Orange County’s dining scene boasts some of the most talented and acclaimed chefs.
BY RICH MANNING
PHOTOS BY JODY TIONGCO
In the last several years, the Orange County dining scene has emerged from the shadows of Los Angeles to establish its own identity as an essential Southern California culinary destination. This exciting distinction is due in large part to a lineup of impressive chefs whose skill and passion have pushed the perception of OC culinary bliss to unprecedented heights.
A Fresh Alliance
Craig Polignano fell in love with the power and artistry of food at an early age in part by observing his grandfather cultivate and pick fresh tomatoes and basil in the family garden. As the executive chef at Stonehill Tavern at The St. Regis Monarch Beach, the lessons learned by his youthful surveillance serve as the cornerstone for the culinary philosophy that drives the restaurant’s brilliant selection of superbly prepared modern American fare. “My philosophy is based in using the freshest ingredients,” Polignano says. “Without great ingredients, you cannot create quality food. As a chef, it’s my job to take the best ingredients and present them in a way that is unique and memorable.”
He has brought his attitude and skill set to Stonehill Tavern after years of honing his stellar craft along the Eastern Seaboard, yet his decision to jump to the West Coast was not necessarily spurred by the lush ocean views and landscapes that the St. Regis has to offer. Rather, it was the opportunity to work with celebrated chef and Stonehill Tavern consultant Michael Mina that proved to be irresistible. “Throughout my culinary career, I’ve kept an eye on chefs doing creative and inspiring things, and Michael Mina was definitely one of them,” he says. “When the opportunity came up to work under his creative guidance, I took it.” The result of their collaboration is the creation of beautiful food that has kept resort guests satisfied and local visitors pleased.
It makes sense Marc Cohen always has a shaker of Old Bay seasoning stowed away in the kitchen of Watermarc, the Laguna Beach restaurant where he wears the dual hats of owner and executive chef. After all, he first dialed into the industry while growing up in his native Baltimore, where the container of seafood spice is as ever-present on dining tables as salt and pepper. Despite Cohen’s unwavering allegiance to the unofficial condiment of the Chesapeake Bay area, the secret behind the success of the award-winning chef ’s highly acclaimed downtown contemporary California eatery is his acute attention to the desires of the customers. “When Watermarc was conceived, we wanted to find out what our guests wanted,” he explains. “Some wanted small, quick bites to graze on, while others wanted a more conventional dining option. Based on that feedback, we felt we needed to offer different levels of the dining experience.”
While Watermarc’s menu does ebb and flow based on the desires and expectations of the customers as much as it is based on the seasons, the restaurant holds steady to the understanding that its clientele seeks sumptuous food above all else, regardless of whether it is a small nosh or a full meal. “We must be capable of exceeding our customers’ expectations at all times,” Cohen explains. “Ultimately, we want to let the food speak for itself.”
For cookbook author and SOL Cocina executive chef and partner Deborah Schneider, life is all about maximizing its enjoyment. It was this spirit that compelled her to leave a promising career in publishing behind in order to pursue her beloved art of culinary creation. “I love working with my hands; I hate office work,” she confesses, “and I really love food. So it was a natural attraction.” This passion that Schneider possesses allows her to view the creation of food as something deeper than merely having the right ingredients or the proper spice components. Rather, her cuisine symbolizes an extension of the life experiences that provide brilliant flourishes to our everyday existence. Indeed, the traditional flavors of Baja Mexico that populate the menu of her gorgeous harborside restaurant serve as testimony to her exciting personal journeys. “I’ve been travelling down to Baja—to the wild parts—for many years,” she says. “Baja’s beautiful, remote coastline has always inspired me.” Certainly, the insight derived from her travels is on full display; Schneider’s array of dishes is rich and robust in their flavor profile, yet at the same time remains as simple and uncomplicated as the Baja coastline and its legendary laid-back lifestyle.
In a way, Ryan O’Melveny Wilson was almost destined to helm the kitchen as executive chef of the famed Corona Del Mar eatery Five Crowns; he is the fourth generation family member to work at the legendary restaurant. When you consider that he grew up watching classic cooking shows on public television on Saturday mornings while the rest of his contemporaries were watching cartoons, it almost feels like a no-brainer. Because of the pedigree he possessed when he took over the kitchen a year ago, combined with the restaurant’s legacy, he knew that the position came with as much scrutiny as it did authority. It’s a duality that is certainly not lost on Wilson. “I see it as a balance between pressure and incredible opportunity,” he says. “Sure, I have the additional weight of being the fourth generation to work at the Five Crowns, but I am confident that with the talented team we have assembled, we will continue the traditions that have made the Five Crowns an institution in the community.”
While Wilson does devote a portion of the menu to the traditional continental classics that have been a longtime hallmark of the restaurant, he has created enough space to feature more modern dishes that place a strong emphasis on seasonality and locality. These innovative offerings strike a culinary equilibrium that appeal to those who have been dining here for decades as well as the new generation of foodies who carve time in their schedule to watch chefs perform their craft on television, just like Wilson did back in the day.
