Earlier this month Chef Craig Strong closed his Ocean at Main restaurant in downtown Laguna Beach, citing the challenges of doing business in the culinary world.
Now, another Laguna restaurant is closing — but not for long.
Last week, Chef Azmin Ghahreman, CEO of Sapphire Culinary Group, sent an email to the media sharing an announcement about his Sapphire restaurant.
“This month marks 13 years of culinary excellence at Sapphire Laguna, where my team and I have made countless memories and created a special bond with so many guests, as well as with the beautiful community of Laguna Beach,” Ghahreman wrote. “I have made the difficult decision to transition ownership of Sapphire Laguna Restaurant and Pantry into the capable hands of restaurateur Russ Bendel.”
Bendel owns Vine Restaurant in San Clemente, Ironwood in Laguna Hills, and Olea in Newport Beach.
Ghahreman called him a respected restaurant industry veteran.
“[Bendel is] someone I know will build on the tradition of Sapphire Laguna Restaurant and Pantry,” the message from Ghahreman reads. “He will make minor enhancements and rename the restaurant Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook.”
He will be passing the torch to Bendel in early March, according to the statement. Ghahreman will focus his attention on Sapphire Culinary Group, including his Sapphire at School and Sapphire at Work programs, he confirmed. He also will be working on some “exciting new projects,” something he will share more information on publicly at a later date.
Ghahreman also thanked the guests who helped Sapphire Laguna “thrive” for more than a decade and encouraged diners to visit the restaurant when Bendel re-opens it in early April.
“This restaurant will always hold a very special place in my heart,” Ghahreman concluded.
I wrote about Ghahreman and his Sapphire at School program several years ago when he added Sage Hill in Newport Coast and Harbor Day in Corona del Mar to the list of schools enrolled in the program, which is overseen by doctors, dietitians, and other experts.
The menus, created by Ghahreman, are based on a Mediterranean diet and focus on healthy whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, herbs, and spices. The program offers servings of lean meats, all-natural poultry and eggs, hormone-free dairy products, and, in spare amounts, sweets such as homemade cookies.
Special attention is given to dietary restrictions, with menus available to accommodate celiac and diabetic requirements.
“My goal is simple: I want to have these students eat the way I would want my own children to eat,” Ghahreman, a father of four, said at the time. “When I originally set out to instill change by implementing the Sapphire at School program, I dreamed of the day when I would be providing students at nearly a dozen schools in the county with fresh, healthy meals designed to develop a lifetime of healthy eating habits.”
I applaud Ghahreman for continuing to focus on his school program. Proper nutrition is critical for kids of all ages, and he has a stellar background of creating and maintaining a healthy meals program.
But what of the Sapphire restaurant? I spoke to the new owner earlier this week about his plans. I was curious as to any cosmetic changes that might be made, as well as Bendel’s ideas for the expansive Sapphire patio (something he does not have at his other restaurants) and the adjoining Sapphire Pantry.
“The majority of everything will stay the same,” Bendel said. “It’s a gorgeous patio and you cannot beat the location, with plenty of parking behind the restaurant. We’ll continue to do everything Azmin has done.”
This means lunch and probably weekend brunch service (in addition to dinner), something Bendel’s other three restaurants currently do not offer.
“Our team wants to continue the success that Azmin has created,” Bendel stated.
Sapphire Pantry, next door to the restaurant, sells everything from sandwiches, soups and ready meals to coffee and scones, plus wines and beer. That will continue, Bendel confirmed.
In only seven years, Bendel has built a small restaurant empire. He acquired Vine in 2013, then built Ironwood in 2016. Olea opened at the end of 2017.
Several months ago, at a media gathering at Ironwood, Bendel hinted that he had something else in the works. Sapphire Laguna is the perfect spot to give Bendel a culinary coastal quartet of restaurants.
“We are thrilled,” Bendel admitted. “It’s literally right in our backyard. It’s the perfect next step for us.”
Once Sapphire reopens in April under Bendel’s guidance, I’ll report back on the cuisine and any updates to the restaurant. If it’s anything like his other three restaurants, and menus, expect a superb dining experience.