At The Ranch at Laguna Beach (at Ben Brown’s Golf Course), you might say Chef Camron Woods faces a “Top Chef” reality TV show challenge nearly every week of his professional life.
Oddly enough, he seems to be the instigator of the drama as he’s forever inviting The Ranch’s heads of state to “tastings” of just about everything he’s inventing, from Bloody Mary mix to burgers, cocktails and smoked salmon carpaccio.
“It’s such a trial for us,” says VP of Marketing Jim Tolbert with mock chagrin and a woeful shake of his head. “It’s all this tasting, tasting, tasting … ‘what do you like?’ … ‘what don’t you like?’ … the stress of tasting Chef Camron’s cooking … it’s just overwhelming some days.”
Last week, as I sat down to a Ranch dining table on the patio above the pristine golf course, it was with real sympathy that I saw Tolbert and General Manager Kurt Bjorkman drag themselves down to join me in a sampling of Chef Camron’s revised lunch menu.
… Well, OK, if we have to be truthful, they did sort of rush eagerly to the table. In fact, to be really truthful, I rushed rather eagerly myself. I adore this guy’s cookin’.
Back in the day when it was first getting organized under Mark Christy’s ownership, The Ranch snagged Chef Camron and his wife, Pastry Chef Mary Catherine (“MC” for short) from the Grand Del Mar in San Diego. Even while we still wait for the big event of dinner debuts at The Ranch, we’ve enjoyed the fruits of the recruiting decision as Chefs Camron and MC hit the ground running with a combination of decadent and comfort-food options. First in their breakfast menu … then in their coffee shop (the “grab and go”) … and then in their combined efforts in the lunch menu …this couple does not disappoint.
Starters That Feel Like a Meal
So, lets just jump into the deep end on Chef Camron’s lunch menu …which, incongruously enough, Chef names as a “starter” item – the Shrimp & Grits.
I remind you, Chef Camron comes from Charleston, SC., with family roots in Kentucky, too. This guy doesn’t just emulate Southern – he is one. His Shrimp & Grits are all about the South, a “classic incarnation that I just didn’t want to meddle with,” he says with his standard cherubic grin.
There is nothing cherubic about Chef’s Shrimp & Grits. This is pure voodoo with yellow corn grits topped by a folded blend of spicy Tasso ham (cured in blackening spice and smoked), and shrimp gravy with red peppers, onions, sautéed jumbo shrimp and garlic and herbs. Happily, the dish is light and airy with a mellow front and a spicy end.
Then, it’s on to his Fresh Deviled Eggs, done “nostalgic style,” says Bjorkman.
Chef Camron adds, “Sometimes you can get so fancy with basic foods that have been around forever that it can overpower your nostalgia. There’s a real cool factor to producing a food item that’s just how you remember from those family picnics and Sunday dinners, and that’s why the Deviled Eggs are simply … simple.”
Nuzzled in a spring “nest” of arugula and crispy potatoes, the yolks of these Deviled Eggs are combined with yellow mustard (“Never Dijon!” says Camron), and a dash of dill pickle juice and whirled in a food processor to creaminess.
One bite and you’re all about the nostalgia. The eggs work beautifully, too, as ‘dabbers,’ scooping up the dressed arugula and crunchy potato bits. It’s a lovely treat.
Finally, a third “starter” of the four offered on the menu is Smoked Salmon Carpaccio, and yet another beauty that can easily be shared.
Chef starts with Applewood smoked salmon and tops it with a super creamy crème fraiche, capers, and chopped tomatoes and hard-boiled egg. The accompanying toast points are drizzled in garlic butter and chargrilled to add even greater depth to the smoky fresh flavor of the dish.
I’ve never been much of a smoked salmon fan because most salmon tends to be drowned in the smoke flavor. This, however, is a beautiful meld of light smoke, super-fresh salmon and just the right amount of pop and crunch in its onboard veggies and eggs. It’s a dish that I will definitely be ordering again.
These Poor Guys Have to Test the Cocktails, Too
With the Carpaccio dish, the gentlemen call for a Bloody Mary on the highly rational observation from Bjorkman that “every entrée is a potential cocktail and every cocktail is a potential entrée when it comes to Camron.”
The Bloody Mary arrives in a Mason jar you can actually drink from, and the gentlemen lapse into the wonders of Chef’s mixology skills and late Friday afternoon “tastings.”
True to his chef roots, Camron’s Bloody Mary mix is a complex combination of what he calls “gazpacho in a glass minus the olive oil.”
