When you create the menu and orchestrate the nightly kitchen for the only Forbes 5-star ranked restaurant in Orange County, you really don’t need to change a single thing.
Since his arrival in 2009, Chef Craig Strong’s impeccable Modern French cuisine at the Montage’s Studio has only continued to draw a growing number of guests from all parts of the world. His a la carte and tasting menus are as renowned as the restaurant’s award-winning wine list, its flawless service and spectacular view.
So … ehrm … why change things up?
“What we put in play every night works, and we love making it happen for our guests, so that entire experience is still what the Studio truly represents,” says Chef Craig. “I just wanted to expand our welcome and approachability to people who might want to enjoy an appetizer and a great glass of wine with us, too.”
“I mean, we have all this here,” he says with a sweeping gesture that takes in the gorgeous groomed landscape and wild ocean panorama that has come to represent the Montage Resort brand. “Why wouldn’t you want to be down here with us, taking all this in?”
Appetizers and Sunset, A La Carte
While many high caliber restaurants make the decision to solely cater to special occasion experiences, Chef Craig wanted to create an added, approachable menu that celebrated every day for the special occasion it – in itself – is.
So, a few weeks ago, Chef and his team began experimenting with new small plates and appetizers. End result? A new Studio Bar Menu that serves up “finger-friendly, fork-friendly food” in the bar, or at outside tables at the fire pit or in Chef Craig’s garden.
Chef says the idea first started percolating when Laguna friends and repeat guests would mention that they only came to the Studio for special occasion events.
“Even though you might love the experience here, there are times you don’t want to make the commitment to two or three hours of dining,” says Chef Craig.
“We wanted to give people a taste of what we do here – all the flavor and quality that we do – but in a format that can be eaten and shared at a more casual table,” he says.
Assuredly, just a few weeks into the program Chef Craig has achieved his goal.
So, This is What a 5-Star Restaurant’s Bar Menu Looks Like …
In the new Studio bar menu, the food product is still the same – the oysters are the same oysters served in the larger restaurant menu as is the salmon and the tuna and the foie gras. Only the presentation has changed, which ignited new innovation in Chef and his crew.
As an example, when you order the Shigoku Oysters from the Studio’s Tasting or A La Carte menus, they arrive aboard gel chips that resemble ice chips but are flavored three different ways with white Yuzu Ponzu, lime and orange habanero sauce. You actually eat the oysters and the “ice” in the plating. This immaculate dish is, undoubtedly, part of the reason for the 5-star ranking.
For the Studio Bar Menu, instead, the same flavorful oysters are served on the half shell with a dash of sea salt and Chef’s own (read: secret) habanero sauce, created fresh each day.
The bar menu’s new Tuna Tartare is simply Fiji tuna mixed with shallots, chives and spicy mayonnaise, an irrepressible whip of egg yolks, sweet soy sauce, spicy Sambal, rice vinegar and smoked paprika oil.
The Tartare is then served with large, parchment like crackers made of black garlic and rice paper.
“It’s really a pretty easy recipe we devised for the crackers,” says Chef Craig. “The black garlic is like a jelly bean. We purée it with rice, dry it over night, slice it into sheets and fry it the next day.”
Sure, Craig. Easy. …Right.
The black sheets of “cracker” are perfectly sublime as scoops to the smoky fresh Tartare. It is, hands down, the best Tartare I’ve yet tasted (and I’m a big fan).
Fried Tri-Colored Cauliflower emerges next, yet another colorful dish in a perfectly perfect glass bowl with an accompanying curry yogurt cream dip. Its resident small fork (a work of art on its own) spears the knobby vegetable with finesse – it’s a great share-worthy addition to the menu.
Then, the Salmon Rillette arrives, yet another work of art. Even in its more casual bar menu presentation, this is glorious elegance carried to the very end. On a glass oblong, the scoop of salmon is adorned in chive blossoms from the garden and paper-thin slices of cornichon. The salmon itself is poached in olive oil, and then mixed with crème fraîche, cream cheese, zest and juices.
Tri-colored pickled and shaved carrots add even more depth of color to the Rillette, and large, house-made rye “crackers” accompany.
An Accordion Approach
Entrenched in the high-end culinary world from 1990 forward, Chef Craig has worked in and seen numerous restaurants and chefs choose their branded paths.
“In most cases, when a Chef has a Michelin or 5-star restaurant and wants to create a more approachable brand, he or she usually opens a second restaurant,” says Chef Craig. “In our case, though, we’re still offering our trademark elegance and quality… we just have a second menu now that is a lot more approachable.
“It’s kind of an accordion approach,” he says. “If you want more, we have that here for you. And if you want less … like joining a few friends at the firepit for a few appetizers and cocktails to watch the sunset … we’re that now, too.
“This is where I’d want to bring my Laguna friends,” he says. “I think a lot of Laguna residents are really going to enjoy taking advantage of this.”