Charlie Palmer lost a good chef in Amar Santana, but to know the guy’s upward career path is to have anticipated his inevitable departure. Santana began cooking at 16 in New York, went to the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park on a full scholarship and got hired after graduation by Palmer. Santana quickly worked himself up the ladder at his mentor’s restaurants in New York, Reno and Dallas, culminating with his becoming the inaugural executive chef at Charlie Palmer’s in Bloomingdale’s South Coast Plaza when it opened in 2008.
Now, freshly weaned off Palmer’s empire, Santana has opened his own place in Laguna Beach. His Broadway is a hat tip to Santana’s old stomping grounds, but aside from the paintings of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline, there’s nothing overtly New York about the place. It’s decidedly beach-y, with light flooding from the openings in the roof and not one tablecloth in sight. And yet you feel Charlie Palmer’s DNA and influence in the details, such as the plush-backed chairs, even as most of Santana’s customers are dressed down in flip-flops. Broadway is what a Charlie Palmer restaurant would look like if you stripped off the outer layers of pomp, leaving only its muscle, brain and heart.
At Charlie Palmer’s, you are never meant to see the man behind the curtain. At Broadway, Santana and crew are the main attraction. The kitchen abuts the bar and is on full display. Wherever you sit, you get a glimpse of the man as he peels, sautés, salts, and directs his cast and crew with the cool confidence of a seasoned pro. He’s the consummate overachiever: Not only does he put out breadsticks at each table, but he also has a server offering three kinds of rolls from a basket wide enough for a load of laundry. Santana’s terrine of foie gras—condensed into a thin line on the plate and garnished with bursts of flora and color—has already become the quintessential food-porn shot that tells you Santana’s still cooking Charlie Palmer-level cuisine.
Those who are familiar with Santana’s bio should also know of his passion for charcuterie. An impressive sampler platter heads the appetizer list, joining a dish of scallops perched atop a tangy, bright-yellow sea urchin risotto, whose only fault is it fills you up too quickly. Because of this, it may be better to consider the scallops as your main meal and forgo anything else. Pick it over a main course of butter-poached chicken—a nicely cooked breast playing well with some Brussels sprouts and Hen of the Woods mushrooms—that’s still somehow not representative of Santana’s true talent.
The best way to eat at Broadway is to stick with the small plates. It’s here where Santana cuts loose and reveals his knowledge what works and what doesn’t. His Kobe beef sliders don’t seem as juicy as when he made them at Charlie Palmer’s, but the dish of fried Brussels sprouts with Chinese sausage is revelatory. Redolent of full-mouthed complexity, with a sweet-and-sourness that’s never too cloying, this veggie side dish humbles even Santana’s elegant chicken-liver mousse. The mousse is, by the way, wonderful: light, frothy, insulated by a layer of aspic, and decorated with pickled onions and potato chips until you scoop it up from its jar and onto grilled bread.
Even better is the roasted bone marrow, for which an oversized, pale-white club is bifurcated lengthwise to expose blubbery insides. It’s important to note that the portion here is easily twice the amount Marche Moderne and Brasserie Pascal serve. And while Santana crusts the exposed face with breadcrumbs before cooking and finishes the top with marinated anchovies, this marrow actually feels lighter than those of Broadway’s French counterparts. You almost think you’re eating something healthy, even as the grease you dab from your lips indicates otherwise.
For now, the service, while attentive (I never had to ask for a refill on water or request more bread), can be a bit harried, not yet as choreographed or refined as that at Santana’s mentor’s. But as the front-of-the-house staff settles into a comfy groove, perhaps it need only look at Santana himself: He’s already there.