet shop. A cold, creamy delight and the offspring of a happy marriage between Jell-O pudding and Jell-O gelatin, it quivers and jiggles like the latter, but fills the mouth with a dream-like creaminess like the former. While basil was a strange thing to find in a sweet dish, it actually paired extremely well with the tart chunks of strawberry and the pool of rhubarb puree. A crumbly almond-and-fennel tuile (basically a cookie) brought cohesion to a dessert full of strange bedfellows.
Finished with dinner—and thoroughly stuffed—we sauntered out into the street and looked longingly back at Sapphire. After too many discount tacos in the "Regular Orange County," and a long time away from what MTV purports as the "Real" one, I vowed to return soon to sample more of Ghahreman's cuisine on my own dime—even if it means I have subsist on fast food for a week to save up.
SAPPHIRE LAGUNA, 1200 S. COAST HWY., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 715-9888; WWW.SAPPHIRELLC.COM. OPEN FOR LUNCH MON.-FRI., 11 A.M.-2:30 P.M.; BRUNCH SAT.-SUN., 10 A.M.-2:30 P.M.; INTERMEZZO MON.-FRI., 2:30-4:30 P.M.; AND DINNER MON.-FRI., 5:30-10:30 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., 5:30-11 P.M. GOURMET SHOP OPEN DAILY, 7 A.M.-9 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $60, FOOD ONLY. FULL BAR. RESERVATIONS RECOMMENDED.