Sometimes, the most amazing things are the things that surround you. This can be said about a particular 80-year old annual tradition in Laguna Beach. Something that has taken place every summer since I’ve been alive, and it’s literally in my backyard, and yet, I’d never been before. My husband, who moved to Southern California 3+ years ago had heard about this tradition, but until we saw an ad on TV a couple of weeks ago, had never mentioned having a desire to go. But then we saw the ad, looked up tickets, and next thing you know, the following weekend we were going to see what all the hoopla was all about. What is this tradition, you ask? It’s the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach. Situated in an intimate outdoor amphitheater at the Festival of the Arts, just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, this nightly summertime ritual of making art come to life in a form of living art, has been going on for 80 years now. While I’d always heard of it, I’d never been before. And now that I’ve been, it blew my mind away at how spectacular the “performance” was, and how creative and imaginative the creators of the show are. It’s a spectacle to behold, and if you ever find yourself in Orange County during the summer months, truly something that should be experienced in person.
However, as this is a nighttime show, before we could get to the show, there was a little matter of dinner! I told my husband that since he was the one that came up with the idea to go see the Pageant that he could come up with a dinner idea. In the afternoon, on the day we were going to see the Pageant, my husband told me he found a place he wanted to try out. He said that it was a restaurant close to the Pageant that served American cuisine and small plates. For him, he said he was sold with the idea of small plates because it meant the ability to try a bunch of different items. As this was his evening, I went with it. Turns out, it was the best idea ever! The restaurant we dined at is called Watermarc, right on Pacific Coast Highway, in a small restaurant facing West out towards the Pacific Ocean. The word watermark is used to describe a mark showing the greatest height. Using a play on watermark, this restaurant, Watermarc, defines a “dining experience at its greatest height.” A bold statement for a restaurant to live up to. The restaurant is the brainchild of chef and owner Marc Cohen, who is a noted restaurateur with several other restaurants located in Orange County. Watermarc has the distinction of being a casual and comfortable bistro with an eclectic mix of modern cuisine that is as appealing to the eye as it is to the taste buds.
After we sat down and ordered our drinks, we were presented with the traditional bread and butter, but at the Watermarc it was completely untraditional. First off, their loaf of bread, a crusty French bread, was served as a small loaf hot out of the oven in a paper bag with the Watermarc name and logo on it! How original is that. And the butter wasn’t just plain whipped butter, it was butter infused with some other ingredients including something that was purple that turned the butter into a nice light purple color. The butter was tasty and creamy and went perfectly with the hot bread. But, we didn’t have much time to enjoy the bread as the small grazing plates we ordered started rolling out immediately!
What I loved about Watermarc is that they had a large collection of small grazing plates, essentially tapas, where the serving size was small enough that it was appetizer or small bites size. And, since we arrived at the restaurant early enough in the evening, it was still Happy Hour, which meant that we got a discount on our grazing plates! Score! My husband and I had decided that what we’d do is order a bunch of small grazing plates rather than ordering large plates so that we could sample a bunch of food. Because we ordered in this manner, our waiter suggested that what he’d do was bring out our soup starter and the cold plates first, and then follow that up with all of the hot plates. This worked out really well for us.
First up, was the soup that I had ordered. Even though my husband is not much of a soup guy, I really love my soups and always check out the menu to see what might be offered. As soon as I saw sweet corn and crab chowder on the menu, I knew I was ordering it. According to the menu, the soup came with old-bay popcorn, I was interested to see what that was all about. To my surprise, popcorn literally meant popcorn. Ok, so what else could it mean, but it was so interesting and strange and amazing to see a little side of old-bay seasoned popcorn served right next to my bowl of soup! What a clever idea. And though it may seem strange, the popcorn actually went perfectly with the soup! Who knew? The popcorn was lightly seasoned and since the seasoning was old-bay, you knew it would work well with a seafood based soup. The sweet corn and crab chowder was amazing! It was rich and full of body, you could see and taste the corn and there was sweet and flavorful crab meat throughout the chowder along with other hearty vegetables. This was one of the most delectable chowders I’d ever tasted.
Next up was my husband’s choice of ahi watermelon skewers with seaweed salad and ponzu. Wow. First off, these skewers were presented like a work of art. Cute, and brightly colored skewers served on top of an electric green seaweed skewer in a glass serving dish. Second, let’s get to the flavor. These things were beyond amazing. The skewers were made with a bite-sized piece of sweet, juicy watermelon, a thin piece of picked cucumber, an amazingly tender and fresh piece of ahi tuna, and then topped with half a grape tomato with ponzu sauce drizzled over it. The combination of the sweet cucumber with the crunchy pickled ginger, the tangy grape tomato, the citrusy ponzu sauce and the melt-in-your mouth ahi tuna was such a wonderful explosion of flavor in your mouth. It was beyond words how amazing these little skewers were. This was going to be one amazing meal.
Our final cold grazing dish was burrata mozzarella with heirloom tomatoes, herb pesto and mini crostinis. Like the other dishes we’d had, this dish too was a work of art that dazzled the senses. The beautiful round of burrata mozzarella in the center of the plate, drizzled with vibrant herb pesto and dark balsamic vinegar, and then surrounded by rich red heirloom tomatoes and finally some toasted crostinis was gorgeous. But what was even better was the flavor of the burrata mozzarella. The cheese was so creamy and milky, but with a very subtle mozzarella flavor. Combine that with the pesto and the balsamic and cherry tomatoes and it was delicious and fresh and clean. I loved it.
