Sapphire Laguna Shines Every Season

The allure of Laguna Beach is often too strong to deny for visitors to Orange County and even residents who seek breathtaking sunsets and iconic southern California. It is also a city rife with art galleries and interspersed with culinary destinations; the restaurants here are typically phenomenal (or at least that's what I hear). Sapphire Laguna is no exception. I had visited once before with a few other people and was thoroughly impressed but upon invitation to explore the summer menu, I realized that the global cuisine by passionate Chef Azmin Ghahreman does not falter in any season. Though my first visit was in the spring, I had enjoyed my visit then and still did with the season's change. The internationally inspired cuisine fits right into Chef Azmin’s motto: “When you travel through the world’s markets with your palate, you don’t need a passport.”  We certainly got a taste of that during our lunch visit.

Started in 2007, the restaurant has been thriving not only as an eatery but also as a shop and culinary classroom. The chef, born in Iran and educated in Switzerland, brings his worldly experiences to Sapphire in both ingredient selection and cooking. Not only is he the chef but he also contributes to the beverage program as a sommelier and mixologist. It was too bad that I missed this aspect of his talents because I was on a lunch break (can't return to work with alcohol!). However, if you are seeking some libations, there is an impressively-presented wine list and several cocktails from which you might choose.

The multitude of appetizers available was nearly overwhelming but we eventually settled for a handful. The first three tried were the Shishito Peppers ($8 - Marcona almonds and a Romesco sauce), Grilled Chicken Sopes ($8 - Haystack Chili Jack, Borracho beans, habanero salsa quemada, and creme Mexican), and Prosciutto-Wrapped Peaches (summer menu). The roasted shishito peppers certainly did not need the Romesco it came with, though very much welcomed; the slight char on the skins really pulled the pepper's sweetness forward, and the Marcona almonds added great texture and nuttiness. If you have the bad luck to bite through a pepper and break a seed though, the heat is nearly unbearable.

The sopes that came presented me with the need to find a good plan of attack. They were slightly larger than a large party-sized quiche but too composed to cleanly divide with a fork. However, I had to resort to the pronged utensil and made a complete mess of myself. The shell was quite bland and needed the habanero salsa to make it better; the filling was flavorful though sparse. Overall, they were not my style but could be another person's. Then there were the peaches. Nearly neon orange, these peaches could have been radioactive due to how bright they were. The chef assured us that they were California-grown. Sweet and slightly soft, the stone fruit went well with the fatty prosciutto and was reminiscent of Italian prosciutto with melon. The microgreens atop helped make the morsels pop as well. I believe I consumed the entire lot of them all by myself...

Though the next two items were on the Starters section, they were slightly different and not quite the sharing type. We had the Albacore Poke ($9 - avocado, sticky rice, and spicy mayo) and Kale Salad ($8 - heirloom tomatoes and a sweet onion tamarind vinaigrette), both presented in shallow bowls but also in a manner that would make everything difficult to share. The poke bowl could have been an entree in itself considering how much substance there was to it. The amount of albacore was generous but unfortunately warmed too much by the vinegared sticky rice. Though there was a mayo on there, the avocado also lent its buttery texture to the bowl as a lubricant. The dish was enjoyable overall though. The kale salad serving that came out, however, was not quite as enjoyable. It was certainly far too small to be substantial for anyone. The touted heirloom tomatoes only came in the form of two small wedges, and the vinaigrette was hardly noticeable as it was very light on the greens. I wouldn't order this myself.

Despite the disappointing kale salad, the rest of the meal was more than satisfactory, especially the entrees. I opted for the Sauteed Jumbo Shrimp ($17 - handmade spinach-Ricotta tortellini, grilled artichoke, and a rosemary-garlic milk) and my friend selected the Pan-Seared Barramundi and Pesto Genovese ($19.50 - wild arugula, sweet onion, and heirloom tomato). During my first visit to Sapphire, I had been struck by how elegant and silky the fresh pasta was and was not let down at all by the pasta in the tortellini. Practically sultry, these pockets of spinach and warmed Ricotta were delicious and so very soft. The shrimp was excellent, cooked to the perfect doneness where the meat had a firm yet tender bite. Lastly, in the rosemary-garlic "milk," the herb and garlic really shone through and married together the seafood and pasta well.

As for the barramundi, what a beautifully prepared fish. The flaky juiciness was proof enough with each fork-pull that the dish would be a good one. Slightly seasoned with fresh herbs and seared to a golden broth, each piece of fish held its own but also matched the accompanying pesto very well. Here was a dish that made good use of its heirloom tomatoes unlike the kale salad's function for them. Here, they augmented the arugula's purpose for cleansing the palate between bites and freshening the entree.

Though we were quite stuffed, the staff and chef strongly urged us to take bites (at the very least) of their desserts. The selections came in a menu featuring the chef's own children in a picture of them enjoying ice cream. How endearing! We went with the Peach Cobbler (oatmeal streusel with Tahitian vanilla ice cream) and Dark Chocolate Creme Brulee (marshmallow fluff and toasted almonds), two quite different types of dessert which would give me a good scope. The dark chocolate creme brulee was recommended by the manager himself, and the peach cobbler just sounded wonderful. Generous helpings were served after the other food had been boxed up, and they definitely wanted attention. The peach cobbler used the same peaches as the Prosciutto-wrapped Peaches dish and was a true treat underneath the fragrant and luxurious Tahitian vanilla ice cream. I especially enjoyed the streusel on the cobbler because it was slightly sweet but also wholesome. With the creme brulee, it was the first time that I've ever had the dessert with such a strong "other flavor" component; in this case, chocolate. Creamy and thick, the creme brulee is a definite must for dark chocolate lovers. I thought that the marshmallow fluff and toasted almonds were also a great touch to the presentation and even the taste!

Overall, the take-away from this visit with Sapphire is that Chef Azmin has a fantastic grasp on a variety of cuisines and reflects that in his cooking no matter the season of the year. Sourcing ingredients as responsibly as possible is also an enormous perk in the restaurant's direction. If you are interested, visit them at 1200 South Coast Hwy in Laguna Beach and try the pasta! If nothing else, you'll enjoy the beachside view.

Photography by Minerva Thai. More photos available on Facebook here.

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