For some Laguna Beach residents, the closing of local favorite Sorrento Grille last year marked the end of a cherished era. For its chef, Ryan Adams, it marked a birth of a new one. At his chef-driven restaurant, Three Seventy Common, Adams has taken over the space that his former employer occupied for more than 20 years and created a relaxed, uncomplicated venue that uses the social power of food as a conduit for conversations, communal bonding and a way to draw the surrounding neighborhoods together. A lofty goal, to be sure—one that Adams knew he could only achieve by keeping his old customers at the forefront of his mind.
“The look, concept, vibe and food at Three Seventy Common are very different from the former restaurant,” he explains. “We needed to re- win over some of those Sorrento Grille regulars as well as keep on pleasing and proving ourselves to the community at large.” This balance between reaching out to new customers while retaining old clientele has resulted in a venue that quickly became one of downtown Laguna Beach’s most popular and essential dining establishments. Of course, Adams’ stellar cuisine plays a major role in the success of the venue, as he and his staff nightly impress guests by preparing simple, yet layered dishes that, according to the chef, “look good, taste good and makes others feel good.”
At first glance, it may seem that the worlds of architecture and food do not mix. Yet the knowledge and passion derived from both seemingly disparate walks of life are what fuels Cathy Pavlos, the owner and executive chef of Lucca Cafe in Irvine. A former professor of architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, Pavlos uses the acumen derived from her previous profession in order to approach the creation of her European-style venue, both in the ambience of the space and the flavors found on the menu. “The ability to present good food is a lot like the ability to design good architecture,” she explains. “Certainly, the discipline, long hours and small paycheck [are] exactly the same. Today I build food; I run my kitchen very similar to a design studio.”
Certainly, Pavlos’ background comes into play when she plots out her menu; a perpetually shifting brilliant blueprint of sumptuous cuisine constructed by following her own, simple instructions in a studious yet humble manner. “No hormones, no antibiotics, no preservatives,” she says. “Wild and sustainably grown proteins; organic or all-natural produce when I can get it. Eat and cook in season, get the best possible product that I can afford in the back door, and then try not to mess it up too badly in the kitchen before it gets out to the table.”
Orange County’s talented chefs prove that a world of flavors awaits in all directions. All that’s left to consider is which to try first.
The top chefs featured here merely scratch the surface of the remarkable talent that helped transform Orange County into its current status as a Southern California culinary force with offerings to satisfy any palate. Here are a few more celebrated chefs that call OC home:
Frederic Castan, executive chef at Motif at The St. Regis Monarch Beach, serves up a spectacular arrangement of international dishes that pair quite splendidly with the breathtaking Pacific Ocean views that can be observed within the venue’s dining space and its outdoor terrace. (33000 niguel rd., dana Point; 800- 722-1543; stregismb.com)
Amar Santana, executive chef at Broadway by Amar Santana, utilizes a Big Apple-themed venue, a massive open kitchen and culinary fearlessness to continuously produce a show- stopping menu featuring bold ingredients and innovative flavor combinations that are rarely found in Laguna Beach. (328 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach; 949-715-8234; broadwaybyamarsantana.com)
of the elegance culled from a decade’s worth of working under some of Orange County’s most renowned and respected chefs. (31 Fortune dr., irvine; 949-861-2222; cucinaenoteca.com)
Yves Fournier, executive chef at Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine, meticulously prepares contemporary dishes whose beautifully artisanal presentation is equaled by thoughtfully balanced flavor composition. (2607 Main St., irvine; 949-387-8887; andreisrestaurant.com)
Azmin Ghahreman, executive chef at Sapphire Laguna, boasts a deep passion for the cuisines of the world, most of which have an undeniable impact on the broad menu offerings that can be enjoyed in the restaurant’s rustic, romantic setting. (1200 S. Coast Hwy. #101; 949-715-9888; sapphirellc.com)
Jon Blackford, executive chef at A Restaurant, adds a touch of rustic, seasonal culinary flair to a coastal venue whose dark, swanky ambience effortlessly lures in those wishing to see and be seen. (3334 W. Coast Hwy., newport Beach; 949-650-6505; arestaurant.com)
Andres Miremontes, executive chef at Asada, kicks up the traditions of Mexican cuisine by rolling out a menu that smartly straddles the line between classic fare and upscale flavors. (480 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach; 949- 715-5533; asadalaguna.com)
Jarvis Yuen, executive chef at Starfish, blends the flavors and ingredients from the countries of the Far East with American culinary sensibilities to create an intriguing take on the concept of culinary fusion. (30832 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach; 949-715-9200; starfishlaguna.com)
Takashi Abe, executive chef at Bluefin, infuses a deft touch of international flair within his menu of Japanese dishes, which sit comfortably alongside classic and progressive expressions in sushi and sashimi. (7952 e. Coast Hwy., newport Beach; 949-715-7373; bluefinbyabe.com)