Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing a talented restaurateur choose Laguna Beach.
In Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook’s case, Restaurateur Russ Bendel has stacked the deck with additional talent that plays at a very big culinary level. For daily operations, Russ chose Operating Partner Chris Hutten, a supremely talented and longtime Executive Chef plucked from South Coast Plaza’s Capital Grille.
Then, he brought in his Executive Chef Jared Cook to design a Laguna-specific menu. And, he pulled the popular Mastro’s Ocean Club General Manager, Xavier Quintanilla, to help with front-of-house operations.
End result? A smoothly running, well-oiled machine of friendly hospitality, significant food and polished professionalism.
An airier look for a local favorite
“We were planning to open in early April but the year 2020 had different plans for us,” said Hutten.
“It gave us time, though to create new solutions that handle the temporary situation for social distancing along with a long-term solution for seating in our restaurant that we hadn’t been considering at first.”
While the restaurant has re-purposed most of the furniture and chairs from the former Sapphire, the space looks significantly different with a lighter palette, modernized bench seating and an airier feel all around.
“We wanted everyone in the dining room to be able to see out to the ocean,” said Bendel. “After all, that’s why everyone is here!”
Amuse bouche set the tone for the evening
While COVID 19 stalled the opening of the dine-in restaurant, the new Sapphire ownership hustled to open its Sapphire Pantry by the end of March. (See my website for April 3rd’s review of the Sapphire Pantry.)
Next door to the larger restaurant, the Pantry served as a great tease for menu items that would be debuting on the dine-in restaurant’s menu.
Everything I tried through the Sapphire Pantry proved quite satisfying, but it only got better on Tuesday evening when I was seated on the open-air patio for my first “dining in” experience.
Let’s start with the starter “amuse bouche,” which is a complimentary bite of food that a chef may or may not choose to serve at the very beginning of the dining experience. This hors d’oeuvre’s appearance can often depend on how busy the kitchen is, so the amuse bouche is not something I’d say is etched in stone. If it shows up at your table, it’s always a lovely surprise.
This proved the case when Executive Chef Jared delivered a “bite” of food that turned out to be about 10 bites of food. I finished it all, knowing that I had already ordered two appetizers and planned on eating an entrée, too. (Thankfully, my dining buddy, Ali North, Chef Concierge of Surf & Sand Resort, pledged to help me through the remaining courses.)
This particular evening’s amuse bouche was a hearty slice of focaccia bread with the tiniest bit of grill on its edges. It was heaped with a mix of fresh crab meat, beets and capers with a darling crown of watermelon radish.
I could have left the Sapphire patio at that point and been completely pleased with my dining experience. It was that good.
But then the house-made Duck & Berkshire Pork Meatballs showed up.
Hearty, delightful appetizers
Three sizable meatballs arrived, nestled in a “forest mushroom” sugo (essentially a thick mushroom sauce) with freshly spun rosemary cavatelli pasta, bits of mushroom and fresh chunks of truffle goat cheese.
The pasta was heavy, more like a gnocchi, a perfect choice to hold up beautifully to its partnered sauce. The meatballs were light in texture but dense in flavor. Duck meatballs can often become too “ducky” in flavor, in my opinion, but the mix of pork in Chef Jared’s creation created something truly sublime.
When the Brussels Sprouts made their way to the table, we knew we were in trouble. Typically, a brussels sprouts dish is made up of … well … brussels sprouts. You might have bits of bacon or small chunks of pork belly, but the main feature is usually all about the sprouts.
In this case, not a chance. Arriving in a still-sizzling cast iron skillet, the brussels sprouts were jumbled with slightly charred cauliflower, a surprising sprinkle of pomegranate seeds, and Ricotta Salata crumbles (sheep’s milk cheese that is cured for at least 90 days – it’s heavenly creaminess with just the right amount if salt.)
It took a moment to find all of this, however, because the dish arrived with two gorgeous pork belly planks crisscrossing the mound of veggies underneath. The brussels sprouts mix would have been delightful enough, and I’m sure people who don’t prefer pork belly can ask for just the vegetables, but the addition of these perfectly grilled pork belly portions was simply sheer bliss.
If you still have room for an entrée …
At this point, my dining buddy and I decided we would split an entrée.
The entrées on the menu cover the gamut, from Prime Beef Cheek Stroganoff to Lemon Verbena Poached Salmon, a giant Bone-in Ribeye Steak, their already-popular Wagyu Beef Burger, Crispy Pork Schnitzel (Chris Hutten claims it’s his favorite dish on the menu) and more.
On our waiter’s recommendation, we chose the Wild Caught Alaskan Halibut (pictured in the large photo at top).
Once again, you can choose to eat the vegetables that accompany this large portion because they’re a feature in and of themselves. The flaky halibut arrived atop a mix of cherry tomatoes, English pea tendrils, fava beans, and barely salted banana fingerling potatoes. Tossed lightly in a coriander gastrique, the vegetable combination was another perfectly finessed ally to what is probably one of the best halibut filets I’ve had in years.
Always room for dessert
At this point, my friend, you might as well just give up the fight and order dessert. And, order this dessert, good glory.
Titled “Dark Chocolate Chunk & Fromage Blanc Cookies,” it doesn’t seem to be an intimidating dessert, right? What appears, however, fulfills your heavenly ice cream sandwich dream.
Chewy, freshly baked chocolate cookies do their best to bookend house made peanut butter cup gelato. The gelato, itself, has chunks of dark chocolate imbedded, unbelievable. The entirety is topped with freshly made butter brickle with just the right toss of micro-chopped hazelnut.
If I invent a “Best of Laguna Beach™” Top 5 Dessert List” for Laguna Beach, this goes right to the top. No questions, no apologies and certainly never any leftovers.
One of the finest dining experiences in Laguna Beach
When globally-renowned Chef Azmin Ghahreman chose to sell his Sapphire restaurant several months ago, we all knew we were losing a unique talent to Laguna Beach. It is so refreshing to see this new ownership take up the mantle, producing what could easily be called “culinary decadence” at the new Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook. I couldn’t be more pleased that Russ Bendel chose our town.
Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook. is open at 4 pm daily on the patio and in the dining room. The Pantry is open from 7 am to 4 pm daily and continues to provide a hearty menu of take-out items as well as grab-and-go, fresh-baked treats and coffee. The restaurant will be opening for lunch in the weeks ahead, with weekend brunch following suit. Stay tuned to my social platforms (see below) for those announcements.