Classic French Dishes Rethought With a Modern, Vegetarian Style
I arrive at the grounds of the beautiful Montage at Laguna Beach resort as the sun is dipping behind the distant silhouette of Catalina Island, painting the world vivid hues of rose and coral. Atop the coastal bluffs, chilly February wind accosts people layered in coats and scarves, testing their resolve to enjoy the view a little while longer. For me, the inviting warmth of the indoors beckons, and I step inside Studio, Montage’s waterfront restaurant dedicated to creativity and artistic expression.
Studio is in a word, elegant; to the left, a grand cellar stocked with the Grand Spectator Award-winning wine selection, and to the right, a bar adorned with tall white vases and delicate orchids. Everywhere you look, windows transport your eye to the splendor of the surrounding landscape.
Tonight, we dine at the chef’s table. Our host is Executive Chef Craig Strong, who has been with Studio for seven years. Renowned for imbuing his modern French gastronomy with California influences, Strong credits his family’s garden with sparking his love for food. He has come a long way since the days of hanging on his mother’s apron strings, studying at L’Academie de Cuisine in Washington, D.C., holding various positions around the country, before taking his talents overseas to Barcelona. Along the way, he added depth and breadth to his skills, while collecting many accolades, like Michelin One-star ratings in 2007 and 2008.
At Studio, Strong has access to 1,000 square feet of raised planter beds, filled with many of the same ingredients that grew in his childhood garden: navel oranges, figs, fava beans, and his personal favorite, kumquats. Cultivated in nostalgia and tended with care, the space serves as a symbol for Strong’s belief that cuisine should embrace location and look and feel healthy as well.
When Strong was a kid, his parents signed him up for track and field. His coach challenged him to keep up with the older kids, offering free dinner as a reward. After achieving victory, his prize was neither steak nor hamburger, but disappointment – coach was a vegetarian. Strong remembers thinking that there must be more than sprouts and avocado to vegetarian fare.
Tonight’s courses are designed to prove exactly that by rethinking classic French specialties with fresh, vegetable-based interpretations. I sit in a charming dining room where a beautiful oil painting of crashing waves hangs above a flickering fireplace. In my hand, the first taste of things to come – a garden inspired Roselle cocktail, a refreshingly tart concoction of Bombay Sapphire gin, lemon juice, hibiscus, persimmon and kumquat puree, finished with cherry-soaked lemon rind and champagne. Our servers bring out a green olive, raisin and thyme loaf with a selection of salted French, house-made Meyer lemon garlic, and goat’s milk butters. If all I get is this bread, I think I’ll leave happy.
It’s my lucky night, because it’s only the beginning. Five minutes later, I’m looking down at a round of Crimson Beet Tartare, plated like an exquisite flower with horseradish crème fraiche petals and herb garnish. Trademarks of classic steak tartare, raw beef and egg, are nowhere to be seen, here replaced by products of the earth. The centerpiece of this oeuvre is a brilliant creation of molecular gastronomy, a dollop of golden beets, roasted, juiced, and worked to the precise texture of a yolk. Truly, break the thin outer membrane and its delicious contents run. On your tongue, the savory beet flavors transition seamlessly to nuanced horseradish that just tickles your sinuses.
Next, Chef Strong evokes his time in Spain through his Crispy Rice Paella dish. Socarrat, the caramelized, toasted crust at the bottom of the pan, revered in Valencian epicurean circles, provides the inspiration. Risotto rice is cooked in vegetable stock, sofrito and saffron, and then sautéed into golden brown bites with manchego cheese softening the interior. Underneath, the rich, multidimensional romesco sauce is somehow sweet, smoky and tangy all at the same time. An assortment of succulent mini carrots, asparagus, and sorrel establishes contrast for the eye and the palate, keeping the presentation light and colorful.
In a stroke of culinary genius, Strong replaces fettuccini pasta with celery root ribbons to conceive the Celerini Alfredo. In appearance and texture, the two are nearly indistinguishable until the initial, subtle crunch, which though traditionally may ruin a noodle, now is appetizingly different and welcome. Cream sauce, constructed with garlic and celery is spot on, and the brown butter crumble hits high notes of refined sugar. Purple borage flowers and dark brown truffle shavings adorn the top.
Pot-au-feu, a beef stew of turnips, onions, other vegetables and bone marrow or oxtail, is a quintessential meal found in familial settings across France. On this menu, it gets the spud makeover, becoming Potato-au-feu, the variation sculpted into several shapes and consistencies: potato croquette alongside a potato cup and mousseline (which resemble bone and marrow) and potato gaufrette. The smell is glorious and only gets better as the broth is poured tableside. Leeks soak up the buttery liquid and a hint of vinegar, but it only coats the potato, maintaining the hearty nature of the dish and individuality of the flavors.
Fleur du Maquis pulls elements like ratatouille, arugula, pepper and eggplant chips together in a decorative pattern on the plate. With this dish, you can explore your curiosities, dip the poignant cheese through the delicate onion reduction, or mix the salty eggplant with raw minced pepper. However you tackle it, be sure to appreciate the complex planning that went into the composition. The beige wedge of fromage is the star around which an assortment of bright oranges, yellows and reds orbit. It truly is a visual masterpiece.
Not for lack of trying, I find myself with room to spare for dessert and the decadent finale of the night, a Deconstructed Pistachio Pavlova. The pistachio ice cream has a nutty vanilla flavor and is arranged in oblong forms that harmonize with the circular meringues, which airy and saccharine, dissolve in your mouth. Candied pistachios rolled in chocolate are little confectionary explosions that take the profile of the recipe and accentuate and enrich it. Pistachio ganache and a streak of lemon marmalade splash color across the plate and edible flowers instill a floral theme that can be found in each of Strong’s dishes.
At the end of a six-course meal, I am utterly full but lack any guilt of gluttony. Through this lens, I sincerely value the thought and scrutiny with which Chef Strong works his wonders. By integrating vegetables so heavily into this tasting menu, he cuts the usage of cream by as much as two-thirds, ultimately lightening the feel of the food. He recognizes the education of his customers and their desire to stimulate the mind with all senses. “These modern techniques have a whimsical twist, and applied in the right place, I think they’re very appropriate,” Strong says. With his garden at hand and his connections to local farms, there is a concentrated sense of purpose and story behind the produce and the result is both intriguing and entertaining. Each dish can be ordered à la carte, but I urge you to commit to the entire tasting, it is a revelation.
Studio, Montage at Laguna Beach | 30801 Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651 | www.montagehotels.com/lagunabeach/dining/studio/