Upon entering Starfish - the latest venture for local Laguna Beach resident and business owner, Nancy Wilhelm - I zone out and escape from busy Pacific Coast Highway where the cacophony of street cars buzz in my brain and the dusty funk of engine exhaust wafts through my nostrils. As I’m escorted past the hostess cubicle to my table, I find myself engulfed in a warm Shangri la and instantly my perception shifts from frenzied to peaceful-exotic as I anticipate the upcoming continental feast.
For her encore Nancy has succeeded in creating another alluring dining establishment with Starfish Asian Coastal Cuisine. Le Cordon Bleu graduate Chef Jarvis Yuan - a native San Franciscan reared by Taiwanese parents - is credited for confidently expediting dishes with his talented kitchen staff. Having spent many days of his childhood hanging out in his family’s many restaurants, Chef Jarvis confidently transports flavors from Southeast Asia to south Laguna Beach.
The setting of avant garde Asian inspired décor: thick padded-jade colored banquettes, shiny black lacquer furniture and Asian antiques, rekindles my memory of the wonderful dining establishments I visited in Southeast Asia. For an instant I consider a surreptitious pinch to my arm. Am I merely just minutes away from my home? Immediately I notice the pretty emerald colored glass tiles glistening from the horseshoe shaped bar where attractive mixologists cater to thirsty and equally attractive bar patrons. I gently shake the marbles in my dome grounding myself back to reality. A little voice in my brain confirms that I am in Laguna Beach and advises me to sit back against the comfy banquette and enjoy the culinary adventure.
Ahi poke, Korean style tacos, Vietnamese pho, garlic noodles and whole Asian style fish are merely a sampling of the many dishes I have enjoyed at Starfish. And that does not include the fabulous cocktails and dessert. I’m not quite sure where to begin!
Sichuan Yu Sang small Japanese eggplant is slow braised to tender perfection with house made sambal – Asian spicy chili sauce. I could have devoured this whole side dish alone had I not been forced to share with my dining comrades. A slow braising method reveals the rich deep purple hue of the eggplant and the sweet-salty and spicy combo triggered my greedy craving for more!
Starfish poke - small chunks of yellow fin tuna, crunchy pine nuts, micro shiso and tobiko caviar - is tossed with a hint of truffle oil and served with a side of taro chips. Traditional sesame oil does not over power this dish and the woodsy truffle oil blended with aromatic tiny shiso leaves is a nice gourmet touch.
The highlight of my dining experience at Starfish was the “fish of the day.” My dining group and I decided on the wok braised method. After all, woks are essential cookware in an Asian kitchen – it would have been sacrilegious not to eat wok fried fish. Choy sum (inner core of bok choy) cabbage, sweet Thai basil, black bean sauce, bits of sweet garlic and bright red Thai chilis are generously ladled over a whole slightly-crispy fish. In an interesting, non-traditional presentation, the fish seemed to “stand on its own” as it was methodically placed in a sculptured u-shape form on the plate. One of the servers offered to “filet” the fish and, needless-to-say, the server could use a little more experience filleting whole fish. But the flavor was lovely and I would not hesitate to order this dish upon my next visit to Starfish.
My first experience with the garlic noodles left me feeling less than satisfied due to the oil which had coagulated at the roof of my palate. Alas, never give up…every restaurant deserves another chance. Upon my third trip to Starfish, I ordered the wild mushroom garlic noodles. Third time was a charm as these noodles were prepared well with a blend of three types of exotic mushrooms, sweet basil and delicate noodles. One taste confirmed the over- dressing of oil problem had been solved although my dining partner complained that the ratio of noodles to veggies seemed a bit out of balance – he would have liked more veggies in the over abundant noodle mound.
I would gladly visit Sarfish solely to drink the specialty cocktails. A groovy libation is the Citrus Brynner made with Hangar One Citron Vodka, elder flower liqueur, white wine, grapefruit bitters and lemongrass. As I sip my refreshing aperitif, I remind myself of the medicinal benefit of lemongrass being a gentle degestivo and I take root looking forward to my upcoming dessert.
Those in the know appreciate my love for all things coconut – especially coconut cuisine! Therefore, at the conclusion of my savory meal it was imperative that I had my very own order of coconut panna cotta. To my delight I was served an over-sized portion of Bavarian cream layered with essence of exotic passion fruit. Although the consistency was a bit gelatinous, the flavors and creativity of this dessert was wonderful. I closed my eyes and savored each layer separately. As I enjoyed each individual flavor again I was reminded that Nancy, along with Chef Jarvis, had succeeded in transporting me – even for a brief repast – through the tastes, sights and smells of Asia at Starfish. Bravo!
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Spirits, Beer & Wine