The Gossiping Gourmet: Sapphire chef keeps menu fresh, worldly

It's always fun to go back to Sapphire Laguna because the peripatetic Chef Azmin Ghahreman continues to travel throughout the world seeking new experiences in food in order to continually refresh his eclectic menu.

On other occasions, we've dined on coconut banana fish wrap from the Philippines, Tunisian crab warka, African red curried swordfish, chicken martabak (an Indonesian spring roll), Oaxacan duck mole quesadilla and Chinese Szechuan pork and tofu with egg noodles. You won't find any of these dishes on the current menu because Azmin is always moving on but rest assured, there will always be a panoply of new items to try.

In addition to the regular menu there is a spice plate menu served at the bar, ranging from the unique pastrami quesadilla with Oaxacan cheese to the more prosaic kobe beef sliders. This menu is also served in the dining room, on request, during the week.

People love to eat alfresco and yet there are so few places in Laguna that take advantage of the mild California climate and offer outdoor dining. Sapphire's large patio with its dramatic fire pit is practically a reason in itself to visit this interesting restaurant. The interior dining space is also pleasant with comfortable upholstered chairs and artisanal wood and glass elements.

From the spice plate menu, we began our meal with the mezze platter, a trio of Middle Eastern favorites. They get high marks for toasting their pita bread and serving it hot from the oven. We used it to scoop up some excellent hummus that wasn't the usual smooth creamy dip but had texture from small bits garbanzo beans, which made it more interesting. It also had a perfect balance of lemon and garlic. For contrast was a little Greek salad with cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, sweet onions, mint and parsley, finished with a light lemony dressing. The third element was some very mild baba ghannouj …perhaps too mild. It needed some punch.

From the Mediterranean we move to the Far East for Vietnamese fried spring rolls. Azmin's take on them is to substitute crab and lobster for the more usual pork and shrimp. The truth is that the filling in this is so finely minced it could be almost anything. In this case, there was a back taste of seafood but the dominant flavor was the very good, crispy, fried wrapper dipped in the lime, fish sauce dressing, nuam muoc. It was accompanied by a spicy but acidic cabbage slaw that could have used a little sweetness.

Totally new to us was the monkfish and vegetable stew with polenta, presented in a deep ceramic crock. We fell madly in love with it! A layer of creamy polenta was covered with a rich and mellow tomato sauce, chock full of eggplant and two kinds of summer squash. Lounging on top was a lovely piece of moist and flavorful monkfish. Each spoonful was a revelation. Every time you scooped up the polenta, it blended more and more into the sauce creating a new thickened stew. We managed to eat every last drop of one portion. We can't imagine any one person older than 16 devouring it alone.

We passed on banana Foster's bread pudding, the dessert of the moment, to see if Azmin's Pavlova was as good as we remembered it. The cloudlike meringue is still perfect, not too sweet and with a melt-in-your-mouth texture. A delicious, slightly tart passion fruit cream made a layer between two rounds of meringue but the berries that came with it, sadly, were not sweet. The generous amount of raspberry puree that once provided a sauce had been reduced to a decorative swirl.

The lovely patio, the attractive dining room and the continually changing well-executed menu make Sapphire a Laguna jewel.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet foods and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at themarkos755@yahoo.com.

Sapphire Laguna

Where: 1200 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach

When:

Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday

Intermezzo: 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 3 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Dinner: 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Sunday, and 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Brunch: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Prices:

Appetizers and spice plates: $4.50 to $16

Entrées: $21.75 to $32

Desserts: $7.50 to $14

Wine:

Bottles: $32 to $745

Half-carafe: $15

By the glass: $8 to $25

Corkage Fee: $25 per bottle, two bottle limit; magnum $50, one bottle limit

Information: (949) 715-9888 or sapphirellc.com

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