Father and son chef team, Paul and Nick Gstrein, light up The Drake in Laguna Beach.
Father and son chef duo, Paul Gstrein (of Bistango and Bayside fame) and son and sous Nick cook on a tight line at the new Drake in Laguna Beach.
“Space is a challenge,” Gstrein senior tells me. And I can see one reason why. His son and right hand, Nick, is a formidable sight— built like a football player (because he was one) his head barely misses the top of the hood vent.
The shoebox-size open kitchen and chef’s bar is the only reminder that the new Drake was once the old Tabu Grill. Gone are the parasol umbrellas and bronze buddhas. Owner and Laguna Beach local Alec Glasser gave it a Gilded Age makeover inspired by the iconic Drake Hotel in midtown Manhattan (now closed). Like the old Drake, music is a central theme. Outside, a 4-foot custom saxophone statue marks its location on PCH and Nyes Place, while inside, a shiny grand piano and nook in the dining room offers two options to listen to live jazz, blues and R&B. A regal combination of sumptuous golden velvet chairs and sapphire blue booths give it a luxurious appeal. And yet, the seafoam green accent walls make it feel very Laguna Beach. It’s inviting, cozy even without feeling the least bit stuffy.
Since opening in September, business has been gangbusters. Curious diners pack the house nightly to listen to live music and sample the Gstrein’s menu.
“ While we were getting ready to open our neighbors would stop in and I’d ask them what they wanted to eat,” Gstrein senior said of the inspiration for his menu. “I want to cook what people like.”
Last spring, father and son whittled down 100 some ideas to create their menu. It’s a foodies’ playlist that spans flavors from around the globe. Try Mediterranean inspired lamb with vadouvan (a french-ified curry) or tiger prawns with Pernod— a dish reminiscent of Provencal bouillabaisse— but more on that later.
Let it be mentioned that Paul and Nick Gstrein come from an incredible lineage of chefs and hoteliers. The Gstrein family has operated the same “hitching post” (now a hotel) in Längenfeld, Austria since 1592. That’s over 400 years of being in the biz. Paul Gstrein left home for the states at 21 to build his foundation with the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Charlie Trotter. He’s been an award-winning chef in Southern California for the past three decades.
As you might expect, Nick was destined to become a chef too, but his path wasn’t so linear. He was on track to play pro football before being sidelined by an injury. “So I hung up the cleats and picked up a knife,” he said. I always knew I’d end up in the business.”
“He was my taste tester from a young age,” Gstrein senior reminisced with a laugh. “He’d either smell it, eat it or throw it.”
Today, their partnership in the kitchen is much more refined. They riff pairings and orchestrate an impressive amount of covers to come out of a kitchen so small. They cook with an economy of motion, dancing between mise en place and hot pans. It takes timing, preparation, and self-awareness because skipping a beat can burn. Along with live music, it’s part of the experience at The Drake. Tabu regulars remember the chef’s bar as the best seat in the house. With the Gstrein duo at the helm, the chef show is back in action in a great way.
Local’s Favorites … Order this.
Pernod | Parsley | Chili | Black Garlic Bruschetta
This dish is a knockout. Tender prawns cooked in a tomato-based sauce so good you’ll want to bottle it and take it home. The je ne sais quoi flavor is the splash of Pernod, which mellows the acidity of the tomato and ties everything together. Any good sauce begs for bread. The buttery bruschetta with black garlic answers and leaves you asking for more.
Hawaiian Yellowtail | Wonton Crisp | Cucumber | Avocado | Micro Wasabi
A classic stack. Hamachi and avocado go together like, well, peanut butter and jelly. Light and bright, this is an excellent way to whet your palate for the main attractions.
Maine Sea Scallops | Cauliflower Puree | Charred Florets | Piquillo Emulsion
The Gstrein duo knows how to cook seafood. A quarter-inch golden sear on each scallop provides a nice textural contrast to the tender inside. Make sure you build your forkful appropriately. It should have a bite of scallop, a swoop of puree, a nugget of charred cauliflower, and a dab of piquillo.
2894 Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
(949) 376-1000 | thedrake.com
Complimentary valet parking available