Folks, please allow me an editor’s note here on the front end. I’m called “BEST of Laguna Beach” because I only focus on the best there is in our magical town. As a rule, I don’t talk about or promulgate issues or disputes in town. In this case, however, I feel the need to give you the shortest of shortest back stories because I want you to understand how spectacular this undertaking has been between Chef Leo Bongarra and Chef Maro Molteni.
At the beginning of May this year, a dispute began between Laguna Beach Company, fronted by Mohammad Honarkar, and an involved investor group, MOM CA, LLC.
The dispute over which entity was the rightful operator nabbed regional headlines. On a much quieter front, logistics issues rose up immediately, including the question over who was in charge of the management and operation of the many restaurants and event entities that were part of Laguna Beach Company’s portfolio.
One of the most urgent questions had to do with Terra, the 250-seat restaurant at The Festival of Arts grounds that was renovated and reopened in late 2019 by Laguna Beach Company. The Company also operated the Festival’s walk-up window and grill, Intermission, as well as the wine and beer stands throughout the grounds. And, there was seven 7 seven’s restaurant across the street at the Laguna Art A Fair, as well as many scheduled events at the 7 [seven-degrees] venue next to the Sawdust Art Festival.
As the clock ticked ever nearer the festivals’ opening days (June 30th for Laguna Art A Fair and July 5th for Festival of Arts), the heat was on for a definitive decision.
Chef Leo Bongarra Awarded Multiple Venues
Just five days before the Festival of Art’s opening day, Laguna Beach’s Chef Leandro “Leo” Bongarra stepped into “festival central,” taking on all the aforementioned food and beverage venues simultaneously.
He brought fellow Argentinian and good friend, Chef Mariano “Maro” Molteni with him.
If You Don’t Know These Chefs …
Chef Leo first landed in Laguna Beach when North Laguna’s Hotel Joaquin opened in September 2018. This is a storied chef, who rose to regional fame during his tenure at the fabled Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood and as the caterer for the Academy Awards and Golden Globes.
In mere weeks after its opening, Hotel Joaquin’s restaurant, Saline, began receiving rave reviews, even as it continues to only service its staying guests (no public allowed). Chef Leo has also made news lately with the soon-to-be-open Tango tapas bar on Forest Avenue.
Editor’s update: As of 8-11-2023, Chef Leo has also taken the helm of all food and beverage at Hotel Laguna, including the beachside restaurant, Larsen. See that story here … )
Chef Maro Molteni made his name in Laguna Beach by first opening the immediately popular Maro Wood Grill. After selling that entity in June 2017, he later returned to Laguna Beach to open his rendition of The Royal Hawaiian in March 2019. It was a property that Laguna Beach Company owned and served as landlord during Molteni’s tenure there.
While Maro presided at The Royal Hawaiian, these two Argentinian-born chefs met and became fast friends. “I don’t know that there’s ever been another Argentinian chef in Laguna Beach but there we were, just a couple blocks apart from each other,” said Chef Maro. “He came in one night to the kitchen and that was that. We were like brothers.”
When Chef Maro stepped away from the RoHi in July 2022, I thought we’d lost another great chef from Laguna Beach, particularly when he began plans for a Laguna Niguel restaurant location. But, as the restaurant gods delayed on his personal project, Chef Maro was in a perfect position to help his friend, Chef Leo, move fast.
“We got into the Terra kitchen on Sunday … and on Wednesday, we were opening Terra,” said Chef Maro. “It was a little crazy.”
‘Crazy’ might be a bit of an understatement, given that the duo had to train cooks and chefs, hire more kitchen staff, establish new produce and protein orders with vendors and then, of course, cook.
To all this, Maro simply shrugs and smiles. “We’re Argentinian! We get things done.”
Adds Chef Leo, “Terra is like a big, huge catering event every single night. You prep as much food as you can and then it’s suddenly all the fresh grilling and sautéing of your meats and poultry and fish and then it’s composing it all quickly in plating that you want to look effortless. And you just keep blasting through it and – boom! – suddenly all your patrons are gone and you’re done!”
