Laguna Beach resident Craig Strong launched his culinary career when he was 15, but got serious about it when he enrolled in culinary school at age 18 and learned the basics of classic French cooking. He spent time in Spain soaking up the culture, and the cuisine, then worked for the Ritz Carlton company for 15 years before he became the Chef at Studio Restaurant, the high-end dining establishment at the Montage in Laguna Beach.
“Both hotels have incredible training programs and great infrastructure, and they both offer a very high luxury experience,” Chef Strong told me when we sat down to talk about his new venture, Ocean at Main, in downtown Laguna Beach.
“They also put an emphasis on guest relations and customer service. Those are the biggest takeaway points to me. It doesn’t really matter if you have a high check average or low, people want to be taken care of in the spirit of hospitality. The many years of working at those hotels has ingrained that into me. So we wanted to create a great neighborhood restaurant that has the attention to detail and the quality you would expect from my pedigree at a price point that people can enjoy much more regularly. The approachability, the way that we bring things to life here at Ocean at Main, is a lot more inviting and accessible.”
Inviting and accessible are the key ingredients that have made Ocean at Main a success since it opened last October. The restaurant is in a 1940s-era building designed by Aubrey St. Clair that once housed Laguna Federal Savings and Loan but has been re-envisioned by Laguna-based Laurie Alter of Tuvalu Home.
Wood beamed ceilings, oversized wrought iron chandeliers, custom upholstered chairs and colorful artwork blend with accent colors of soft grey, ocean blue, sea glass and sea foam. Dining is available inside or on the intimate outdoor covered patio with its original fountain and murals created by Laguna Beach artist Boris Buzan.
But let’s talk about the food. I’ve dined here for dinner, for lunch with friends, and most recently for Saturday brunch. Each time I came away with renewed enthusiasm and appreciation for Chef Strong’s cuisine, and his staff’s hospitality.
“I went from working the best job I have ever had to the next best job,” Chef Strong said with a smile. “It’s opened the door to being able to express myself in a different way that I have not been able to do at a dinner-only restaurant. I love cooking lunch and brunch. I’m not just a fine dining chef, I have a whole repertoire of many other dishes that I am super excited about but have never been able to cook. It’s another side of who I am. I put the same passion into pizza that I do in to any of the refined dishes.”
Yes, Chef Strong has a pizza oven and is making some superb pies, from simple sundried tomato with burrata and arugula to house made turkey bolognese sausage pizza with broccoli florets and bocconcini.
“I love pizza, I eat it every day,” admitted Chef Strong, who said he brought in a pizza expert to help him craft perfect pizza recipes. “We use imported flour from Italy, we use a really clean water that actually changes the dough. People are savvy about their eggs, the way they like their meat cooked, and their pizza. We have had a great response to our pizza.”
And a great response to other menu items. Among my favorites: lobster fettuccini with truffle butter that is dazzling to the eye and the palate, and the oxtail kale risotto which is not only delicious, it’s a wicked green color.
“You eat with your eyes, so the first impression is important,” acknowledged Chef Strong. “The fettuccini looks appetizing and beautiful. People expect that with the artistry in how things are plated, and it needs to be delicious. That is the backbone of me going to a French culinary school. The French are great at extracting flavor. I have taken that technique and woven in some California dishes. Californians want it to look beautiful, they want it to be very fresh and healthy, so I am doing healthy versions of great French classics.”
Chef Strong recently launched a weekend brunch menu that is packed with familiar dishes yet with that Strong twist.
“The restaurant is indoor-outdoor, it feels like it belongs in Southern California, the artwork is unique, this has a nice character to it—what a nice place to do brunch,” said Chef Strong. “So many people asked us to do brunch , and I had some brunch dishes up my sleeve, so we do it on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.”
I had brunch there last week and sampled three dishes, all of which I would go back for again and again: the chilaquiles with Chef Strong’s secret salsa fuerte, Scarlet’s five-spice pancakes with fruit (Chef Strong’s daughter is named Scarlet), and French toast with a So Cal twist.
“The French toast is brioche that is churroesque, with a cinnamon sugar dusting and a batter that has vanilla bean and Grand Marnier. The pancakes are a blend of spice including cinnamon, star anise, clove, all spice—a typical Chinese blend. I make them every Saturday for my daughter Scarlet. She is 6 and knows when it’s Saturday.”
The chilaquiles come with a drizzling of Chef Strong’s homemade salsa fuerte (fuerte means strong in Spanish), which is so good I asked him if he ever considered selling it. He responded by taking out his cell phone and showing me his rendering for the salsa label.
“I’m not far along, but far enough that I have created a label,” he told me. “It’s fun but I am serious about it. Whether it’s hot sauce or pancakes, you put your heart and passion into everything you touch. That is the definition of being a chef to me. Chef as a title on your jacket means nothing, it’s an oath to do your best, it’s a commitment to the industry and to our guests that you promise to do your best.”
“The dishes are just signature enough so it feels like comfort food but executed from a high level standpoint,” he added. “We don’t want to do something weird, but innovative and creative so that the average person can identify with it easily and think that is something unique they have not had before. Back it up with great service and top it off with good value, and you have a recipe for success.”
Ocean at Main is open daily for lunch and dinner, and weekends for brunch. The restaurant is located steps from Laguna’s main beach on Ocean Avenue. For more information, visit OceanAtMain.com.