Casual Refinement – Studio

Studio 2An Evening at Studio – Montage, Laguna Beach

By Jesse Stirling

Executive Chef Craig Strong moved from Pasadena, California to Laguna Beach less than a year ago. After many years at the Ritz-Carlton, the move to Studio at Montage, Laguna Beach inspired this rising culinary superstar to spread his creative wings. “The days of fine dining with stiff service and worrying about which fork to use are over,” explains Chef Strong. “Modern food is going to a place of professionalism, but relaxed fun.”Studio 6

After walking through the opulent Montage hotel lobby and surrounding gardens overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the restaurant itself feels low-key and breezy. This aura of casual refinement permeates the essence of Studio. The whole experience is delightfully surreal, like walking into one of those charming Laguna Beach watercolor paintings, strolling past the palm trees and right through the front door of an elegant coastal cottage.

Inside, the magic happens. Romance fills the air. The light level is a warm glow, the music ambient, server-to-guest ratio high and the noise level low. Everything you touch is the best quality: the linens, the china, Ridel stemware. Even though the vibe is casual, people appear dressy and chic. A cozy, welcoming atmosphere dominates. Not one chair is empty.

Our 12-course meal features progressive California cuisine. Chef Strong leans in and whispers, “I get to play around with a team of totally dedicated people. I love what I do. I want to share it with you.”

A series of one-bite appetizers starts with a caviar taco, consisting of crème fresh, chives, shallots and caviar folded into a delicate crepe no bigger than a fifty-cent piece. “Pick it up with your hand, it’s edible art!” Chef Strong encourages us. Next is the Crab Cone. A sheet of dried, hand- wrapped pineapple serves as a mini-cone, housing a delightful “scoop” of crab mixed with vanilla sauce. The juxtaposition of tastes and unorthodox presentation tricks the brain. Even the breadbasket is spectacular, with black olive, cranberry walnut, sourdough and house made brioche. The warm brioche, spread with lightly salted organic butter, is like a dessert in itself.

Almost impossibly, the quality of the drinks is on par with the food. We segue from cocktails with names like the Salty Dog and the Dutch Cooler to complex French wine. “100% sauvignon blanc, originating from the playgrounds of Royalty” our sommelier quips. A 1998 Hermitage, La Cuvèe des Miaux, Rhone, France is spectacularly balanced and brings the dining experience to yet another level.

Back to the meal. We dive into duck prosciutto, chipotle-cured for two weeks, served with an Asian pear ginger salad Studio 8containing, foie gras mousse, cashews and raisins, drizzled with a blood orange sauce.

Have you ever sipped warm soup out of a hallowed out eggshell? Few dining experiences are as extravagant and decadent. Three-layered lobster bisque, accompanied by a lobster spring roll, comprises a dish named Humpty Dumpty. The name foreshadows events to come, as one of the servers accidentally tips the dish, causing the delicate egg to fall and soup to spill. In perhaps his finest and most telling moment, Chef Strong and his team retreat to the kitchen, reemerging 30 seconds later, a new Humpty Dumpty in hand. “I know from experience to always have an extra one in waiting,” smiles Chef Strong.

The next few courses arrive in rapid fire: fresh Maine Diver sea scallops and parsnip fettuccine. (Seriously, who puts vegetables through a pasta maker? Genius.) Jidori chicken and mushroom fricassèe are next, followed by veal tenderloin, flavored with whole grain mustard sauce. We are playing in culinary themes approaching a Salvador Dali level of food art.

As the main dish arrives, we exchange curious glances. We haven’t had the entrée yet? Do we have any room left? Yet the moment we catch a whiff of the succulent lamb we somehow get hungry all over again. Ravenous. Marinated for one week in olive oil and other herbs, the lamb is then plated with oven-dried tomato, bacon, artichokes, tarbais white beans, tuscan cabbage, lamb jus and hot tomato gel. We are now in dinner nirvana.

To finish with something sweet, we enjoy warm strawberry shortcake with coconut meringue crust, accompanied with strawberry consommé and coconut sorbet. This light, refreshing dish is followed by an array of daring taste combinations resulting in huge dessert wins.

As the meal concludes, Chef Strong invites us to tour the open kitchen and check out the prestigious 12-person Chef’s Table. This exclusive space provides the public with an opportunity to experience the preparation, interact with the chef, and receive a dining experience tailored to your every whim.

What’s next for Chef Strong?

“What’s next depends on the season, the new ingredients, ways to give the guests more fun. Summer brings terrific tomatoes, flowering pea shoots, cute little radishes. I try to deliver enough tweaks, tricks and surprises to be fresh and fun.” And with that, he’s off, mingling with the crowd, greeting every table. Grumpy, reclusive chefs, take note: the bar has been raised.

Articulate, polished, young and charismatic, Craig Strong is not just a chef. He’s a magician, a kitchen visionary, half-chemist, half-artist, 100% daring culinary genius. We deem him “Chef 2.0,” a new breed of food engineer, with cover boy good looks and a passion you can feel. He’s found a home at Studio, producing dishes that push new ground, please the eye and warm the palette.