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Sorrento Grille’s Impeccable Cuisine

by Tony Reverditto
Thursday Jul 21, 2011
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Sorrento Grille is an institution in the village of Laguna Beach, and one of its most beloved gathering places for over 20 years-it’s not only a landmark, but a delightful gastronomic experience.

Upon our arrival at the restaurant, we were immediately greeted by Lori McLean, the general manager; she was quite striking, and from what I saw over the course of our evening, she is the heart and soul of this operation. She got her start in the restaurant business at 16 working at an ice cream café in Toledo, Ohio and was promoted to server by 18. At 19, she left the restaurant industry to pursue a career as a stylist. Three years later, she moonlighted as a server at Ruby Tuesday for extra money and was hooked again. In 2003, Lori moved to California, assisting in the launch of Crab Cove in Monarch Beach and then with Marc Cohen at Opah. She became assistant manager at 230 Forest Avenue in Laguna and later opened new concept restaurants, Agave Mexican Grille and Cantina in Rancho Santa Margarita. In January 2005, she started with David Wilhelm’s Culinary Adventures at their restaurant Rouge and was promoted to general manager at French 75 in Irvine in 2007. A year later, she was asked to become the general manager of Sorrento Grille and she has been loving her job ever since.

The sensuous aromas filled the restaurant from the open kitchen, which got our appetites going while we were being seated at a table with a great view of the entire restaurant. Because it is considered Laguna’s original martini and wine bar, with small-batch microbrews, there was no doubt in my mind that that it was martini time. I decided on the Tangerine Cosmo, mixed with Hangar One Mandarin Vodka, tangerine and cranberry juice; it was the mouth-watering and the perfect way to unwind from the day. John had the Sauvignon Blanc, Cakebread, 2009 from Napa; he said it was an excellent complex blend of dryness with a clean citrusy finish.

Our server Tony took our starters order which we narrowed down to the Fried Calamari; presented in sliced steak form, dipped in a cornmeal crust with herbs, chile, and spicy harissa aioli-one of the best I’ve ever had! Oysters on the Half Shell; embellished with apple-cucumber relish, cilantro, sake and spicy tuna was a true feast for the palate. The Herbed Shrimp was better than par, seasoned with lemon, chile, capers, potato, garlic, butter, and oregano. So far we were off to a fantastic start, both of us taken by the flavors and attention to detail in their presentation. Other tempting appetizers were the Manila Clams; linguica, garlic, paprika, parsley, lemon and bread, and the Chorizo Sliders with fries, peppers, onions, and a goat cheddar.

Next, we shared a Loose Leaf Salad topped with bacon, pickled radish, shallot, and point Reyes blue cheese dressing, which was light and delicious and had lovely plating. The entrée selections were cleverly categorized; Ocean, Ranch, Farm, and Garden. Should I choose from the Ranch? Perhaps the Filet Mignon with blue cheese potatoes, spinach, a porcini mushroom ragout or the Short Ribs with horseradish, mashed potatoes, bacon, and green beans. Something from the ocean-salmon, trout, tuna, or sea bass? That sounded good also, but it had to be the Jumbo Scallops with peas, wild mushrooms, pearl onions, bacon and fiddlehead ferns, which were cooked to perfection.

I’d never tasted a fiddlehead fern before, they are the unfurled fronds of the fern, harvested young-quite unique.

I’d never tasted a fiddlehead fern before, they are the unfurled fronds of the fern, harvested young-quite unique. John’s selection was from the Farm section; a Braised Lamb Ricotta accompanied by potato ravioli, peas, carrots, onions and a braising broth-he cleaned his plate.

The creative new American cuisine of executive Chef Ryan Adams has finesse
inspired by a "farm to fork" philosophy and every dish was enjoyable, including exceptional twists. The emphasis is on rustic, flavorful, wood-fired cooking, done over a blend of fruitwood, oak and grapevine cuttings. Chef Ryan’s interest in the culinary arts began at the age of 5 when he helped his grandmother roll out cookie dough. At 15 he entered the restaurant profession and learned the basics of cooking and working in a professional kitchen. He earned his degree in nutrition and food science, choosing then to pursue more gastronomic education by enrolling at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. While living there, he trained in some of the top kitchens in the city. After graduating he relocated to Maui to work as the sous chef at David paul’s Lahaina Grill. Ryan continued to work with and cook for prominent chefs, gaining much of his invaluable experience through the Kea Lani’s Grand Chefs on Tour program.

In 1997 he returned to Orange County and was hired as the sous chef for the newly opened Citrus City Grille in Old Town Orange and was quickly promoted to executive chef. Later that year he was hired as the sous chef, to open French 75 in Laguna Beach. In just one year with David Wilhelm’s Culinary Adventures (owner of French 75), he was promoted to corporate chef, and retained that position for 11 years. After Culinary Adventures dissolved in 2008, Ryan decided to stay on as executive chef of Sorrento Grille which was sold to new owners at that time.

The magical mixologist Stanton Skallerud was also on duty and he told me that he puts love in every drink he makes. His special recipe for the Key Lime pie Martini (see sidebar) is one of my all-time favorites-it was orgasmic and I definitely felt the love. John capped the evening with a port Chateau Felice, Late Harvest Zinfandel 2008. The desserts were decadent; we sampled the heavenly Crème Brulee French Toast; consisting of bananas foster, salty caramel ice cream-to die for! If you prefer chocolate and coffee, you can get your freak on with the Double Chocolate Ganache Torte com- posed of espresso crème anglaise and caramel sauce, I promise you will be bouncing off the walls . . . in a good way!

Late Night pub & Grub happens on Friday and Saturday nights from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., with small plates starting at $3, micro brews for $4 and house wines for $7. If you’re attending The pageant of the Masters, they have a prix fixe menu for $45 from 5:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. until the end of the pageant. Sorrento Grille is open nightly at 5:00 p.m. and is located at; 370 Glenneyre, Laguna Beach. Reservations: 949.494.8686 or sorrento- grille.com

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