Starfish Laguna Beach has hired a new chef since my last visit. He came to work there about a year and four months ago. His name is Marco Romero and he is Venezuelan.
I was curious to see what a South American chef would make of this Pan Asian restaurant. Let me say at the start that he is doing a terrific job.
A large central bar dominates the restaurant. There are banquettes along one wall with tall stools, a quieter room toward the back and an outdoor patio. The décor is quite beautiful. Asian-style lanterns provide subtle lighting, a large mural of water and sky at dusk decorates one long wall, and beautiful woodwork defines the space.
The menu is divided in to four categories: rolls, raw bar and salad; small plates; veggies, noodles and broth; and sea and land. Each dish is beautifully presented on an array of attractive plates. Metal chopsticks are the utensils of choice, but traditional tableware is also available.
I had remembered liking the restaurant's galbi tacos and they were even better this time. The tender Korean-style flat iron steak was marinated in soy sauce, garlic and sugar, then grilled and thinly sliced. It was served in thin, soft corn tortillas with green onion slivers, pickled veggies, black sesame seeds and a condiment called gochujang aoli.
Gochujang is made from a paste of spicy red chilis, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt. Then it's fermented in earthen pots for years. Starfish combines this with aioli for a wonderful mixture of flavors: hot, salty, garlicky and sour.
Chinese pork dumplings can be ordered steamed or fried. My companion and I chose them fried because of the crispy brown bottom, and they were delicious, especially when dipped in the accompanying sweet soy sauce. The stuffing was ground pork, Napa cabbage and green onions.
Another Chinese staple, wok fired prawns, had been delicately coated with sweetened cornstarch and fried to a light crunch. They were served with house-candied walnuts and coconut rice with just a hint of coconut flavor. Diners also have a choice of jasmine or organic brown rice.
We loved the spicy udon noodles with shrimp, chicken, red and green peppers, onions and carrots. These noodles are the basis for many Japanese dishes. These were excellent: fat, slippery, rubbery and chewy. The shrimp in all our dishes tasted very fresh, no exception here. The chicken was moist, and bits of chopped vegetables added crunch. The noodles were slathered in a slightly spicy garlic sauce.
For dessert, we tried the mango pudding, but it was a bit gritty. It was layered with vanilla bean coconut tapioca and dotted with tiny squares of mango on top. It was the only part of our meal that wasn't first-rate.
Much better was the flourless chocolate cake with a dense, almost pudding-like texture, deep dark chocolate flavor and a thin crust from baking. The Tahitian vanilla ice cream added a nice contrast, and the dessert was finished off with a raspberry puree, strawberries that were not sweet and one lonely blackberry.
The eclectic Pan Asian menu also features sushi rolls, sashimi and seafood salads. Small plates include Vietnamese bahn mi sliders, mixed herb calamari and Thai wok-fired mussels, to name a few. Under veggies, noodles and broth, visitors will find pad Thai, Pho ga (Vietnamese noodle soup), sambal string beans and many more options.
Sea and land includes five-spice baby back ribs, Chinese black bean sea bass, hibachi grilled white miso black cod and Peking pork wraps.
This is a great menu to wander through time and time again. We have also found the staff to be very pleasant and accommodating.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
Starfish Laguna Beach
Where: 30832 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
When: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays, 4 to 11 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays
Appetizers: $7 to $16
Entrées: $11 to $33
Bottles: $32 to $220
By the glass: $8 to $16
Corkage fee: $20 (free if bottle is purchased off menu)
Information: (949) 715-9200 or http://www.starfishlaguna.com