It's All About the Vibe at Hotel Joaquin's Saline
Close to the cliff’s edge just off PCH in upper downtown Laguna, is a delicious surprise named Saline where Argentinian born Chef de Cuisine Leo Bongarra says the focus is on the seafood, though — like his guests — a great steak is always welcome.
Blooming within the newly renovated and posh-meets-surfer aesthetics of Hotel Joaquin, Saline solemnly dedicates its experience to those staying at the hotel, giving them a familiarity that could only match an invitation to dinner at a loved one’s home.
Eager to serve his diners something they’ve never tried before, Chef Bongarra uses a South American approach in flavoring, serving a truffled tuna in panca chile with avocado over crisp grilled crostini on a bed of matcha powder. An accompanying appetizer being a serrano peppered and aji amarillo charred broccolini in a balanced garlic tahini, garnished beautifully with hemp seeds.
There’s Chilean sea bass on black forbidden rice in a savory coconut broth reduction with fresh herbs. And, in an ode to the chef’s time studying abroad in Rome, the crab gnocchi grabs the tried-and-true mac n’ cheese concept by the strings, incorporating an aged cheddar sauce with gouda, macadamia, and broccolini flower.
To sweeten things up and end an hours-long culinary experience by the sea, the kitchen will prepare a delicate and seasonal treat to perfectly match the mood of the night.
While living in Los Angeles, Chef Bongarra was doing consulting work for restaurants in both Argentina and LA — with an eventual plan to move back to Argentina to live in vineyard-rich Mendoza (basically the Napa of South America).
Before leaving to embark on this new adventure, however, fate interfered with a job offer coming from an up-and-coming boutique hotel in Laguna Beach who wanted a chef with the same sort of flavor and vibe Bongarra was known for. A week later Chef Bongarra was canceling consultations in Mendoza and LA, and dreaming up Saline’s Mediterranean menu for the Laguna coast.
Like all the best artists of the past, there needs to be a layer of crazy and outrageousness glazed over the average mindset to surpass the archaic-contemporary repeats of their rivals. To achieve this goal, Chef Bongarra has his own self-torture recipe.
“The day before I write a menu, I have two drinks at night without eating, followed by water before going to bed, then the next day I starve myself of everything but wine... and I write,” Bongarra laughs. “This is not a healthy method of course — and my wife gives me grief — but what I get from it is this intense hunger that forces my mind to invent wild ideas and pairings.”
Indeed, with over 100 leather-bound notebooks filled page after page with hand-drawn illustrations, cooking techniques, ingredient introductions, and words of inspiration, the chef has many ideas to choose from. Pointing at the opening page of the journal that brought us Saline, Bongarra reads a caption he has lovingly written, “I dedicate this book to my family, my woman Olivia, and to God.” He humbly states, “Each book needs its blessing.”
In Bongarra’s opinion, every chef masters approximately five to six dishes. Their repertoire comes from the thrilling perfections found within these plates. And when their restaurant opens, it’s these six plates that land on the menu. For Bongarra however, he sought to have no boundaries. Various chefs have claimed said rebellious perceptions of themselves in the kitchen, but when looking at Bongarra’s spice rack you’ll find true change — black truffle boldly sitting right alongside CBD oil and whatever latest superfood is hot on the market. He’s not afraid of experimenting, and his happy guests are his willing subjects. “I’m pretty open to everything, cooking with the unusual,” Bongarra says with an eagerness behind his eyes.
Because of the limited amount of patrons the quaint restaurant can hold, one of Chef Bongarra’s favorite parts of his new gig is running the food to his customers himself. He thrives off talking to his visitors, getting to know who they are, where they are from, and what types of food they have a propensity towards.
At Saline, it’s as easy to fall in love with the chef as it is the cuisine. It’s a mix between his perception of life, the camaraderie he has with his co-workers, and the brilliance found in the vibe he’s created at his restaurant — truly a home away from home.
Born and raised on the salty sands of California’s coast, Manny Frausto is a staff writer at Laguna Beach Living and has adored the power of writing (much like he adores eating alongside a charismatic master chef) for publications such as the LA and OC Register, OC Home Magazine, and beyond. Reach out to him at email@example.com.
Photos by: Grant Puckett.