Laguna Beach may be due for its long winter’s nap, but you wouldn’t know it by the restaurant scene—it’s positively bubbling with new players. To keep pace, we’re dining double-time on Coast Highway this month, to review sultry ingénue Starfish and trend-centric Katsuya by Starck.
Nancy Wilhelm launched Starfish last June with support from fans of Tabu Grill, her acclaimed surf-and-turf hideaway half a mile north. Starfish is her long-standing dream. A previous attempt fell through 15 years ago.
This time around, she taps chef Jarvis Yuan and consulting chef David Abella for an informal menu of dishes and flavors that span Southeast Asia. After revamping the shopping center site into a dark, come-hither lair with a sensual Asian motif, Wilhelm gives Starfish advantages she can’t offer at Tabu Grill: ample free parking; somewhat lower prices; and pedestrian access for guests of nearby Montage Laguna Beach.
Lively locals crowd the 100-seat space one Friday night, grabbing every stool at the 17-seat bar. Artistic cocktails play off the exotic vibe. A refreshing vodka cooler of muddled kumquat, mint, and yuzu outclasses a cachaça-citrus-ginger drink, which the waiter advises to keep stirring because its raw sugar sinks to the bottom.
Starters arrive in succession. A wan ahi poke with untoasted pine nuts, scallions, and truffle oil screams for soy or salt. Taro chips add crunch, but up the bland factor. Korean-style short rib tacos include a promise they’re “the best you have ever tasted in your life,” but some beef morsels are chewy and the sambal dressing and juicy slaw lack spirit; kimchi would help here. Kobe bánh mì sliders are a top performer in the Amer-Asian category. Herb-flecked patties of rich beef between soft, sweet buns are swell bass notes for the crunchy-hot Viet quartet of pickled carrots, daikon, sriracha aioli, and cilantro. Freshly fried lumpia with dark chicken meat, scallions, and mung bean sprouts are drippy good street food when dipped in their tart side sauce. A zesty dressing of sweet-tangy intensity is the best part of a fresh-looking Chinese chicken salad, but the bowl is too small for proper tossing.
Our server debones the night’s wok-braised striped bass special. Garlic black bean sauce, peppers, cilantro, and Thai basil are pungent and appealing flavors, but they repress the delicate white fish. We quickly devour a bowl of short-grain white rice perfumed with coconut milk, but the $4 side charge stings when the fish costs $32 ala carte. Slender garlic noodles with too few mushrooms make me long for better and cheaper versions elsewhere.
Sipping the last of frosty Chang beers, we land a winner for dessert. Coconut mango panna cotta, a clean, milky custard with a top layer of tropical fruity chiffon is a triumph of textures and vivid flavors. It’s an enticing ending that hints at hope for the seductive Starfish. Wilhelm is a proven performer who deserves time to tweak the kitchen. Meanwhile, I’ll be back for drinks, appetizers, and dessert in this sexy new watering hole.
Signature cocktails, Kobe bánh mì sliders, chicken lumpia (a Filipino fried eggroll), Chinese chicken salad, coconut rice, coconut mango panna cotta.
Dinner, $8 to $32; “Opium Hour,” Sunday through Friday, 4 to 7 p.m., and 9:30 p.m. to midnight.
No. 21, an elevated banquette opposite the bar.
Look for patio seating to premiere in warmer weather.
30832 S. Coast Highway
Ten minutes north, where Laguna Beach thickens with activity, Katsuya by Starck overlooks Coast Highway. Barely recognizable as the former digs of Hush, Katsuya struts into town—an L.A. scene-magnet. White-on-white surroundings, including oversize images of geisha eyes that survey the venue, are hallmarks of design icon Philippe Starck. A luxe sushi-heavy menu of Japanese cuisine is master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi’s contribution. Spendy cocktails and a nonchalant élan are the stock and trade of SBE Group, the hospitality giant behind four Katsuya siblings in L.A. and those to come in Houston and Miami.
I slip in early on a Tuesday. The sleek bar is filling fast with a cool crowd I see often at buzzy new spots—women in high-altitude heels and guys flashing watches the size of coasters. Masterfully executed with premium ingredients, two $14 signature martinis—the serrano-spiked Burning Mandarin and the Grapefruit Cosmo with white cranberry juice—are superb. We order them from a menu with no prices.
Since this location offers a considerable roster of robata items cooked over searing charcoal, we swap sushi bar seating for a booth with a huge window, tastefully screened by massive bamboo planters. Vast and almost meandering, the menu has much to consider, including prices. Our waitress is a well-versed guide. Of several prix fixe meals, we order a “best of the best” tasting menu featuring Katsuya’s most famous fare including crispy rock shrimp in spicy cream sauce, which recalls similar dishes at countless good sushi bars. Glistening sashimi is a tame sampler of salmon, yellowtail, and tuna. Crispy rice with spicy tuna, touted as the “most flavorful dish on the menu,” is satisfying mouthfuls of contrasts—velvety, crunchy, and fiery. It’s tasty, though hardly extraordinary as promised.
Medallions of Kobe filet topped with sautéed foie gras is ultrarich-on-rich, but needs acidic contrast that the plum-sauce reduction doesn’t supply. Miso-marinated black cod is capably prepared, but is another round of sweet notes best ordered alongside savory dishes. Dainty robata skewers of peewee potatoes and eggplant are much-needed starchy relief. Skip the robata-grilled chicken meatballs—they’re dry and nondescript.
Dessert is a minisampler of crème brûlée, chocolate cake, and cheesecake that recalls a catered sweet station. A $5 pot of weak hot tea ends the pricey meal with a thunk. Katsuya’s expensive drinks, slick digs, and ordinary fare amount to a formula that’s hardly new. When I learn there’s a kids’ menu, I figure SBE truly is set on wooing our suburban market.
Signature cocktails, crispy rice with spicy tuna, crispy rock shrimp, eggplant-potato robata, Kobe filet with foie gras, miso-marinated black cod.
Dinner, $12 to $65.
Dragon Room booths, patio.
Lagunatics who show a California driver’s license save half off the entire food menu every Monday from 5 to 10 p.m. through Dec. 31.
Katsuya by Starck
858 S. Coast Highway
Photographs by Jessica Boone
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.