Now began the parade of hot grazing plates. First off was smoked bacon wrapped dates with almonds and brown sugar balsamic. These were my husband’s selection as he really wanted to try them. I’m not a date eater, so I left them all up to him and he fell in love. He said that these little dates that you could pop right into your mouth literally tasted like sweet candy because of the brown sugar balsamic. He thought that the flavor of them was fantastic, and the brown sugar mixed with the balsamic was created a sticky, sweet candy-like syrup in which the dates were swimming in. He kept wanting me to try them, but alas, I passed.
Another one of my husband’s choices was the house chips drizzled with white truffle oil, sea salt and garlic aioli. You’ve got to understand that anything with white truffle oil is something my husband is going to want to eat. This large bowl of homemade potato chips came to our table and smelled amazing. I loved that the restaurant cut the potatoes thick enough that they still had volume and texture, but thin enough that they were crispy and light. The white truffle oil was very subtle, which is just the way I like it; enough to add great flavor to the chips, but not enough to overpower the chips. The garlic aioli is something my husband really liked, which surprised me since he’s not a fan of sauces of any sort.
One of my selections was the lump crab cakes. I can’t resist ordering crab cakes, and when they come in the form of small bites, it’s even better. These crab cakes were served with a sweet potato hash and avocado mousse. The crab cakes were perfectly cooked and stuffed to the gills with lump crab meat and very little fillers. The outside was nice and golden brown and crispy, and the inside was sweet and delicious. The sweet potato hash with onions and fresh corn was a clever idea and the whole thing was served inside a small cast iron skillet. This was almost hearty enough to be a meal on its own! These were crab cakes I’d definitely order again.
At the last minute, my husband wanted to order the filet mignon pot pie with a mirepoix, mushrooms, fingerling potatoes and puff pastry. We were surprised to discover when we broke open the pot pie that it was actually stuffed with chunks of delicious, tender filet mignon. They weren’t kidding when they called it a filet mignon pot pie. Perfectly cooked and seasoned and served with the hearty mushrooms and potatoes this was a terrific individual pot pie. The puff pastry was golden brown, crispy and flaky, exactly what you would want a pot pie crust to taste like. My husband was glad he decided at the last minute to add this plate on to our order, and at happy hour prices, you couldn’t beat it!
For our last plate, we actually decided to order an entrée off the menu to split because we just couldn’t resist Chilean sea bass served over a warm artichoke-asparagus potato salad. Hands down, the most delicious piece of fish I’ve ever had, and I love my fish. This cut of Chilean sea bass was large and hearty and more than enough for the two of us to split. The outside was cooked a perfect golden brown and deliciously crispy. The inside was melt-in-your-mouth buttery goodness. I could have gone on and on eating this Chilean sea bass. It was so perfect that I’m salivating just thinking about it now. There are no words to describe how amazing this Chilean sea bass was.
After dinner comes the debate of whether or not we should order dessert. Come on, you know what the answer will be! Of course, how could we say no to dessert? Just when I thought that my husband would order the white chocolate macadamia nut bread pudding he decided to go in a different direction and ordered the lemon blueberry pots de crème with rosemary pine nut cookies. I guess on second thought, I should have known he’d order the dessert that contained both lemon and blueberry, two of his favorite things. The dessert came to the table in a very rustic style. On a tile of slate there laid 2 rosemary pine nut cookies dusted in powdered sugar sitting next to a glass jar filled with a graham cracker crust, the lemon blueberry pot de crème, a dollop of homemade whipped cream and a sprig of rosemary. My husband loved his very rustic dessert. He thought that the cookies were delicious and not too overpowering in either the pine nut or rosemary flavor. The pot de crème he devoured before I even had a chance to ask him how it was, so it must have been pretty good.
We go from the rustic to the fun and outlandish with my dessert of the lunch box. According to the menu, the lunch box contained homemade ding dongs and milk. What came to the table really was a lunch box, but not just any old lunch box, it was a Rolling Stones lunch box of the distinctive logo of the tongue sticking out of the big lips. It was hilarious! Inside the lunch box was the dessert. When you opened it up, wrapped in aluminum foil were three homemade ding dongs, a carton of milk, and an old school joke written on a little piece of paper. If this dessert doesn’t bring back a little bit of nostalgia, I don’t know what does. This definitely reminds me of a when I was a kid and ate ding dongs. I don’t know how many years its been now since I’ve had a ding dong! Not only were these ding dongs just like the originals I remember from my childhood, the whole idea of eating ding dongs out of a Rolling Stones lunch box just delighted me. It was almost the experience of the dessert as much as the dessert itself! A little treat of ding dongs and milk to round out a perfectly wonderful and tasty meal.
The Watermarc was an incredibly enjoyable treat for a restaurant we knew nothing about, that we only decided upon hours before heading out to our date night at the Pageant of the Masters. But boy are we glad we chose to dine at the Watermarc. It really does live up to its name of providing a dining experience at its greatest height. Filled with small grazing plates that are a wonderful mix of classic dishes paired with modern themes to thrill the senses and excite the tastebuds, the Watermarc is a restaurant that my husband and I will definitely be coming back to again in the future! The perfect restaurant for a wonderful night in Laguna Beach