Review: Stars Shine on Broadway

by Brad A. Johnson | Orange County Register

It’s dark and foggy the first time I visit Broadway in downtown Laguna Beach. The restaurant’s vertical neon sign cuts through murky haze, letting me know I’m in the right place. A small crowd is huddled on the sidewalk beneath the blue neon glow. My party is already seated, so I slip past the hostess and wiggle my way toward the back of the dining room. I squeeze past a throng of singles at the bar, where everyone seems to be holding a drink of a different shape and color. I see old-fashioned, coupe-style cocktail glasses and frosty copper cups, and then I do a double-take to make sure my eyes aren’t playing tricks on me. Yes, the bartender is indeed pouring some sort of potion into a bottle filled with smoke. I reach the table just as my guests are ordering their first round – drinks with names like Mole Fashioned, Chef’s Killjoy and The K12.

“What are you getting?” I ask The Lawyer. “It’s got tequila and something, and something else,” he says. Everyone’s talking at once, and I can’t quite hear him over the din. “The waiter says it’s amazing,” he adds. So I order the same.

Opened by a former chef and general manager of Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s, Broadway is a festive restaurant that walks a fine line between proper upscale dining and casual, boisterous gastropub. It’s a long, narrow restaurant with high ceilings, arched steel rafters, cinderblock walls and reclaimed wood. Edison bulbs dangle from long wires, and larger-than-life paintings from Laguna artist Andrew Myers dominate the wall that runs the length of the room. Chairs are wide and comfortable. The kitchen is on display in the center of the restaurant, and some of the best seats in the house are the six stools at the chef’s counter, directly in front of the action where flames lick up from the grill, steam billows from pots, pans clank against the stove and chefs in black jackets maneuver among the fire and sharp knives like a well-choreographed ballet. Managing partner Ahmed Labbate glides through the room, chatting up the regulars and constantly lending a hand to the servers, smiling all the while.

Our table is heaped with appetizers – a crock of bacon-wrapped dates, a long rectangular platter carrying raw hamachi and avocado ice cream with a citrus miso dressing, a large plate completely covered with shaved Serrano ham and pieces of toast that have been rubbed with fresh tomatoes, a slab of crisp pork belly luxuriating in a bed of French lentils, a tureen of steamed mussels heady with the pungency of chorizo and smoked paprika, and a bowl filled with snowy white calamari so astonishingly tender we’re all wondering if it’s possible that we’ve been given the wrong dish. It’s Tuesday, which is the only night when chef/partner Amar Santana serves his small-plates menu. I’ll later come to find out that some of these dishes also show up on the regular menu throughout the week, but on Tuesdays the selection is twice as extensive.

But even on Tuesdays, a full roster of entrees is offered. Over the course of my visits, I’ve enjoyed all but one of the entrees. If pressed to pick a favorite, I’ll flip a coin for either the duck or the scallops. The scallops, served atop squid-ink risotto, are the size of tangerines, and they’ve been beautifully caramelized around the edges, and when I cut into them, they’re still milky soft inside. The risotto is perfect, too. Each grain of rice holds firmly onto its integrity, so impossibly creamy yet still properly toothsome.

The duck comes in three layers. The main component is the breast, cooked to a perfectly velvety consistency. It’s served atop a smattering of soft, white beans, almost like a deconstructed cassoulet, with almost white duck sausages. It’s not until I’m scooping a spoonful of the beans that I discover the confit, tender lumps of which are hidden underneath. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed duck this much.

Several of the entrees entail two or three variations of the protein like that. The chicken comes two ways: a perfectly voluptuous breast and an intricately layered Moroccan-inspired bastilla, a savory meat pie in which braised dark meat of chicken is folded together with spices and nuts and wrapped in phyllo pastry. The plate is painted with a lush smear of prune purée, which serves as an appropriate condiment for the breast and the bastilla.

I’ve enjoyed wonderful fish here, too. Mediterranean sea bass is served whole, but with the bones magically removed. And even better is a large hunk of ocean trout, a pinkish-orange, jewel-tone fish with a naturally sweet profile. At some point along the way, this one’s been smoked, and the aroma wafting from my plate reminds me of a campfire. It’s a perfect match for a luscious French-style pinot noir. Speaking of which, Broadway has one of the best pinot selections in Orange County – Pflender, Sea Smoke, Kosta Browne, Hitching Post, Cherry Pie, Domaine Louis Boillot, Domaine Serene … .

One night, just as we’re getting ready to think about dessert, we smell something burning. It’s intoxicating – a captivating, eerily seductive smoke. A waiter leans toward our table. “That’s the chocolate tart,” he says.

Well, technically, it’s a smoldering cinnamon stick, which is a garnish for the chocolate tart, along with cinnamon whipped cream and chipotle chili gelato. And it smells even better when it’s directly under my face. Almost as memorable but without the olfactory head-rush is an understated sundae made with salted caramel ice cream, salted peanuts and caramel popcorn.

That one entree I don’t enjoy is a bone-in rib-eye steak. Although substantial, the beef just isn’t tender. It tastes like choice-grade meat, not prime. It takes far more effort to chew than what I care to expend. And it’s on this same night that I see the service falter for my first and only time. Our waitress disappears for half an hour just as the restaurant has filled to capacity – and when we need her most. We eventually spot her behind the bar, where she’s pitching in to relieve the overwhelmed bartenders. Unfortunately, Labbate doesn’t appear to be working this night, and the other waiters just look the other way every time they pass our table. We feel abandoned and invisible. It’s a small but glaring glitch in what has otherwise been a thoroughly joyous romp.