[singlepic id=360 w=320 h=240 mode=watermark float=right]Last night was my second visit to Starfish (Asian Coastal Cuisine), the new restaurant in the space that most of us Laguna Beach locals remember as “Sam’s Paradise.” After Sam’s vacated. The China Bistro took over, which was a perfectly serviceable Chinese food restaurant, but with no real interest in designing a comfortable ambience. As one of the locals sitting next to me last night joked, he never stepped past the “To Go” cashier at the front door of China Bistro.Truer words could not be said.

Starfish has changed all that. Owned by Nancy Wilhelm, the talented owner of Tabu Grill, Starfish is her answer to Chinese food AND great ambiance. This is a much-needed Asian-influence bistro in our berg of Laguna Beach. And, it’s a much-needed sophisticated – yet friendly – zone for singles, groups and couples alike. As a South Laguna Beach resident, I can say that Starfish is a welcome entrée as a “locals bar.” Prior to Starfish, we’ve had to schlep quite a ways north to Rumari’s, K’ya or The Rooftop for a first real taste in local hangout.

What Nancy has done to this bland restaurant space in a strip-mall parking lot is nothing short of amazing. Walk through the front door and you’re definitely in an entirely different world. It looks nothing like its former lives, and as soon as you’re inside, you’ve completely forgotten the strip mall atmosphere outside. This is a cool, dark, elegant Asian affair.

(And when I say “dark,” I mean you have to give your eyes a minute like you’ve just walked into a dark movie theater. I couldn’t even get my great camera to work well for interior shots because I hadn’t thought to bring my larger flash apparatus. Don’t be too proud to ask your server for one of the handy penlights they carry.)

Starfish was something Nancy mulled for nearly a decade, and when she finally landed on the right real estate, she appointed longtime bartender “Mikey G” to set up the bar and create all the signature drinks. After many years at Tabu Grill, Mike knows how to whip up crowd-pleasing concoctions, his best-sellers being the Starfish Cooler (Mandarin vodka, muddled kumquat and mint, yuzu, soda and a float of Thatcher’s blood orange) and The Imperial Garden (gin, muddled cucumber, basil and mint, corriander, yuzu and a float of soda).

As is Nancy’s usual style, the menu is a unique affair as well, with appetizers featuring the likes of Korean Beef Mini-Tacos and Curried Tofu Mushroom Summer Rolls stuffed with tofu, asparagus and shitake mushrooms. The dinner menu expands from there with memorable Miso Salmon, bodacious lettuce wraps, a towering criss-cross stack of Baby Back Ribs, Lemongrass Filet Mignon and a decent wok-fried Thai Panang chicken (with English peas!). The restaurant reserves an entire page of its menu for vegetarian dishes, and also offers a number of vegetarian-based salads and noodles (sheer heaven for my vegetarian friend, Jill).

Granted, these are not quite the stellar creations that you’ll experience at Tabu Grill, but neither are the prices. Tabu Grill is one of the most expensive menus in Laguna Beach with amazing Chef Kevin there in residence, but we all breathed a sigh of relief when Nancy priced her new Starfish menu in more “middle-of-the-road” fashion

I happen to love Tabu Grill, but it’s not a place I’ll frequent often unless I’m on a special occasion date night or on an expense account. Starfish, on the other hand, has great, welcoming bartenders and a usually available seat at the bar for a single drop-in. At the same time, it’s luxurious booth and table seating offers great privacy for couples and small groups. This isn’t necessarily a place you’ll take kids as it’s quite dark and doesn’t offer a formal kids menu.

It’s interesting how a restaurant takes on a life of its own. Starfish could have had the potential to become a stuffy, stilted affair, but the personnel Nancy has brought in are warm, friendly and inviting, and its food offers much the same personality. Much like its namesake, Starfish is a charming and comfortable place for tourists and locals alike, and South Laguna finally has a local watering hole to call its own!


© Diane Armitage, 2011 LagunaBeachBest.com


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