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Locals Flock to New Wine Gallery

Nearly five months past its projected spring opening, Laguna Beach’s Wine Gallery Wine Bar & Kitchen finally opened its doors last week. If the early crowds prove an indicator, the delay only served to whet appetites for a new dining venue.

A so-called soft opening for locals drew a steady stream of customers early in the week before the official opening Thursday, Sept. 27. And by 7:30 p.m. on its first Friday night, enthusiastic patrons filled every one of the 40 or so seats in the establishment, which didn’t stop others from piling in, willingly accepting standing room status and sipping wine while waiting for a perch.

It’s a dream come true for Laguna Beach resident Chris Olsen, who opened the first Wine Gallery with his partner and childhood friend Jeff Schroeder in Corona del Mar. Since moving to Laguna 10 years ago, he kept looking for a second potential venue in his adopted hometown.

Olsen chalks up the opening delays to the complications of making a restaurant use out of a retail space, meeting requirements of the building, health and fire departments and alcoholic beverage control. At each turn, a new hurdle popped up, such as correcting a design flaw in the oven’s fire suppression system.

“I’m just excited to provide something new and different in town, and we’re just getting started,” said Olsen, admitting a sense of relief at finally opening the door. “I feel good to see the neighborhood support,” he added, referring to the turnout of locals and Woods Cove residents, able to walk in, literally.

While the Corona del Mar location began as a wine boutique that later added a tasting bar and a kitchen, the Laguna concept from the outset combines the food and wine experience. Olsen and Schroeder seek unusual and competitively-priced wines. Their menu boasts upwards of 100 selections by the bottle (priced from $35 to $150), 10 reds and 10 whites by the glass ($10-20), as well as two reds and two whites tapped from kegs into carafes.

For those who eschew fermented grapes, they offer six craft beers on tap. Meanwhile, Chef Josh Mason’s inspired cooking evokes the quality of comfort food with an adventurous edge. He promises new menus that accommodate seasonal changes as well as weekly or even daily tweaks.

Similarly, the ambiance mixes the energy of a hipster scene with the comfort of a neighborhood bar hangout. The elevated chairs and tables raise seated patrons nearly to eye level with the standing room crowd, which effectively maintains an inclusive environment rather than excluding patrons waiting to be seated.

A mix of patrons of varying ages last Friday created a vibe at once festive and familiar, a sort of “Cheers” with party shoes on.

Sit at the U-shaped marble bar, wide enough to easily allow sampling of multiple plates, if you feel like a chat with Olsen. Or chat up seasoned barman Mike G, a 20-year veteran of numerous local eateries including Star Fish, Lumberyard, and Hush, among others, who admitted he feels himself “putting down roots” at the Wine Gallery. Or sit at one of the tables for a more intimate experience, though a slew of servers will still stop by, as might Schroeder.

Food offerings include small plates ($10-15), larger plates ($17-24), wood-fired pizzas ($11-15), and mix-and-match plates of cheese, salami and bruschetta. Guests can choose the food to match their wine selection or vice-versa. Last Friday, a sliver of Pilota sheep’s milk cheese from the French Pyrenees was followed by seared scallops on a bed of spaetzle “hash” with roasted corn and a blood orange vinaigrette, the perfect note between homey and new. And the prime dry-aged culotte gave new meaning to “steak frites.”

Or one could split a pear and gorgonzola pizza with friends and decide to continue with a few small plates. Fish tacos? Heirloom tomato salad? The menu is small enough that patrons can expect attention to detail, yet varied enough to suit most palates.

And don’t skip dessert or forget to ask about specials omitted from the menu. These desserts offer a sweet finish to a savory meal, minus the overstuffing. They also show off Mason’s skills. Panna cotta in the wrong hands is glorified jello. Mason’s is so creamy, it’s a wonder it keeps its shape. The apple cider, salted caramel sauce provides the perfect counterpoint. A house-made olive oil ice-cream bar enrobed in a thin layer of dark Valrhrona chocolate managed to satisfy the sweet tooth without making it ache.

Olsen plans special wine-tasting flights and wine dinners. He also hopes to provide patio seating and is eyeing expansion to offer a larger selection of wines for retail purchase.

The Wine Gallery Wine Bar & Kitchen, 1833 S. Coast Highway, Suite 110, is open from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more info: 949-715-8744 or visit www.winegallerylaguna.com.

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