Montage Laguna Beach is a very special place. Located on an outcrop of rock overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the property commands an ideal setting as one of the country’s premier destination resorts. Within the compound proper, the Studio Restaurant commands the absolute best of the best locations — on the furthest peninsula nearest the water and a near 360-degree panorama. Guests dine and watch the red sun dip into the Pacific every night through floor-to-ceiling windows. Outdoor seating (weather permitting — which, in Southern California, is pretty much a guarantee) or dining indoors, the setting is pure magic.
Speaking of magic, it is here that Chef Craig Strong holds fort. Together with Studio Restaurant General Manager Fabien Riviere, Strong’s team of sous chefs, kitchen support, seasoned waitstaff and others deliver one of the finest dining experiences in the Los Angeles area.
The restaurant has also garnered numerous prominent accolades, all well deserved. I met with Chef Strong in his vegetable garden just outside the restaurant. No ordinary garden, the plot consists of five raised stone planters, each some 20 ft (6 m) long and 2 ft (0.6 m) wide. It was here where our conversation began.
Craig Strong: These planters are 31 in (79 cm) high, a height I am told is designed to fend off marauding bunny rabbits who inhabit the grounds and would certainly enjoy a fine, fresh meal!
Larry Mogelonsky: Surely these few planters could not fill all of your needs.
CS: It’s a start, of course, and a way for me to emphasize the fresh-to-table approach that we take with our menu. It also allows me to demonstrate to our guests the close relationship with we have as chefs with our product. I can quite literally take guests out to the garden and clip herbs, edible flowers, even fava bean pods and leaves, and then cook with these ingredients. It doesn’t hurt to have the raised beds. It makes it easier for everyone to see the plants, and it saves my back!
LM: Where do you source ingredients?
CS: We have close and personal relationships with several suppliers. For example, our fish comes from a purveyor who is so committed to product quality that he will give me the lowdown on what to buy each day.
LM: Sort of like a spy for the menu?
CS: Not exactly. But if there are certain fish that he believes are the ones for me to select, it makes sense to follow this recommendation. In terms of produce, being in Laguna has distinct advantages. We are blessed in this regard.
In season, our vegetables and fruit come from small producers who handpick what we need and drive it directly to our receiving doors. Our relationship is so close that I even have had the opportunity of discussing what the next plantings will be in advance of the season.
LM: You’re dealing with a very sophisticated clientele. Your diners have experienced some of the finest restaurants the world has to offer. Any thoughts?
CS: In a way that is more of a positive than you would like to think. Sophisticated diners insinuate an appreciation of the finer aspects of our cuisine and service. Our patrons live and breathe quality. For example, they know that a great steak is not measured by quantity, but by quality: smell as well as mouthfeel, taste and texture. It has to be styled perfectly too. They expect the best, and we deliver.
LM: They also won’t have sticker shock when they see the prices.
CS: Value is not simply price-based. Our clientele understands. They know the value is inherent in the quality they are getting.
LM: I was amazed to see young children dining with their parents. This is not an inexpensive dining option for 5-year-olds.
CS: Well, we have a children’s menu, of course. Moreover, our kitchen will satisfy the demands of any youngster with a respective simple dish. One of the pillars of all our Montage Laguna Beach restaurants is to allow our younger diners to build their own ice cream sundaes. We escort them to the kitchen and ask them to participate. Believe you me, it works.
LM: Your tasting menu is particularly impressive. What is the rationale behind the menu?
CS: The menu is designed as a journey of taste-bud discovery. Certainly, it changes over time, subject to availability of fresh products.
We start with some incredible appetizers — a caviar taco, for example. Then, we move to oyster vichyssoise with smoked salmon and dill; a tuna tartar with a spaghetti squash salad; a Dungeness crab and ricotta cavatelli with fine herbs and a lemon glaze; herb pasta sheets covered with shaved black truffles; Hudson Valley duck breast and confit with wheatberries, apple and onion marmalade, raspberries and calvados sauce; Kobe beef with fava beans, maitake mushrooms, potato puree and bergamot bordelaise; and a Guanaja chocolate sphere with sea salt caramel and Guinness foam.
LM: You forgot to mention the wine pairing.
CS: Wine is an amazing complement to a meal. There is no doubt that the wines selected as matches for our tasting menu represent a wide range of tastes. Each wine in its own right is spectacular. When combined with our tasting menu, they form the perfect balance.
LM: Anything you want to add?
CS: You cannot pin the success of any operation on any individual. Think of the Studio Restaurant as a musical presentation. With Fabien as our conductor, our patrons are guided through the various segments of the symphony, leaving satisfied that we provided more than a meal but a lasting experience.