I’ve had the good fortune of dining at some of the top restaurants in the world – Trotter’s and Alinea in Chicago, the Inn at Little Washington in Little Washington, Virginia, and The French Laundry in Yountville, to name a few – so my bar for a great restaurant experience is set very, very high. A recent dinner I had at Starfish, located in Laguna Beach, not only reached that bar but jumped over it.
Upon entering the space with my dining partner and being seated, I quickly surmised that it’s the type of place that is both lively and intimate at the same time. A horseshoe-shaped bar with a gorgeous, wooden drop ceiling serves as the focal point while elevated seating – perfect for a rendezvous and great for people watching – overlooks the beautifully ornate structure. Table seating is available at the back of the restaurant, as is a patio featuring a table for bigger groups or used as a community table where you can dine and make a new friend or two in the process. As an aside, I really wish more places would add a community table; some of the most interesting people I’ve met in the past have been via a table like this. My only minor complaint with this restaurant was that the music was just a little loud during the early part of our visit. But the level came down several notches once the rat pack music was replaced with more instrumental offerings.
The culinary team, led by Head Chef Pedro Lopez, is hitting on all cylinders and each dish emanating from the kitchen was an explosion of flavor that I haven’t experienced in some time. Most appropriately classified as Asian fusion, each dish is served in waves or progressions and is meant to be shared by the table. By presenting the courses in this manner, the kitchen is able to ensure hot dishes come out hot and cold dishes come out cold. The progression of dishes also allows for a very comfortable pace; my dinner guest and I felt like we would have been welcome to stay all night. Our server didn’t make us feel rushed in the slightest and had a knack for stopping by at exactly the right times.
On this evening we chose to let the chef send out what he recommended. After a few simple questions from our server, an entire custom menu was designed for us where each flavor and course complemented the next. An excellent wine, from an extensive list, was also suggested and proved to be a perfect pairing. With the multitude of decisions we all have to make each day, this is one I was glad to surrender – and I highly suggest you do the same.
The first dish presented for our enjoyment was a cucumber salad that epitomizes the farm-to-table movement. Thinly-sliced cucumbers and garlic-roasted grape tomatoes were seasoned with fresh cilantro and Thai basil, and served with a lime crab paste dressing. It seemed like all of the ingredients were still on the vine just hours before. This was a delicious way to start the evening.
Soon after finishing our first course, steamed pork dumplings appeared as if by magic. Prepared in-house daily, as are the accompanying sauces, each bite was a perfect balance of flavors. But be forewarned: after tasting one as fresh as this, you’ll never again be able to enjoy one of those pre-made dumplings, which so many other places serve.
Chef Lopez’s next treat was an order of lobster spring rolls. Don’t order this unless you really like lobster because each roll was full of perfectly cooked lobster meat, which you could taste in every bite. Served with a duo of in-house made sweet chili plum sauce and kaffir lime aioli, your only question after enjoying these will be, “Can I have more please? Pretty please?”
Our server next presented us with spicy Ahi tuna rolls. Served beautifully presented on a white porcelain sled, the first taste of any dish occurs with the eyes, and a flavor explosion ensued. If you’re not used to a chef who knows how to assure each ingredient stands out on its own while perfectly complementing the other ingredients in a dish, be prepared. These rolls, as well as all of the dishes we enjoyed, do just that. Filled with fresh and flavorful Ahi (do you see a pattern here?) they were unlike any spicy tuna roll I’ve ever had and have quite possibly spoiled me for other renditions.
Starfish’s signature dish, the Chilean sea bass with Thai green curry sauce, was our next dish. I could write a book on this dish alone! And I didn’t even think I liked curry. Served in a banana leaf boat, the wild-caught sea bass comes in every other day and they easily go through 50 pounds a week. Each bite of sea bass literally melts in your mouth; it could not have been cooked more perfectly. Covered in the aforementioned sauce – which takes three hours to make and is prepared with a delicious blend of fresh Thai basil, lemongrass, kaffir lime, coconut mile and a few other herbs and spices – you’ll be tempted to pick up the “boat” and drink the sauce by itself. And go ahead! You won’t be the first, according to Kayli, the very accommodating manager at Starfish, who has seen it happen in person.
Our final two dishes of the evening, the Thai spicy beef with basil, one of chef’s favorite on the menu, and the Pad Thai with chicken, were served with a bowl of coconut rice. Presented steaming hot, the beef dish had tender strips of perfectly seasoned meat with a sweet-and-spicy glaze. The Pad Thai was loaded with tender and juicy chicken. My pet peeve with most Pad Thai dishes is the chicken is usually overcooked, but that was not so with this one. Seasoned with tamarind and cilantro and served with perfectly cooked noodles, this one has been added to my future takeout list.
Although you may not have room for dessert after a feast like we enjoyed, you absolutely must, and I do mean must, order the banana in filo dough. A whole banana is marinated overnight in a blend of butter, cinnamon and sugar, then wrapped in delicate filo dough, and baked to golden perfection. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s then smothered in caramel and powdered sugar and served with fresh strawberries and vanilla ice cream. This is one of those desserts that could become an addiction very easily.
Great atmosphere and great food, what more could you ask for? Located on Pacific Coast Highway across the street from the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, there’s plenty of parking. I’d suggest reservations, as Starfish is very popular, and the word on this restaurant has definitely gotten out.
As an aside, Starfish hosts an industry night every Monday for the hard working men and women who work in hospitality. They offer 50% off the entire check, including drinks, to anyone currently employed in a restaurant or hotel – and you can even bring a guest. With a killer offer like that, they do require proof of employment in the form of a recent paycheck, schedule or business card, and identification. It’s very popular so reservations are definitely recommended.
Starfish Laguna Beach
30832 S. Pacific Coast Highway