“In this case, though,” adds Chef Leo. “You’re back for the next night and the next night and the next night.”
Initially, the duo chefs chose to keep the existing food menus for both Terra and the Intermission walk-up grill because many of the cooks in residence were already trained to produce those items. It was Leo and Maro’s duties, then, to flavor-enhance those menu items with their cooks. Across the street at Art – A Fair, they added a few menu items to the already-existing Mexican food menu, and quickly improved its existing offerings.
“At that late point in the day, it was our job to get everything on these festival grounds operational and make everything taste better right away,” explained Chef Leo.
The pair did, however, change out the wine offerings for both Terra, its Neptune bar upstairs, and the wine concessions on the Festival of Arts grounds. “You want people to come here and think back on their day or evening here as a really stellar, memorable event. So … we had to change the wine menu because that’s where it all starts: Memorable, unique wine,” said Chef Leo.
A Month In, The Terra Menu Changes
Although the two kept the Terra menu offerings the same initially, they had every intention of changing the menu items to “more inventive, beautiful food.” After three weeks in the saddle, Chef Leo and Maro began to train their team on several new items.
And on Aug 5th, a Saturday night (because these guys seem to enjoy pressure), they introduced the new menu to the public. “It was crazy again,” said Maro with his usual grin. “But in a good way. The people noticed right away and the feedback was great.”
Fortunately, I was invited in twice to try the new menu items before the public could get its hands on it.
Amuse Bouche and Appetizers Set the Tone
My meal started with a surprise amuse bouche, a set of potato croquettes in the marinara sauce of the day. Mine was also paired with prosecco.
Then, probably my most favorite item on the menu (I requested it both nights), the appetizer of Smoked Trout Rillettes. Now, typical French Rillettes is a paté usually made with duck meat or pork. This dish, though, had more of a flavorful profile with a creamy egg and avocado base serving as foundation to truly heavenly smoked trout paté. Topped with blistered tomatoes, micro dill and a salty burst of dolloped caviar, it was pure heaven. The grilled ciabatta that accompanied the dish was certainly a crunchy, smoky companion, but the
Rillettes itself was perfectly confident standing on its own.
Best wine pairing with this? The Sauvignon Blanc or the Pinot Grigio.
Other appetizers include Oysters Rockefeller, Burrata with Candied Squash, a Lump Crab Cake Salad (which I must return for), Chef Maro’s famed empanadas in a “flight,” and Hummus and Babaganoush Mezze (which I definitely have to return for).
The Preferred Steak Cut
Leave it to these Argentinian chefs to introduce that gorgeous cut of meat that isn’t afraid to show off its beautiful fat marbling – the hanger steak.
“So many of the more popular cuts of steak have a flat taste,” explained Chef Leo. “Hanger steak has such a nice grilling flavor because its higher percentage of fat makes it so tender and flavorful.”
The steak is plated beautifully with sautéed cremini mushrooms and broccolini all jumping aboard fluffy Yukon mashed potatoes. This time, the melting dollop is “hotel butter” or what we call “maitre’d butter,” a creamy mix of fresh butter, garlic, parsley and scallions. Chef Maro’s famed chimichurri and a flavorful demi-glace finish the dish.
The hanger steak is best served up with a Rioja wine, the Altos Ibericos brand following the age-old custom of just 100% Tempranillo grapes.
Spaghetti’s Little Black Dress
If you’re mourning the loss of the fabulous nero pasta dish once served at Ristorante Rumari’s, dry those eyes, my friend, and head down to Terra. Although I have many fond memories of that foil-wrapped seafood-rich dish, I daresay Chefs Leo and Maro might have kaboshed those memories entirely.
