Laguna couple embraces their new cafe: The Grove on Forest

With their ties to Laguna Beach, it seemed inevitable that James and Kara Taylor would find a spot to fulfill their dream of owning and operating a restaurant.

The Laguna residents considered making an offer to buy Cafe Zoolu, the revered seafood restaurant that closed earlier this year, but withheld a bid for financial and lifestyle reasons.

"We have kids and there was not enough meat on the bone to make a living in Laguna Beach," James said earlier this week. Running dinner service would have meant time away from their two daughters, ages 9 and 12, which is not something he was willing to sacrifice.

Another opportunity presented itself, however, and in June the Taylors opened The Grove on Forest, a coffeehouse and cafe at 384 Forest Ave. in the Lumberyard mall.

The breakfast-and-lunch spot features a modern, sleek look that is a departure from the cozy confines of the former tenant, the Coffee Pub. The name is an ode to the street of their first apartment in San Francisco.

The menu is filled with sandwiches and paninis, salads, gluten-free waffles and soft-poached eggs, all prepared without a stovetop range or oven.

James, who developed culinary skills working for chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Carlo Middione, and Arnold Wong, relies on a technique called sous vide, in which proteins or vegetables are encased in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag and cooked in simmering water maintained at a set temperature.

James cooks eggs, prepared to soft-poached status, and salmon this way. After cooking, he chills the salmon for use in either a kale or Caesar salad.

"He loves cooking [sous vide] at home for us," said Kara, who graduated from Laguna Beach High and Laguna College of Art + Design. "It's an interesting and healthy way to make good food."

Popular sellers thus far include the panini "When Ruby Met Harvi," which includes pastrami, havarti cheese and house Russian dressing, and the truffle egg toast, Kara said. She suggests dipping a grilled panini into the gooey yolk of a soft-poached egg

The Grove doesn't have a walk-in refrigerator so James must use ingredients quickly to ensure freshness.

"The benefit to the customer is everything is fresh all the time," James said.

Kara began her carer in graphic design and transitioned to a marketing executive focusing on start-up businesses, according to the restaurant's website.

James first moved to Laguna at 22 in 1990, and in the coming years developed his affinity for the culinary arts while working at Cafe Zoolu as a line cook and eventual sous chef.

"I felt like I started becoming a young artist [at Zoolu]," James said.

The Taylors met while working in the city's restaurants in the early 1990s. Before working at Zoolu, James, a line cook at the Renaissance Cafe, now occupied by Alessa, asked his friend to introduce him to Kara, a waitress at the Laguna Village Cafe, now the Cliffs Restaurant.

The two started dating and married on Tablerock Beach in 1994. They moved to Venice and San Francisco —James took a break from the restaurant industry and worked in commercial film production — before returning to Laguna three years ago.

James and Kara hope The Grove becomes a creative destination that holds poetry readings and open mic events for children.

"There is no doubt that this was all meant to be," James said. "We're embracing the moment wholeheartedly."

The restaurant can seat about 24 inside and another several dozen in the communal tables open to the public in an outdoor courtyard.

The Grove on Forest is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For questions, call (949) 472-1999.

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