A new downtown restaurant in Laguna Beach inspired by California cuisine is now open.
Ocean at Main is chef Craig Strong’s latest endeavor. The 4,500-square-foot, 126-seat restaurant at 222 Ocean Ave., a short stroll from Main Beach, replaces Taverna, which closed earlier this year after about two years in business.
Strong most recently served as the executive chef at Studio, a restaurant within the Montage Laguna Beach resort. The culinary veteran of more than 25 years helmed that operation for nine years and has previously worked for other hotel restaurants like the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta and Langham Huntington in Pasadena. His culinary training began outside Washington, D.C. at L’Academie de Cuisine.
“Ocean at Main is a different project for me, as it’s my own freestanding restaurant vs. the fine-dining restaurants in luxury hotels I’ve enjoyed working at throughout my profession,” Strong, a San Diego native who grew up eating produce from his family garden, said in an email. “I’m excited to start this new chapter in my career.”
In Strong’s words, Ocean at Main is about coastal California cuisine using fresh, local products. Expect an array of local produce, seafood, meats, wines and beers
“I also salute classic French techniques and the foods of the Spanish Mediterranean,” he said.
On a recent media preview night — Ocean at Main celebrated its actual grand opening Oct. 5 — I tried several courses and found all to be either very good or exceptional. The staff were attentive and friendly, despite not being seasoned in the operation yet, and the vibe at the historic spot was relaxed and classy. The patio seating was covered that evening in blue canopies, with light R&B playing in the background and, once it got dark, purple lights and lanterns provided some inviting mood lighting.
I started with the chilled Kusshi oysters. I found them to be a great “intro oyster,” so to speak, for the uninitiated or raw seafood-weary. Their hint of spicy flavor (shichimi togarashi) combined with some saltiness — but not too much saltiness — was a balanced approach.
The Hawaiian prawn potato soup (basil, Grecque potato and Old Bay crisps) was also outstanding.
For the main course, the roasted beef tenderloin — accompanied by sunchokes, maitake mushrooms, upland cress and a raspberry Bordelaise sauce — was tender and expertly prepared. Our waiter actually described this course best: a substitute for standard meat and potatoes — healthier, lighter, and making you feel satisfied but not overly full at the end.
I also tried the spiced Morro Bay cod, which comes with crispy calamari, gordal olives, chorizo, potato and an olive oil broth. It had a nice flavor and was well prepared, but the perfection of the tenderloin before it cast a long shadow that was hard to top.
Though I didn't get to try them, other entrees include pastas, pizzas, grilled Pacific swordfish and pressed organic chicken.
To drink, I tried one of Ocean at Main’s signature, Laguna-inspired cocktails: the Plein Air (Old Forester bourbon, apricot, sage syrup and lemon). The sage reminded me of the SoCal sagebrush not too far away in the hills. It was smooth, excellent and inspiring enough to have another.
For dessert, the Tainori chocolate torte arrived accompanied by house-made bourbon ice cream. With 64% cacao, it’s a strong flavor that’s not to be missed.
Also not to be missed are the exceptional details of Ocean at Main'sbuilding. According to the Laguna Beach Historical Society, it dates to around the 1940s. Designed by Aubrey St. Clair, the white Spanish Colonial Revival structure was an early home of the Laguna Federal Savings and Loan Association.
For Ocean at Main, signs of its banking days are long gone, but it now boasts wood beamed ceilings and wrought iron chandeliers with color accents of grey and blue. Laurie Alter of Laguna-based Tuvalu Home designed the airy, bright and inviting interior for the building's newest tenant.
Also of note: the patio has a pleasant fountain, with murals created by Laguna artist Boris Buzan.