Some years ago I produced an HBO movie called Laguna Heat, based upon a thriller novel by T. Jefferson Parker. The film starred the late Jason Robarts and Harry Hamlin, and we filmed in Laguna Beach for several weeks. While shooting, I lived at the Montage Laguna Beach Hotel, a world-class hostelry set on a coastal bluff overlooking the Pacific. Fell in love with the community and the hotel. Just 70 miles from Los Angeles, Laguna Beach is an art colony (replete with galleries and antique shops), and a sophisticated residential community for talented people of means. The stunning craftsman-style resort hotel, 30 acres of oceanfront luxury, features several restaurants of note. I reviewed with great praise the elegant Studio Restaurant when it first opened.
So when I received an invitation to attend Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation, one of America's leading culinary benefits to eliminate childhood hunger, I readily accepted, especially after learning that seven of the nation's top chefs would be cooking at the Sunday evening event. I am appalled at the fact that millions of children still go to bed hungry in our country, and equally nonplussed at the lack of nutritional knowledge observed by those feeding them. Todd Orlich, the general manager of the hotel, sat with me and walked me through the story of Share Our Strength, a national non-profit which is dedicated to ending childhood hunger by connecting children with the nutritious food they need to lead healthy, active lives. "We joined with them and their No Kids Hungry campaign to end this disgraceful blight by 2015," he told me. Todd, who is an old friend and was the opening manager of the Montage Beverly Hills, introduced me to Executive Chef Craig Strong of their signature Studio Restaurant and to Casey Overton, chef de cuisine at The Loft, which I will be returning to review shortly.
But it was the opportunity for me to put on my restaurant reviewing hat and meet, greet and eat with seven top chefs which provided an enchanting evening. Chef Strong took me into the kitchen to start my meal with a succulent Pork Belly served by Sous Chef Livingston, with Bing cherries and pickled red onions. While there, I ran into Alan Fuerstman, owner of the Montage chain, with his wife and daughter. The latter, a 23-year-old beauty, is starting her career as a pastry chef here, and I offered to introduce her to Chef Sherry Yard of Spago, the mentor of most women pastry chefs today. Then I greeted Chef Joachim Splichal of the Patina Group, this day cooking at a station with his son, Stephane. Well, not exactly cooking, rather helping assemble a Tower of Tuna with soya onions and yuzu granite. I love great red raw tuna, and this was silky soft and delicious. Joachim has been a friend since he landed here in '81 to cook at the Regency Club. Today, his Patina organization is an empire covering both coasts, with the flagship restaurant at the Walt Disney Hall.
I told Chef Scott Conant of Scarpetta at the Montage Beverly Hills that his elaborate new Sunday brunch there, first reviewed in my recent Huffington Post article, would be featured in the June issue of my restaurant newsletter. He served me a dish of Olive Oil Braised Octopus, with its Weiser Family Farm fingerling potato and spring garlic. I questioned whether there is a dining demand for octopus and he surprised me by saying that it sells out whenever it is on his menu. Chef Mark Peel of Campanile was serving a Bigoletti Pasta, curlicued morsels sautéed with fava beans, braised Maggie Farms wild arugula and ruby streaks, with pecorino shaved on top. "It's the first time I've done this dish at a party," he exclaimed, and we made a date to meet at the afterparty event. Mark has been a friend since he started cooking at Ma Maison with Wolfgang Puck in 1975.
I had never met Chef Alex Stratta of Alex, considered by the cognoscenti to be the finest restaurant in Las Vegas. I gave him a copy of my current newsletter which featured my Huffington Post article about the two women butchers, Lindy and Grundy, located on Fairfax at Melrose, and he laughed and said his girlfriend, a chef, lives right there, so they would visit the amazing duo. (He appreciated my last night's dinner from there: roasted beef heart and lamb kidneys.) He served me a dish of his Roasted Sea Scallops with spiced rice crisp, with Polito Farms citrus and agretti greens. Asked where the scallops were from, his sous chef said they were from the East Coast. Given a quick sear, they were succulent, soft within and utterly beguiling. I only had met Chef Alex Wong once, at Wolfgang Puck's Meals on Wheels Benefit (sadly now gone), but he served an interesting (and rather surprising) choice: Tutti Frutti Tomato Salad with li hing mui dressing and shiso, along with a tiny cup of vine-ripened tomato soup, with tomato sorbet and a parmesan cheese crisp. I could not help wishing (under my breath of course) that he was dishing up his famous Poke rather than this.
I finished my main courses with a taste of Chef Strong's Grilled Beef Hanger Steak with a bone marrow crostini, saying that one can never get enough of rich bone marrow in this life. Dessert was from Executive Pastry Chef Richard Ruskell of the Montage Beverly Hills, winner of the Food Network's Challenge and star of the upcoming Food Network Last Cake Standing. His dessert was somewhat disappointing: Hotchcha, kalamanso soda with habañero, and some lime-marinated Gloria Farms strawberries with litchi foam. Wanted some chocolate but none was available.
Interesting note: so many chefs these days are listing the source of their artisanal ingredients, usually foraged from a stand at a Farmer's Market. It's a nice and thoughtful way to say thank you to these small, organic suppliers who are striving to improve our farm-to-table food supply. Chef Strong and his team had also enlisted many local wineries to pour for the several hundred guests, and all the proceeds (tickets were $250 each) went to the children's hunger-fighting charity. Great cause, wonderful evening, so thank you Montage Laguna Beach for inviting me. Ate too much, as usual.
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues), email him at jayweston@sbcglobal.