In the past year, the dining scene in Laguna Beach has grown more competitive than ever. Restaurants vying for the favor of increasingly savvy diners constantly seek to surprise their guests. Many chefs—savoring the chance to experiment—serve hidden dishes that aren’t on the menu for their most ardent fans. Diners “in the know” have a chance to taste food that is unexpected and risky while impressing their friends with their insider knowledge.
Here are a few of our favorites:
THE SNACKS: For those who are both well informed and too hungry to wait for their appetizers, SAPPHIRE LAGUNA serves a medley of quick bites that are ready in minutes. Marcona almonds with chili flakes have a little bit of spice and boatloads of flavor—an easy finger food to share with your first round of drinks. Similarly, fried chickpeas with harissa and lemon zest, arrive piping hot and reveal a nice mixture of spice and citrus. They taste like tiny hummus bites. For something a little more substantial, ask for the blood sausage with creamed spinach on toast. Blood sausage is pretty rich for most SoCal palates, but this simple presentation makes a great intro course by managing to not be too heavy.
THE SUSHI: For many sushi lovers, there’s nothing better than having your favorite chef create something original just for you. Some of these bespoke items grow in popularity and take on lives of their own, becoming calling cards for the chef who dreamed them up. At OKURA SUSHI, they serve a “Fire Roll” which arrives to your table literally aflame and doesn’t begin to burn out until everyone seated near you has had time to “ooh” and “ahhh.” The fire actually does have a function too—it bakes the albacore that sits on top of the roll. You’ll also taste spicy tuna, tempura shrimp, and green onions. The resulting combination feels more substantial than most sushi rolls and has a nice hint of spice. For hidden menu lovers seeking even more heat, the Hamachi Roll with Sriracha sauce smartly pairs a top quality fish with spicy Sriracha. It’s simple, clean, and efficient—because flavors that good don’t need much dressing up.
THE PASTA: ALESSA on Forest Avenue clearly knows classic Italian food—the restaurant is family owned and the menu is loaded with dishes that purists love (baked ziti, lamb pappardelle). But perhaps the greatest secrets are off menu, with a few dishes that honor Chef Alessandro Pirozzi’s Neapolitan roots and show off his mastery of Italian comfort food. The linguine alle vongole is truly a perfect pasta dish. A half-dozen plump clams—buttered, seasoned with garlic, and dusted with parsley—surround a bird’s nest of pasta. The dish is served at many Italian restaurants, but the spot on execution makes Chef Pirozzi’s version one not to miss. Linguine with clams aren’t the only timeless pasta dish on the hidden menu either, Alessa also prepares penne ala vodka and spaghetti carbonara the way that they were intended back in the old country. In fact, tell a member of the superb wait staff that you want a hidden menu meal and they’ll have something for you to try from appetizer straight through to dessert.
THE BURGER: There’s nothing like a good burger—and at NICK’S LAGUNA BEACH they’re experts. But the tight and oft-changing menu doesn’t always leave room for the “Cowboy Hickory Burger”. Nevertheless, Laguna Beach locals continue to order it and the kitchen continues to bring it out—bacon, cheddar cheese, and shaved lettuce with a ground chuck patty, served on an English muffin. House-made hickory sauce tops everything off. The muffin is a welcome textural change from the typical burger bun and the bacon and cheddar cheese make this feel like the hearty home-on-the-range meal we hoped it would be. It’s a perfect burger for eating at the bar and if you ask nicely Nick’s bartenders might just create a bespoke Western-inspired cocktail for you to pair with it.
THE SPLURGE: Craig Strong, the executive chef at STUDIO at MONTAGE LAGUNA BEACH, is famous for taking his products seriously. So when you discover that he has A5 Wagyu (Kobe) beef hiding off the menu, you can be certain that it’s something special. The very phrase “Kobe Beef” has been cheapened by the fact that you can find “Kobe Sliders” in your frozen foods aisle. Real Wagyu is perfectly marbled and truly exquisite—and the chance to have a technician like Chef Strong prepare it for you is an absolute treat. If you decide to try it, ask the Studio staff if you might sit at the tasting station, where you can enjoy the buzz of the kitchen and Chef Strong can witness the expression on your face as you savor what is widely considered the best beef on the planet.
THE DESSERT: Do you remember eating “ants on a log” as a kid? Chef David Fuñe certainly does. At SPLASHES at Surf & Sand Resort, the chef has invented a dessert that references that familiar peanut butter and celery combo in a way that feels completely fresh. It features a creamy peanut butter and chocolate ganache, peanut butter caramel, and a “celery leaf shatter” made with liquid nitrogen. The flavors combine perfectly—a hint of familiarity paired with a large dose of creativity. If you enjoy the special feel of clandestine ordering, this is one you’ll want to try right away—Chef Fuñe has gotten so many great responses that he’s thinking of making the dessert available on the menu.