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On a bustling late-summer night, it seems the whole world is looking for a parking spot in Laguna Beach. The lucky ones eventually make their way to the umbrella-dotted patio at Sapphire Laguna. Or at least it feels like the world beats a path to this prime spot overlooking PCH with surfers trekking their boards to Brooks Street beach just beyond.
The locals, tourists, and foodies make for a diverse population that in only three years has made this restaurant a landmark. They come to dine on fare that is likewise varied. Peripatetic chef-owner Azmin Ghahreman's menu reveals his adventurous nature and his delight in being a world citizen. He's a traveler, and his cooking takes us along-to Greece for octopus salad, to India for tandoori chicken with chaat masala vegetables, to Little Tokyo for a crispy tonkatsu sandwich with pickled carrots, and to the Mediterranean coast for clay pot monkfish with creamy polenta, then back home for rocky road ice cream pie.
One sunset-washed twilight, a lazy alfresco dinner starts with a carafe of chilly spritzer made with riesling, schnapps, and apple juice-a luscious foil for house-fried Potato Chips With Sage-Rosemary Sea Salt. The fragile crisps-the bar's signature snack-are simply irresistible. We push them aside only when a salad of thinly sliced octopus arrives, with some of the most tender cephalopod of my dining year, glistening with a graceful oregano-basil dressing. Savory Middle Eastern murtabak illustrates Ghahreman's penchant for translating street food into fine cuisine. The thin dough rectangle is filled with curry-spiced ground lamb, then pan-fried to a crispy, flaky finish. Cut into the delicate pocket and, surprise, soft-cooked egg yolk oozes forth. The result is unexpected and comforting at first bite.
Another night, he's offering an impressive Moroccan chicken tagine. Impeccably fluffy couscous with almonds and chickpeas flatters the braised hen, scented with coriander and fenugreek. The semolina couscous is the ideal vehicle for bits of bright preserved lemon rind and a sauce of green olives. Roast Berkshire pork loin is satisfying, too, but in a more familiar way. Partnered with creamed corn and browned cipollini onions, the mild meat is slightly marred by a bizarre side of mac 'n' cheese-naked gemelli pasta that somehow evades the cheese sauce application, but not the toasted bread crumbs that taste stale.
A short, changing menu of "spice plates" focuses on more exotic snacks, ones that allow Ghahreman to stretch and explore. Here you'll find ceviches and skewers one season, kebabs and tacos the next. But all three standard menus-lunch, dinner, and brunch-offer plenty of familiar choices for less-intrepid palates. Sapphire Laguna proved that point earlier this year, garnering notice and the cover photo for Orange Coast's August story on the county's best burgers. It's a superior hamburger, and the fries deserve loud fanfare as well-they're as classic and fabulous as you'll find in this territory.
Between lunch and dinner, the kitchen goes into half-hibernation dubbed "intermezzo," paring down the menu to a handful of deluxe noshes. Regulars trickle into the small bar for a glass of wine, Caesar salad, or Kobe Harvarti cheeseburger with those wonderful garlic fries. It's an inviting little lair centered around a counter crafted from a redwood that dates to the 1700s.
Weekend brunch has its charms here, too. Easily one of Laguna's most interesting brunches, the creative lineup is served both Saturday and Sunday. Go Mexican with the popular huevos rancheros and chilaquiles, with house-made chorizo. Terrific steak-and-egg tacos are a deconstructed, knife-and-fork affair with cotija cheese, avocado, and tasty black-bean salsa. Or, go vegetarian with a fluffy stack of egg whites with roasted portobello, goat cheese, and some superb ratatouille.
Desserts, cocktails, and wine exhibit lots of originality, too. Sommelier Michael Read tends a list of mostly unknown gems with reasonable markups. Sure, there are some heavy hitters, but you also can snag a bottle of the Graff Family Vineyard's robust grenache from Monterey County for $11. Cocktail options are just as rich. Drinks from the list of chef-inspired recipes are particularly well-crafted-for example, the herbaceous Thymely Tonic with Hendricks gin and herb infusion.
Desserts are strong, especially considering everything is made in-house without the luxury of a pastry chef. There's a deconstructed rocky road ice cream pie with a blocky cocoa brownie, chocolate ice cream, roasted peanuts, and toasted marshmallows. Or the fine artisan cheeses from next-door's Sapphire Pantry make a lovely cheese plate after a meal, or as complement to a glass of wine.
Service alternates between breezily confident and blandly impassive, depending on the server. But there's no denying the charm of the indoor-outdoor setting; almost every table boasts an ocean view, and the terraced patio with fire pit is hard to abandon on a sunny day or chilly evening.
By now, Ghahreman has a fresh menu of intriguing spice plates and cool-weather dishes such as braised short ribs, or pumpkin ravioli with burnt sage-butter. It's a promising omen when he's absent from Sapphire's kitchen-a sign that he's off collecting ideas the way tourists snatch up souvenirs. And when he returns, he'll be packing inspiration for new culinary adventures. And we get to enjoy it all without jet lag.
House-fried chips with rosemary, octopus salad, Kobe burger/sliders, salt-and-pepper shrimp, clay pot monkfish, chicken tagine, seasonal spice plate dishes, french fries, steak-and-egg tacos, huevos rancheros, pavlova, cheese plate.
At the French doors near the bar.
There is validated garage parking via the easily overlooked hillside driveway on Brooks Street.
Half-pints fed well: A father of three, Ghahreman says his healthy and seasonal kids' menu "feeds your children the way I feed my own." Think from-scratch chicken noodle soup, and sunflower seed butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
1200 S. Coast Highway
Photograph by John Cizmas
This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.