Seated fountainside on Ocean at Main’s tiled patio, one can nearly smell the swells off Laguna’s Main Beach. But here, the waves are created by chef Craig Strong’s California cuisine. Just when I thought you could hear a culinary pin drop in this artsy seaside city, Strong’s menu eats like a gastropub for people who are sick of marrow, poutine and OK Computer.
Take, for instance, his roasted beet salad, a dish that is rated G on paper, yet on arrival, I nearly had to cover my daughter’s tweeny-bopper eyes. Plump, roasted heirloom beets are there, sure, but an unexpected play on beef tartare that is suitable for vegans highlights the dish, complete with a puréed beet “yolk” that has undergone a bit of molecular gastronomy called spherification, which gives it a satisfying, poke-able skin. Although I have a strict rule of never photographing salads, this dish was like, “Photograph me like one of your French salads.” I turned beet red as I snapped away.
Strong’s influences are on full display at Ocean at Main. His tenure at Laguna’s Montage allowed him to erect a thousand-foot on-site garden, a throwback to his childhood, as he picked in the fields at an early age. Although he can’t do the same at this new place, he notes, “I’ve been sourcing from the same local organic and biodynamic farmers over the past decade.” Prior to Montage, he worked at a resort in Barcelona, Spain, where coastal Catalan cuisine is a way of life, such as with his Catalan bread tartine, charred Spanish octopus and incredible spiced Morro Bay cod. If you’re looking for a bit of northern Spain on a plate, give these gorgeous dishes a try.
Laguna Beach has limited bar options, with a trifecta of local independent craft beers, curated wines and a destination-worthy craft-cocktail list. Regardless of what Strong is firing up in the kitchen, Ocean at Main’s bar program on its own is worth a pregame/postgame day on the beach. Although there’s no happy hour (or brunch) as of yet, the $12 to $14 tag on the cocktails isn’t bad considering its vicinity to Laguna’s historic lifeguard tower.
On my way into town, I thought someone had hacked the blinking road sign that read, “Smoking ban in Laguna in effect,” so seeing something called No Smoking in Laguna on the cocktail menu made me do a double-take. I ordered one, proving if there’s a ban on something, you end up craving it. The drink, which has Xicaru Mezcal, Arette tequila and pineapple, plus a plump candied-pineapple garnish, is smoky and delicious!
Go before Laguna also bans drinking . . . or eating really good food.
Ocean at Main, 222 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-3870.
Greg Nagel has been writing about beer since 2011, is an avid homebrewer of wine, cider, and beer, is a certified Cicerone Beer Server, a podcaster with the Four Brewers Show, and runs a yearly beer festival called Firkfest.