Rich, black squid ink spaghetti offers a stark contrast to the buttery shrimp and hefty serving of fresh crab. The dish is treated to a beautifully light curry sauce, cured tomatoes that happily imbibe the sauce below, and a spritz of fresh tarragon (that I gently squeezed over the dish for its ever-slight licorice bliss). What a beautiful and aromatic dish.
Elevating Local Sea Bass
The new fish dish at Terra is a Crusted Local Sea Bass, which turned out super buttery and flaky. Chef Maro tells me it’s all in the moist blankety crust that starts on the stove and finishes in the oven. Chef Leo says it’s all in the out-of-this-world coconut broth foam with lemongrass, ginger, and Thai chili curry that cozies up to the nutty, rich forbidden rice. Or, maybe it’s yet another dollop of that famous, melty “hotel butter.” Whatever the case, it’s one of the best fish dishes I’ve tried in ages, even in Laguna-land where our chefs know how to cook their fish. Man, was it amazing.
The Mighty Burger
If you’re a restaurant without a burger, you’re known for being that restaurant. So, the chefs have added this popular burger staple, too, but with an added flare, of course – it’s Short Rib Wagyu. Bleu or cheddar cheese and caramelized onions add to that melt-in-your-mouth sensation. It’s the only dish served up with crisp “provencal herb” fries.
Frankly, I’m a huge Chicken Parm fan, and I’ve no doubts that this particular dish is made with the same amount of love that’s being poured into these other dishes. Over my two evening tries, though, I simply didn’t have the room.
The chefs also offer the vegetarian dish, Risotto Primavera with house made pesto, cured tomatoes and fresh herbs. Give these a try and tell me your thoughts in my social media DMs (@BestoflaguaBeach) or email me at Diane@BestofLagunaBeach.com
The Dessert Tray
For the most part, the chefs have kept Terra’s new desserts simple and flavorful with a Nutella Mousse, a daily dose of Sorbet with mixed berries, Brie Cheesecake (hmm! Interesting.) or, of course the one they chose to bring my way, the super-rich and creamy Lemon Tres Leches Cake, an ultra-light sponge cake that’s soaked in three kinds of milk … and we’re not talking the 2% kind.
Tres Leche Cake is typically created with sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and, you guessed it, heavy whipping cream (is that even “milk?”). The chefs add decadent caramel sauce (because … why not?), shaved almonds and fresh, wild berries. Their decision to infuse the sponge cake with lemon absolutely balances the sweet side of this rich dish.
What’s Next for These Chefs?
Even with the most recent and surprising announcements in my updated story about Chef Leo taking on Hotel Laguna (see related story), these two chefs have no plans to completely shut down Terra at the end of Festival season on Sept. 1st.
“I might sleep for 24 hours, but then I’ll be back at it,” joked Chef Maro.
Chef Leo said that they hope to open Terra for weekend brunch beginning the weekend following the Pageant’s closure, and “make it a citywide brunch destination for locals, especially.”
“We want to do something really fun and spectacular that the locals especially love, that they love coming to,” added Chef Leo. “And, of course, we have plenty of off-season events to cater here at Terra, too.”
Reservations for Terra
Reservations are available at (800) 491-4720 or by going to: https://www.opentable.com/r/terra-laguna-beach. Hours are currently 4 p.m. to 8 pm., seven days a week.
To dine at Terra, you must have a ticket for the Festival of Arts grounds or the Pageant of the Masters. Tickets can be purchased at foapom.com or in person at the box office.
Weekday general admission is $10, students and seniors (65+) is $7 and children 6-12 are $5.
On weekends, general admission is $15, students and seniors (65+) is $11 and children 6-12 are $5.
Admission is FREE for Laguna Beach residents with valid ID, Festival of Arts members, children under 5 and all Military.
Festival grounds are open (with a ticket) for wandering Monday – Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., and Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. through 11:30 p.m. The Festival closes early on August 26th at 1 p.m. for its annual Gala.
© Diane Armitage, Best of Laguna Beach. Contact Diane@DianeArmitage.com for full or partial reprinting in your media outlet.