Entering Starfish, the latest venture for local Laguna Beach resident and business owner Nancy Wilhelm, one entirely escapes from busy Coast Highway’s cacophony of cars and summer trolleys and engine exhaust. 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 as I anticipate the upcoming 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 executing dishes with a talented kitchen staff. Having spent part of his childhood hanging out in his family’s many restaurants, Chef Jarvis confidently transports flavors from Southeast Asia to south Laguna Beach.
The avant garde Asian inspired décor of thick-padded, jade-colored banquettes, black lacquer furniture and Asian antiques rekindles my memory of wonderful dining establishments in Southeast Asia. Am I merely just minutes away from my home? Pretty emerald colored glass tiles glisten from the horseshoe shaped bar where easy-on-the-eye mixologists cater to thirsty and equally attractive bar patrons. A little voice in my brain advises me to sit back 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.
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 overpower this dish and the woodsy truffle oil blended with aromatic tiny shiso leaves is a nice gourmet touch.
The highlight of my dining experience was the “fish of the day.” My dining group 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, who offered to “filet” the fish, could use a little more experience, but the flavor was lovely and I would not hesitate to order this dish again.
My first experience with the garlic noodles left me feeling less than satisfied due to the oil, which coagulated in my mouth. 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 Starfish 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. My refreshing aperitif reminded me of the medicinal benefit of lemongrass, a gentle digestivo, while I looked forward to my upcoming dessert.
Those in the know appreciate my love for all things coconut. 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 through the tastes, sights and smells of Asia.
Starfish Asian Coastal Cuisine, 30832 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (949) 715-9200, open daily 4 p.m.