Aplace to eat that's new, good and a block from the beach is big news for a town better known for rowdy drinking spots than fine dining. Located on South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, Sapphire Laguna opened in March with Azmin Ghahreman, former executive chef at the St. Regis Monarch Beach, in the kitchen.
Only don't pull out that cocktail dress or tux quite yet. Sapphire Laguna doesn't involve elaborately folded napkins or snooty maitre d's. And if there is a dress code, it's hard to decipher any evidence. The crowd is definitely beach casual with women wearing designer flip-flops or come-hither heels and men in loose Hawaiian shirts or impeccable Italian linen. On second thought, maybe the dress code reads blond and bosom-enhanced because, as I learned waiting for a table on the patio, the only brunette in the house that evening was somebody's house guest from Chicago.
Inside, Sapphire Laguna is rustic-beach-shack chic with colorful swirled glass light fixtures, dark wood beams and distressed wood flooring — nostalgic and cozy, but also extremely noisy if you're seated anywhere near the hyperactive bar scene or the open kitchen. Ah, but that patio — where the smart set wants to sit — is furnished with marigold orange umbrellas and a rectangular fire pit filled with silvery glass and dancing flames. Arrive early enough and you can watch the light fade over the Pacific framed by a Jack in the Box and a fanciful ivy-covered Tudor building.
Settled at one of the slatted teak tables under the shelter of one of those cheerful umbrellas, there's only one thing to do: order potato chips. The house signature potato chips, the finest slices of potatoes, are fried to a perfect gold and strewn with sea salt and crunchy wisps of rosemary and sage. They're impossible to resist. And on each occasion that I ate here, my dining cohorts and I considered getting a second order.
It makes you wonder what the Iranian-born chef and his crack kitchen team has in store for the rest of the menu.
Sapphire Laguna could have been a tourist trap. After all, it is located where the Pottery Shack, a rambling complex of funky cottages, sat on the main drag sprouting an American flag and bursting with ceramics and colorful dishes in every direction. A statue of Laguna's irrepressible unofficial greeter, Eiler Larsen, a Dane with long hair and beard, stood (and still stands, newly restored) at the corner, and you can still find old postcards of the place with big Buicks pulled up in front, the better to haul away dinnerware and garden ceramics. Founded in the '30s, it closed in 2004.
Three years later, Old Pottery Place encompasses a handful of upscale retail spaces, including a chocolate shop, bookstore, gallery, boutique, gourmet shop — and Sapphire Laguna. It is a serious restaurant — and that adjective applies more to the food than to the beach town exuberance of the place. Chef-owner Ghahreman is going for bright, vivid flavors and a menu that flirts with cuisines from far-flung places.
My eye goes straight to Tunisian crab warka and Malaysian black pepper shrimp. The first is finely shred crab in the crisp pastry called warka: Think of it as a North African spring roll and a terrific way to start off a meal here. The flavors of the cumin-scented chickpea salad and harissa and tomato-accented aioli, also on the plate, set off the delicacy of the crab stuffing. The Malaysian black pepper shrimp, on the other hand, is anything but shy. The sauce packs a wallop of fiery pepper — almost too much — tamed slightly by a bundle of Chinese long beans. The Caesar fondue turns out to be a deconstructed salad of hearts of romaine ready to dip in the spunky dressing. Duck saté arrives on a hibachi, accompanied by lettuce to wrap up the grilled duck and a refreshing green mango salad fired with sweet, puckery tart yuzu dressing.
Just as the waiter sets down the plate of veal cheek ravioli we've ordered as an extra course, I notice the chef talking to a trio of women at the table next to us. They all want to meet him. "Wonderful job," one woman coos. Coming from someone who ate basically a salad, it's not much of a compliment for such an accomplished chef. Fortunately, everyone else around us is trying more adventurous fare and eating with gusto.
There's something for everyone on the menu. For fish lovers, that would be skate wing, served here as an appetizer. I try to order it whenever I see it, if only to keep it on the menu, but I haven't always had luck with it at other restaurants, where it's sometimes not fresh. Here, the skate is snowy white and firm, sautéed in butter and served with wilted greens and the citrus note of salty sour preserved lemon. It could make a small main course. As for that ravioli, it will satisfy anyone's hankering for something rich. The pasta is light and supple, and it's sauced with celery root butter and a red wine reduction.
Ghahreman's cooking is polished and precise without being too formal. Well-executed and tasty, his food seems ideal for a casual meal by the beach. And, unlike the case at most restaurants, the main courses here are better than the appetizers.
For lighter appetites, he's got baby tai snapper, seared in a hot wok and presented with a delicious slaw of Asian vegetables dressed in a punchy lemon grass-chile vinaigrette. The duck leg confit is crisp as advertised, the duck meat moist and flavorful accompanied by a creamy white polenta and a cherry chocolate mole. Wait, it tastes much better than it sounds; the cherry note is subtle and not too sweet.
The kitchen delivers on the chicken pot pie, baked in a saucepan. Turned out onto the plate, it's a wonderful mix of chicken chunks with pearl onions, carrots, potatoes and all sorts of other vegetables in a rich chicken stock with a hint of tarragon — and quite a bargain at $10.50. When that sea breeze whips up a chill, this is what you want to be eating.
Of course, you can get a steak, a grilled Angus rib-eye with a real beef flavor, served with potatoes layered with Gruyère and cream. Or you can go rustic and order the Kurobuta pork shank, roasted until it's so tender you could cut it with a spoon and served with sautéed Brussels sprouts and kabocha pumpkin gnocchi.
The wine list goes fairly deep into California wines, but with some intriguing Old World wines as well, including a minerally William Fevre Chablis and a terrific Naiades Verdejo from Spain. Somebody here is clearly interested in wine, and the servers know how to pour (they also know that to chill a wine down, the bucket needs to have both ice and water).
Desserts are fine, though not spectacular. The apple cobbler, covered with a cinnamon streusel and served with a ball of vanilla ice cream, is sweet comfort. The Pavlova has a lovely passion-fruit filling. The meringue was a little stale on the night I tried it, but maybe it was just the sea air.
For those who must, there is, of course, the obligatory molten chocolate cake, here embellished with pistachio ice cream and rum-caramel sauce. It's a lot better than a s'more by the campfire.
Because here, the sand isn't blowing into your food, and the fire pit isn't about to be swamped by the rising tide. In fact, it's filled surprisingly with glass shards that wink like the stars in the sky. Sapphire Laguna is the best summertime present this stretch of beach has had in a long while.