We’ve been anxious for Tabu Grille’s owner, Nancy Wilhelm, to open her newest Laguna Beach venture, Starfish, and we recently had the opportunity to stop in for drinks and appetizers. Starfish occupies the same space that was formerly home to China Bistro One in Albertson’s Plaza at 30832 Coast Hwy, across from the Montage. This is what’s usually called a “strip mall,” which made us even more anxious to see what Nancy could possibly have done with the space to make it anything more than what it has always been—which is ordinary. We were not just pleasantly surprised, but basically in awe of the transformation into an upscale, very untraditional Asian fusion concept. The restaurant space is spectacular, with high open beam ceilings, soft lighting, and minimal intrusion from the very not-so-extraordinary world just outside the door. The bar is the center of attention, which we like. Tables line one wall across from the bar and high-top banquettes line the other. If you’re not into the bar scene—and it is very much the scene from the moment you enter—there is additional seating away from the bar area at the back of the room. The design and décor of Starfish would be impressive anywhere, but it is especially impressive when you realize where it is, and what the space was before it became remarkable. Anyway, you get the idea. We were visually impressed.
But what about the food? Well, the first thing you need to know is that this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a typical Chinese restaurant. Don’t come here expecting to order Chow Mein and Sweet and Sour Pork. According to the website Your Restaurant Connection, the Starfish menu features "AmerAsian" cuisine, highlighted with ingredients from the mysterious and magical countries of Thailand, Vietnam, China, Korea, and India. Delightfully unpredictable, the menu will pleasure your palate with tastes of Ginger, Lemon Grass, Thai Basil, Jasmine, Daikon, curries and soy sauces. Summer rolls, pho, udon and soba noodles, Bhutanese rice, wok sauté, ribs and other chef's expressions of American renditions of classic Asian cuisine will be served.”
In short, the menu is highly eclectic and unexpected, but with a great price point – the highest price item on the menu is a whole side of Slow Cooked Five Spice Baby Back Ribs - $32. Wanting to sample a good cross-section of appetizers, we had the Saigon Spring Rolls - $9, Lemongrass Fillet - $14, Green Curry Chicken - $10, and Madras Curried Roast Pork - $9. All were beautifully served and delicious. We’ll be returning soon to try some of the “Mains,” perhaps the Princess Prawns - $18, Ginger Scallion Shaking Beef - $26, or the Wok Thai Chicken - $17.
The Starfish drink menu is as exotic as the food menu, listing $12 cocktails with names like Buddha’s Kiss, Yen & Yang, and the Red Lotus, which contains prosecco, Pama pomegranate liqueur, blood orange bitters, and hibiscus syrup. The bar is well stocked for just about any taste. With the help of our very efficient and attentive server, we created our own Lemongrass Martini, which was made with their house-infused lemongrass simple syrup, and was smooth and delicious.
Our bottom line for Starfish – An unbelievably beautiful bar and restaurant in an unlikely location with excellent service, an eclectic and exotic menu, delicious food and drink, and a price point that won’t drain your pocketbook. And best of all, it’s just ½ mile south of Casa Laguna – perhaps too far for most to walk, but certainly close enough for a really inexpensive cab ride.