by Jamie Gwen | Riviera Orange County
Just a few blocks up from the sand in Laguna, in the space that once housed the famed Five Feet, the beach meets NYC at a restaurant named Broadway by Amar Santana. The vibe: sexy and lively. The food and drink: sublime. But that stands to reason because partner and Executive Chef Amar Santana ranks high among the slew of young talents who are delivering the goods to food lovers in O.C. And he’s no newbie to the scene. A CIA grad and former Charlie Palmer apprentice (he’s done time in a myriad of the celeb chef’s restaurants)—and with tenure at Aureole New York to boot—he’s earned his stripes and is now enjoying his star power.
I paid my most recent visit on a Sunday night. (I’ve dined here on three occasions, and each time the place has been buzzing.) The spot was once again full, and Santana was in the house. Nothing says, “I care about my food” more than a chef behind the line on a Sunday night. And nothing beats a cocktail at the start of an evening of culinary indulgence—especially here, where the mixology trend is alive and kicking with creative takes on the classics. Take Broadway’s Moscow Mule, for example. It’s a well-proportioned version served in a copper mug. And the Myan Eyes concoction is an energizing mix of tequila, honey liqueur, and tangerine and lime juices that rouses the palate with a hint of jalapeño. I do have one small gripe, however: During my last visit, I ordered a vodka on the rocks, but it arrived in a small juice glass. Previously, my drink had been more generously poured in a low-ball glass, which fits my wishes for a pre-meal aperitif.
Breadsticks arrived at the table promptly, but they were no match to the bread basket that followed, accompanied by a small slate topped with pats of very cold butter—the chef’s preference. Santana, it turns out, likes the contrast of hard butter on soft bread. I like the mouth feel about 10 minutes later, when the gift that comes from Vermont cows begins to soften and the flavors release. Nevertheless, it’s interesting how a single ingredient can define aspects of a meal—and at Broadway, the butter does just that. It screams quality.
We began our night with two starters. Up first: the roasted heirloom beet salad—a Picasso-like mosaic of red and yellow root vegetables, still firm to the tooth but tender enough to capture their farm-fresh essence. Each bite was bathed with fresh burrata (the ricotta and mozzarella combo proves there’s a cheese god), and hazelnuts added a textural crunch that cut through the richness of the fromage, leaving a toasty finish. But our second appetizer should not be missed: Santana’s signature roasted bone marrow, an elevated interpretation of just one of the dishes that made him famous at Charlie Palmer. Fatty chubs of marrow are roasted to perfection and paired with salty anchovies—the consummate counterpoint to cut through the fat. A braised oxtail marmalade could be the best thing on the plate, but it tastes the most heavenly layered on the marrow when it coats the grilled sourdough—and the flavors are heightened by a sprinkling of gray salt. The only downside is the bread’s sesame seed crust—an unnecessary addition that distracted from the nirvana.
On a previous visit, the evening’s special of Kumamoto oysters acted as our palate teaser. Two of the molluscs are wrapped in phyllo shreds, fried and placed on a pickled fennel relish with mustard seeds and capers. (Santana loves all things pickled.) A third oyster—this one raw—is dressed with a sparkling granita scented with ossetra. We continued with slow-braised octopus à la plancha—a divine creation of sous vide tentacles that are finished on the flattop for a tasty char, dotted with romesco sauce and haloed with crisp potato strings. But the pork belly I’ve had twice now was better on my first try. The succulence was missing the second time around—it was delivered a bit dry.
When it was time for our main course, we ordered a table of specialties with domestic wines that would please even the most discriminating oenophile. The toasted barley risotto is heaven in a vegetarian bowl, with layers of flavor from the fluffy grain, crispy mushrooms, fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano and micro sorrel that danced together on my tongue. A slow-poached egg from the sous vide machine envelops the risotto, oozing richness into every bite.
Next: the pan-roasted Mary’s chicken. (This dish’s poultry comes from a Fresno farm that humanely raises organic, antibiotic-free birds, and you can taste the difference.) The entrée offers a trio of treats: A fried leg is sinfully cooked confit-style; the breast is covered with a crispy skin; and those are accompanied by a braised thigh (the only component of the plate that left something to be desired). Trumpet mushrooms and Parmesan polenta accent the game well, and shishito peppers make a prize garnish. To take us over the top, the Berkshire pork chop was a stellar choice (and has been each visit). Black garlic adds a savory, umami profile, while pear admits inherent sweetness. The braised pork cheeks are the primo part of the dish, and I hope we’ll see them on the sides menu soon.
And while we’re on the subject of sides, the Brussels sprouts are a must-have. They’re dropped in a deep fryer for just a few seconds to achieve a crisp, al dente texture. Chinese sausage—which turns into a kind of pork candy after it’s fried—adds aromatics to the once-despised veggie. Drowned (but in a good way) with Santana’s Broadway Sauce—a sweet glaze made from sugar, vinegar and chopped chiles—dresses the bowl of bliss. And a dash of cilantro adds just the right degree of herbaciousness. Fabulously fantastic.
As the night’s finale approached, I found myself dreaming of the moments earlier, when that bowl of Brussels was full. And, sadly, dessert was a
bit of a disappointment. (Since Santana’s talents are widely applied at the stove, I believe a pastry pro would provide a nice touch.) The panna cotta was the only sweet that satiated, with its berry sorbet and crispy beads of cocoa. It’s a light finish to a stellar meal.
A closing tip: Cop a squat at the chef’s counter. You can watch the culinary team create the best value in the house—an $85 tasting menu with five courses of epicurean pleasure. But no matter where you sit, you’re in for an encore-worthy eve of dining entertainment, guaranteed.