Chef Craig Strong is a name that is immediately recognized by those who are familiar with OC’s fine dining. Formerly at The Montage, Chef Strong recently left the resort and has opened Ocean at Main in downtown Laguna Beach.
We stopped by for lunch, when the natural light is at its peak, beaming through the windows, reflecting a beautiful Mediterranean oasis to relax and regroup.
Wood-beam ceilings and traditional Spanish white walls are complemented by the sea foam green hues throughout the dining room. Large blue umbrellas shade the patio by day, and by night, Mediterranean-inspired lanterns create an atmosphere that is both comfortable and stylish.
Typically, I’m not so quick to write up a restaurant — opened last Friday — but Chef Strong is a force in Orange County dining, and I am highly impressed by not only the food, but also, the excellent service.
At lunch, the menu offers an array of small plates, as well as sandwiches and pizza. Those seeking a heftier meal may select from the large plates section.
I’ve been in awe of Chef Strong, and his use of unique ingredients, for quite some time now. At The Montage, he incorporated cordyceps into a dish — cordyceps is a fungus which lives on caterpillars and is used in Chinese medicinal tonics.
Here, he incorporates another familiar (to me) ingredient into the Charred Spanish Octopus ($18), a stunning composition using carnival amaranth as a garnish. I love amaranth and have been eating it all my life. This is the first time I’ve eaten it raw. While the amaranth is a beautiful garnish, the larger leaves can be tough and stringy. Pick smaller leaves to eat with the dish, and taste the flavor profiles of the whole composition.The octopus is tender and flavorful, as is the ratatouille, but it is the slight earthiness of the amaranth that brings it all together.
Hawaiian Prawn Potato Soup ($14) may look and sound simple, but it is anything but. This heavenly multi-faceted item is first of all, a take on the classic potato and leek soup. Here, basil is used instead, with a myriad of potatoes dotting the bowl. At first, we think we are eating bits of hominy but was extremely surprised upon hearing that it is potato! Sure, the prawn adds protein and another level of flavor, but the soup is absolutely flawless without it.
Another delightful appetizer is Marinated Tomato Salad ($15). Cherry tomatoes are blanched, peeled and paired with aged goat cheese, garden herbs and plated on a splash of gazpacho. Bits of crunchy balsamic vinegar garnish add an intense burst of acidity, bringing everything together to form the perfect mouthful.
Your kids will want a pizza for lunch, and you’ll let them. The only problem is, which one? There are five to choose from, and we pick House Made Turkey Bolognese Sausage Pizza ($18). Bocconcini cheese adds a creamy lusciousness, while the bright green broccoli florets mean the kids — or you — can say they’ve eaten their vegetables today! Beautiful purple garlic flowers are not only aesthetically pleasing, but add a hint of spice to the mix.
I’m not a big sandwich lover, but Green Curry Chicken Breast ($18) completely blew me away. The toasted ciabatta is stuffed with moist chicken breast, pickled shallots, Napa cabbage, and piquillo aioli. There is a side of umami-filled gravy for you to dip your sandwich in — make sure you do! I love how the sandwich isn’t quite your traditional offering — using Asian ingredients as condiments — but it is one of the most unique sammies I’ve eaten in a very long time.
Hankering for pasta? Dungeness Crab Cavatelli ($16) is fantastic. Hand-made pasta sits in a sauce kissed with preserved lemons and dotted with Sungold tomatoes. A generous portion of sweet Dungeness crab meat sits atop the cavatelli, more than enough to go around. It is quiet as we all take a bite. We eat this in complete silence, one bite, then two, until a couple of us let our sighs of utter appreciation for how good it is. REALLY good.
The next two dishes will fare better on a dinner menu, as they are heavier and more substantial. Oxtail Kale Risotto ($17) is decadence on a plate. I would definitely share this because I don’t want to miss it, but I also don’t want to fill up and not have room to eat anything else. I suggest ordering this as a second course and sharing it with the table. Or… take the leftovers home and have it for your next two meals!
Beef Tournedos ($28) is a lovely entree served with roasted sunchokes, maitake mushrooms, Upland cress, raspberry, and bordelaise sauce. The beef is extremely tender, and meaty maitake add even more substance to the plate. I loved everything except the raspberry, but that is probably due to my aversion to pairing proteins with fruit (except very gamey meats) or perhaps, my dislike of anything sweet on a savory dish. I’m all for salt on desserts though. (disclaimer: everyone else at the table enjoyed it very much)
Chef Strong’s exceptional talent is clear. At Ocean at Main, be ready to indulge in five-star service and Michelin-worthy cuisine, without the stuffy atmosphere, and of course, the hefty prices.
I look forward to coming back for dinner in the near future.
Ocean at Main
222 Ocean Ave
Laguna Beach, CA 92651