An inviting location is a critical factor for a restaurant’s success—it often outweighs food or service. We can all name places that endure only because they boast a killer view, simple access, or exposure to stupendous foot traffic.
In March, one of Laguna Beach’s most bulletproof and beloved Coast Highway venues quietly changed hands while diners and restaurants were distracted by COVID-19. Sapphire Laguna, the domain of chef-owner Azmin Ghahreman since 2007, became Sapphire Cellar Craft Cook. The subtle name change slipped right by most diners, but not fans of Vine, Ironwood, and Olea—the flourishing dinner houses helmed by Russ Bendel Jr. and his veteran team. Bad timing muted Sapphire’s rollout, but even with pandemic protocols, the new Sapphire radiates a fresh, upbeat vibe.
Consider the most striking development: weekend brunch. It’s a revelation. After years devoted to dinner service, executive chef Jared Cook delivers a distinctive menu of irresistible sweet and savory dishes. Deftly roasted Kurobuta pork belly stars in a top-selling Benedict with eggs and silky béarnaise soaking crispy-edged rosemary focaccia by Bread Artisan. Fresh vegetable hash on the side is a blessed relief from ubiquitous country potatoes. Blue and red berries glint with freshness, tumbled over griddle-hot waffles, the crannies catching lemony crème fraîche. Warm bourbon maple syrup is almost unnecessary.
Nutella furthers its chocolate-hazelnut case for world domination with a top-selling plate of waffles. Sharp cheddar biscuits under gravy powered by housemade sage-garlic sausage are diet-be-damned, down-home legit. For reduced guilt, try a farmers market vegetable scramble plus fall fruit, napped with mint yogurt. Longtime bar boss Gabe Whorley woos daytime drinkers with fancy fruit mimosas and the Patio Pounder, a citrusy marvel of vodka, sweet basil, bubbly, and tangerine popsicle.
Some brunch items reappear at lunch; rich chicken confit with house pickles on a toasted onion roll is a lusty midday meal treat bolstered by slaw and so many first-rate hand-cut fries. Patio lunching is unthinkable without a lovely salad, and there are many to choose from: perhaps house greens with almonds, goat cheese, artichoke hearts, and then some. A slyly lush affair, it’s a sleeper bargain.
Dinner fare offers the typically lavish options served at the sibling shops, but new Laguna-only dishes tend toward sensational. Deceptively rustic, the creamy cheese dip reveals gourmet aspirations thanks to premium Bellwether Farms fromage blanc, marinated olives, and piquillo peppers glossy with fruity olive oil. Cook riffs on his popular lemon-
honey duck wings with a wily switch to tender, house-made duck meatballs. They share a bowl with cavatelli pasta in a sauce of cippolini onions, garlic, and mushrooms. Meaty fall-apart pork ribs with sticky mustard barbecue glaze rest atop a snappy almond-napa cabbage slaw for a joyous fix that works as a starter, share plate, or entree.
Cook’s crispy schnitzel swaps Jidori chicken for Duroc pork here with splendid results, but that side of herby spaetzle and maitake mushrooms would flatter almost any protein. Chardonnay-sauced cornish game hen is the poultry winner, joined by stuffing, chewy faro, and cherry tomatoes. Double R Ranch bone-in ribeye is a replay from sibling menus, and for good reason. This wondrous steak reveals the intersection of a fine supplier and scrupulous preparation—and the blue cheese mashers play right along.
Anchored by the iconic statue of Laguna Beach’s folk hero, Eiler Larsen the Greeter, the terraced patio beckons like a mirage dotted with orange umbrellas. Inside, the restaurant and petite bar show off a superb face-lift that’s ready for its close-up when virus decrees allow. Look for morning coffees and beachy grab-and-go eats from the spiffed-up pantry next door. But the landmark patio perched on Coast Highway will always be a year-round attraction for locals and tourists from everywhere. How nice this historic corner’s next decade includes a restaurant that’s far finer than it has to be.
Sapphire Cellar Craft Cook
1200 South Coast Highway
5 BEST DISHES
Pork belly Benedict
Meyer lemon crème fraîche waffles
Crispy chicken confit sandwich
Dinner, $9 to $39.50
Lunch, $9 to $34
Brunch, $15 to $39
Validated parking in the back