Last week, I decided it was time for a field trip. Never one to stray far from home, however, I chose a restaurant less than a mile out of Laguna Beach’s northernmost city limits – The Beachcomber Cafe.
A very popular restaurant with visitors, the Beachcomber is particularly appealing to me in the fall and winter months when it’s not so packed with people.
Last Thursday, I parked in the Crystal Cove lot, careful to tuck my parking validation ticket in my wallet for a Beachcomber stamp, which makes the parking lot complimentary. Rather than pay the $1.50 for the Beachcomber/Crystal Cove shuttle, I chose my preferred mode of access, winding my way down on foot to the pedestrian tunnel under Coast Highway.
Admiring the children’s environmentally-themed paintings along its stretch, I eventually popped out on the other side and walked into another era.
In This Rough and Tumble Year, Nostalgia is Healing
To date, 29 of the 46 historical cottages in Crystal Cove State Park’s Historic District have been fully restored with their rentals booking months in advance. Funds from the rentals go directly toward supporting conservation and educational programs in the park.
In February this year, the District was given final approval to begin renovation of the north beach cottages as part of the Heritage Legacy Project for California. Because COVID hit shortly thereafter, the construction has just begun again, rumbling into play.
The Beachcomber Cafe sits as the crown jewel in this semi-circle of cottages. First opened in 2006, the restaurant was a significant remodel of an existing cottage in the park, which used to be called the Whistle Stop. While its interior is rather cozy, the Cafe offers sprawling wooden decks on three sides of the restaurant, a definite welcome sign to all of us this during odd year.
Defuse, Relax, Recharge
Sometimes, there’s nothing better than stepping back in time (especially this year). I walk up the sandy rise and down into a 1950s world that opens up to one of the most pristine views along our South Orange County coast. Kids frolic in the waves. Parents lounge nearby, chatting with each other. Friends patter along in the sand. And at 5:00, all attention turns to the Beachcomber as a bugle trills and the black martini flag scoots up the flagpole.
Every day, the Beachcomber raises the martini flag at 5:00 and at sunset
Suddenly, I feel like “Baby” in Dirty Dancing’s Catskills (… well, sadly, without Patrick Swayze hip-twitching his way into my picture). I’m in a world where everything is just plain normal, and the pace slows, allowing me to truly take a deep breath and revel in life and its luxuries around me.
My restaurant-exploring buddy, Ali, and I solemnly salute the martini flag and order the restaurant’s popular cocktail, the Blackberry Lemon Gin & Tonic. A mix of Hendrick’s Gin, Blackberry Liqueur, fresh muddled blackberries, lemon and mint, this is a tall order of love and hope.
The Beachcomber dinner menu is extensive, a range of Polynesian-infused appetizers, fresh fish, shellfish and exactly two beef dishes – Filet Mignon and their best-selling Braised Short Ribs. It’s been my birthday month celebration for exactly one entire month, so I sigh and pass on the short ribs with walnut gorgonzola sauce (my favorite cheese sauce ever), and choose, instead, the Blue Crab Stuffed Salmon. Ali orders the Pan-Seared Diver Scallops.
We then sit back and happily yabber, watching people come and go, remarking on exceptionally adorable toddlers doing their toddle thing, and talking about a world that has somehow eliminated current event news.
It’s a magic that happens here. Somehow, I think the Beachcomber just erases the current day from your mind, even if just for a couple hours’ respite.
Fresh, Creative Entrées
Sometimes when coastal restaurants are inundated with visitors, they can lose their sense of taste. They may opt for ease rather than the more tasteful, or choose heartier dishes designed to withstand the elements instead of dishes that conquer your heart.
The Beachcomber chefs – Executive Chef Carlos Olivera and Sous Chef Favian Orozco – aren’t interested in compromise. Both dishes arrived with immaculate plating and impeccable tastes.
In all my years of food writing, I’ve not tried a crab stuffed salmon. The best of both worlds in my book, I decided to give it a try.
The salmon arrived politely enough, buttoned up and looking like your usual salmon plank. Cut into it, however, and the most beautiful crab concoction shows itself. Served with wisps of scallion, a few plump capers and woody shitake mushrooms, this is one of the most pleasing, well-balanced salmon dishes I’ve yet tasted. With the finest drizzle of lemon caper beurre blanc and crunchy pan-seared capers at its crown, the salmon is hoisted on what looks to be Yukon Gold potato mash and blanched, bright green baby green beans. It is delectable and tender at every bite.
For me, I have to hear rumor of great scallops before I’ll try them.
Scallops are one of my favorite shellfish dishes, but they need to be super fresh and meaty with just the right amount of searing to keep them from becoming too fishy or too mushy. They are delicate, rather high-maintenance dishes. Chefs such as Craig Connole (former K’ya seared scallops), Chef Amar Santana (Broadway) and Chef Rainer Schwarz (Driftwood Kitchen) are a scallop’s best friend. Most scallops, however, will shun such relationships. They are divas to the core.
Clearly, Beachcomber Chefs Olivera and Orozco have done their due diligence to establish friendship ties with the scallop. The dish arrives with four hearty scallops, shoulder-to-shoulder with lightly braised heirloom tomatoes and asparagus, all ladled gently onto a generous beurre blanc swath and forbidden rice foundation. Pea tendrils join the frisse on top, a fluffy, happy combo that’s just happy it has found its way to this magnificent dish.
No Rush, No Worries
Years ago, when the Beachcomber first opened, I used to paddle my outrigger down from Newport’s Back Bay with my outrigger friends. We would park our 1-man outriggers and surf skis on the sand and dig into a Beachcomber breakfast before paddling back in head winds to our outrigger stable. The entire adventure destination to the Beachcomber felt very Hawaiian and neighborly to me.
Fast forward 12 years, and the Beachcomber is still the icon for neighborly invitation and a trip back in time. When you need to escape this year, my friend, the Beachcomber is waiting.
Beachcomber reservations for parties of 6 and under are at (949) 376-6900. Please practice social distancing; masks are required in and around the property.