Tabu Grill Laguna Beach There’s a new chef in town and he’s already shifting it up at our cozy foodie restaurant, Tabu Grill.

Long known for her rich and innovative menu of Polynesian and Asian influences, Tabu Grill has had the reputation as a “special event” restaurant with long waits to even be allowed in its doors. Tabu Grill interior

Chef Kenny Raponi is changing all that. “We’re not dropping our food quality whatsoever,” says Chef.

“But, we’re changing things up to create more menu and happy hour items, and we’re introducing amenable menu specials that bring people in on a regular, weekly basis.

“The key is to continue providing the rare thing we’re known for – that sweet and savory combination we pour into all our dishes – but with a wider range of portion and pricing options so that Tabu becomes more of a regular stop for our community residents and commuters heading home every night.”   Sea Bass - Tabu Grill

Take, for example, the Sea Bass Chef Kenny serves me on my afternoon visit. The broth spooned into the dish’s base is a slow-cooked mix of miso, truffles and soy. He adds a lightly sautéed mix of asparagus, purple cauliflower and salsify in soy yuzu. Atop that he layers the sea bass. And atop the bass, he adds candied kumquats, orange segments and Upland cress.

Breaking into Chef Kenny’s gorgeous plating of any dish is the hardest step to take. Fortunately, I was able to break on through for a thoroughly enjoyable meal of Sea Bass. The meld of flavors he achieves in this single dish is pretty darn close to spectacular.


New Chef is the Old Chef
Bringing Chef Kenny in – who actually worked at Tabu Grill three years ago for a little over a year – was a lucky break coupled with sheer effort to get him behind the Tabu line again.

Chef Kenny Raponi Tabu Grill “Kenny knows our Tabu style and he created a lot of what’s still in the list of favorites on Tabu’s menu,” says Tabu Partner Chuck Bixler.

“He’s got a rare talent for food and a great business head – he knows how to run a kitchen.

When the opportunity came up for a new chef, we started hunting Kenny down. It took us a while, but it was certainly worth the effort.”


Menu Change-Ups at Tabu
Chef Kenny talked his favorite Sous Chef, Scott Jansen, into relocating from Northern California, and in just a few short weeks the two have tackled the Tabu menu, both for Fall Menu changes and for additions to the permanent menu.

Beet Salad - Tabu GrillMany menu items, like crowd favorites Ahi Poke or Beet Salad, are enjoying minor changes (i.e., the salad’s accompanying goat cheese baklava will likely shift to blue cheese).

More creative plating with zigs and zags and arcs of new, fresh sauces and salsas will also be in play (i.e., the Poke has a great Sriracha and sesame arc of triumph on the plate) Other changes afoot:

  • Duck is moving into place instead of chicken.
  • Daily house-made pot stickers are likely to be replacing the gnocchi. The once-popular Flat Iron Steak with decadent macaroni and cheese is being returned to the menu.
  • A 12-ounce Pork Chop is joining the menu, its “savory” combined with the “sweet” of Chef Kenny’s honey grits.
  • Meanwhile the Pork Belly dish shifts slightly to an “Asian braise” with garlic, ginger, lemongrass and other unpublished ingredients.
  • And, the Mahi Mahi will sit atop its own earthy vegetables with an Asian brown butter gastrique that incorporates garlic, ginger, green onions and more.

And the soups and sorbets. Well. For the record, the soups and sorbets at this place just keep getting more amazing. Asparagus soup - Tabu Grill

When I visited this week, Chef Kenny ladled out an Asparagus Vichyssoise and topped it with a delicate sauté spoon and drizzle made of corn, shallots, garlic, lemon juice and jalapeno. He topped it with the tiniest sprig of scallion (who has the patience for this placement?) and then expected me to destroy it with my spoon.

Eventually, no matter how beautiful the dish, you simply have to give in. The food is just too good here.

Finally, my last word of advice – with soups and sorbets changing every few days, you simply must order both every time you visit. About a week ago, I dropped in for a Tabu Trio Sorbet and was treated to three hearty scoops – Sweet Corn, Thyme Basil and Cucumber Mint. Seriously? Each one was off the charts.


Valet Parking, No Reservations
While Chef Kenny adds new life to the kitchen, management is working to create a more amenable, easy front, too, by introducing complimentary valet parking. Tables are normally available any night of the week, even on a walk-in basis. Tabu has a no-reservations policy at the bar during happy hour as well as a no-reservations policy on the outdoor patio all night long.

“People have this concept that it’s impossible to get into Tabu Grill,” says Managing Partner Tom Burns. “Yes, we have busy nights and we might do occasional buyouts for holiday parties or wedding receptions, but those nights are rare. We want people to say, ‘Hey, why don’t we head down to Tabu Grill?’ and know there’s a place for them here.”

Reminder: Tabu Grill DOES have a happy hour, Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 – 6:30 p.m., with a complete menu of food and wine options that doesn’t scrimp.

Ahi Poke - Tabu GrillFurther, the weekly changing Chef’s Tasting Menu – also Sunday through Thursday and priced at just $29 for a 4-course prix fixe menu – should prove to be even more interesting now that Kenny and Scott are at the helm.

“It’s a great way to introduce our guests to items they might not have tried or new menu items that give them a hint of what’s coming around the bend,” says Chef. “And it keeps us fresh, too.”

Frankly, I’m not sure how that would happen, that whole ‘we could lose our freshness’ thing. It’s a fun kitchen and a new energy at Tabu Grill. I don’t see the “fresh” wearing off any time soon.


Tabu Grill is at 2892 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 92651. Open 7 days a week at 5:30 p.m. Call (949) 494-7743.

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