Monday, February 16, 2009

Sapphire Laguna: Refined Reinterpretations

"Another roll?" He asks, cocking an eyebrow at me, as he holds his tongs tentatively over the item in question.

"Oh yes," I respond, unable to refuse his offer for another of the freshly-baked rosemary and Asiago dusted bread rolls.

The stomach-filler barely has time to hit my plate. I sink my teeth through the tender crust and close my eyes in appreciation. "It's even better than the first one." I whisper to my mom, and she immediately raises her hand for a second as well.

It is the third time that my parents and I have been to Sapphire Laguna, the highly-acclaimed Orange County restaurant that has been winning local foodies over with its self-described "comfort food inspired by cuisines from around the world." The seaside eatery on the famous Pacific Coast Highway is now almost two years old and has reached a level of refinement that wasn't quite there when I visited the first time in September, 2007. It has, to quote a cliche, "come into its own" and developed a flavor that goes exquisitely well with its transcendentally beautiful Laguna Beach environs.

Like the rolls I can't stop eating, the restaurant keeps getting better, and more importantly, is keeping things fresh with seasonal updates to its ever-changing menu. The peach-glazed pork chop that I devoured on that first occasion has been replaced with a baked Kurobuto pork shank with spaetzle, brussel sprouts, and homemade apple-mustard. The lamb sirloin with curry mashed potatoes that my dad enjoyed the second time, is now an onion dusted lamb sirloin with bleu cheese gnocchi, rapini, and a tomato basil-olive jus. And the prosciutto-wrapped mission figs that my brother and I shared on one occasion are gone completely.

Sitting underneath the apropos sapphire-colored blown glass chandelier lights on this particular evening, I am struck by the sense of possibility that permeates the sea-kissed air of the tranquil, upscale space. To my right is a young couple -- each doing their best to eat their Caesar salads without getting any lettuce leaves stuck in their teeth. Maybe they are on a first date? By the front window is a party of four -- two older couples who seem as drunk on the wine as they are on the ample amounts of food that keep coming their way throughout the evening. And just behind me is a special party -- Chef Azmin Ghahreman and a small gathering of his friends. I can't help but lust over the indulgent casserole of macaroni and cheese that is resting in the middle of their table. And I can't help but feel as though I'm in the presence of culinary greatness.

Even the Caesar salad, a starter so redundant it borders on benign, is a revelation in Ghahreman's hands. The crisp whole pieces of Romaine lettuce are enlivened by the peppery punch of the authentic, Parmesan and anchiovy-laced dressing. This salad has bite, and I have to restrain myself from dancing my fork over to my dad's plate for another helping. It was the same story the last time we dined there, and I found myself moaning over the robust earthiness of my dad's silk-smooth mushroom soup.

If I wasn't so intent on ordering the aforementioned lamb sirloin entree, it would be easy to leave satisfied from an all-appetizer dinner. The Malaysian black pepper prawns with wok-fried Chinese long beans and garlic chips, and the Pan-Seared Day Boat Scallops with baby field greens and warm pancetta-passion fruit dressing beg to be ordered, but the chill in the air has stirred up my appetite for something substantial. I pass over the delicate Hawaiian-style steamed Barramundi with ginger-shitake mushrooms, cilantro, green onions, and shoyu -- a light dish that is sure to please those with less ambitious appetites -- and go for the lamb.

The lean, judicious slices of sirloin arrive at the table the perfect shade of pink -- attention has been paid to my request for a medium cooked slab of flesh, and I eagerly dig my steak knife into the tender meat. The lightly-seasoned lamb dissolves into my mouth without a trace of gaminess, and the flavor is further accentuated by the pool of tomato basil-olive jus that covers my plate. I am not as enamored with the bleu cheese gnocchi as I imagined I'd be. They seem to be a perfunctory note and distraction to the overall vision of the dish, and are slightly firm to the bite. The kiss of bleu cheese is not overwhelming however, and eaten alone, they are not particularly bothersome.

The Chianti-braised prime short ribs with leek and parmesan mashed potatoes and mirepoix garnish that my parents both order is a relatively standard interpretation of the now ubiquitous dish, but is a fine rendition none-the-less. Short ribs are a fattier cut of meat, but the hearty portion resting over the perfectly whipped potatoes has been trimmed of all discernible traces of fat. The tender beef needs no assistance from a knife to be eaten. This is the sort of dish that is perfect on a rainy day, or in Southern California, a day with clouds.

The dessert menu continues the trend of the rest of the menu. The seven desserts offered are reinvented versions of traditional plates. It's not just creme brulee -- it's a trio of creme brulee with white espresso, Chai latte, and orange-chocolate varieties. Panna cotta is dressed up with basil and fresh strawberry-rhubarb puree, and a fruit pavlova is married with passion fruit, fresh berries and mango coulis. Everything seems to hold the promise of a unique dessert experience, but my dad and I can't help but be lured in by the most standard interpretation -- a warm spiced apple tart with Calvados caramel and Dulce de Leche ice cream.

That tart, that is not really a tart at all, arrives at the table in the form of a moist spice-cake that has been topped with baked apples and raisins, drizzled with caramel and set over a decadent pool of sweetened cream cheese creme. The presentation is whimsical yet refined, and while there are a lot of different flavors on the plate, everything comes together beautifully. It is neither cloying nor understated. It is what dessert should be after a fine meal -- the perfect ending to a special dining experience.

As we leave the restaurant, my dad pauses at the door to shake Chef Ghahreman's hand. While my mom and I stand waiting for my dad to finish his conversation with the humble chef, we begin talking to the hostess. She tells us that the restaurant received its name because the Chef's wife, her mother and her grandmother were all independently proposed to with a sapphire ring. My mom and I marvel at the coincidence, but later, it occurs to me just how fitting the name is for the restaurant. The menu is defined by the reinterpretation of classic dishes -- just like the Chef and his in-laws who reinterpreted the engagement ring by filling it with something unexpected.

It may not be a diamond, but as Sapphire Laguna ages, it is quietly refining itself into something even better.


The Blonde Duck said...

May I have a roll?

Great last sentance!

Alessandra said...

That was such a wonderful description -- I can almost taste the food!

Tokyoastrogirl said...

Ok, I haven't even read this post but I just had to write since I saw your comment on lafoodblogging right after I had posted mine, in which I wrote "if TJ's ever discontinues their Sweet/Hot Mustard, I'd start writing letters." Then I saw your comment that they have. REALLY?!?! Are you sure? If it is true you and I need to start a letter writing campaign. Seriously. That is the Condiment Of The Gods.

Esi said...

I love that the menu constantly changes. You can never get bored. Sounds like an amazing place!

Diana said...

Duckie - But of course! You can have all the rolls you like! :)

Ali - You would LOVE it there. Next time you're in LA/OC...

Tokyoastro - I wrote you a note on your blog re: the mustard. It is true. :(

Esi - Exactly! I haven't had the same thing twice there which is amazing for me since I tend to get in ordering ruts.