“You have to have body in a Bloody Mary drink, so you have to find the right mix that melds nicely in a blender but still has this great depth.”
After years of perfecting (and undoubted required tastings), Chef’s Bloody Mary is a secret combo of fresh tomato juice, red peppers, celery, cucumbers, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, horse radish, Worcestershire sauce and Sriracha sauce. As you can probably guess – perfection. Truly.
The Ranch lunch menu offers five entrée salads and another six sandwiches and entreés. While I could easily try any of the salads – Fried Chicken, Chicken Caesar, Cobb or the Flat Iron Steak Salad, we all get to snack on the Grilled Salmon and Artichoke Salad.
The dish arrives so beautifully done that we all have to sit back and admire it for a moment. This is Chef’s definition of “California cuisine” as “It’s not contrived,” he says. “You have great ingredients that are so at the peak of their freshness that you really don’t have to mess with it much.”
Chef imports Scottish Salmon as the Scots have proven to be industry leaders in polishing the tarnish on the phrase, “farm raised fish,” with the establishment of pristine, natural environments for healthy fish and sustainability.
This is a Mediterranean-flair salad with smoky grilled artichokes tossed with various greens, Greek olives, pickled onions and Feta cheese in Chef’s own red wine vinaigrette. At the top of this fresh pile of live sit the oversized Salmon filet, lightly grilled to sublime flakiness.
Years of Research
Even splitting all this food four ways, my hunger is more than satisfied … but no, I am forced to trudge on as the newest member of the Resident Tasting Crew.
Sadly, we have to tackle the Pulled Pork BBQ Sandwich and Ben’s Best Burger. Poor us.
These two items make up the Entrées along with a Club Sandwich, daily inspired Fish Tacos, an Angus Beef Bistro Steak and Veggie Burger.
The Pulled Pork arrives so piled high that its bun precariously hangs on by a thread. This is one of Chef’s specialties – pulled pork shoulder rubbed in garlic, chili powder and “et cetera” and then Applewood smoked for four hours at 300 degrees.
“The barbecue sauce is really the thing,” says Tolbert. “Camron’s enthusiasm for the perfect BBQ sauce is just unfathomable.”
Indeed, Chef perks up at the mention of BBQ sauce and happily expounds on his years of research into the perfect goo. “When I was just a kid in my first kitchen, I saw the sous chef make his own BBQ sauce and I was astounded,” says Chef. “You can actually make this stuff? How much better can life be than that?”
For Chef’s secret sauce, he imparts a few closely guarded tips – “fatty tidbits that hold smoke well” combined with onions in oil start the process. Then he smokes the onions and purees them with mustard, molasses, tomatoes and apple cider vinegar … (and no, you’re not getting exact measurements here. This is a decades long craft, for heaven’s sake.)
The coleslaw is an added plus after his years ago visit to Fat Matt’s Rib Shack in Atlanta. “I never knew you could put coleslaw on pork sliders until then,” says Chef with an elated grin. The crunchy, slightly sweet, slightly salty, slightly tang flavors add both coolness and balanced spice to the pork itself. Then, he loads up a small ramekin with crazy-rich bites of his Smoked Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese. You know … because there’s just not enough great food on this plate already.
Lastly, it’s Chef’s coup d’etat, the Ben’s Best Burger.
“When Mark Christy hired me, I asked him what one thing he wanted me to do for his menu,” says Camron. “He said, ‘Make the best danged burger in all of Orange County’ so, after getting my tasting crew involved here” … (my two fellow testers groan at the comment) … “I think we have a burger of pure happiness and joy.”
Three meats go into this monster with a careful balance of lean to fat and then … “just salt and pepper,” shrugs Chef. Load it up with lettuce, tomato, melted Jack cheese and Chef’s special sauce and it sure doesn’t seem like a shrug of a hamburger.
Oh Yes … There’s Dessert, Too
I think I’m wrapping things up with preparations to waddle from the table when Chef Camron’s wife, MC … also known as the award-winning Pastry Chef … shows up at our table.
This can only mean trouble. And, the problem is, she’s just as dear and charming as her husband. Who would expect such treachery from such a kind girl?
But treachery it is. She plunks down three of her latest favorites – Raspberry Cheesecake, Upside Down Pineapple Cake and Thin Mint Fudge Cake. I begin to wonder how the Resident Tasting Crew hasn’t gained 30 pounds a piece in their first year here at The Ranch.
Yet another “nostalgic” entry, MC’s Upside Down Cake varies weekly according to the fresh fruits available. The cake itself is moist with just enough weight to mean something and the caramel drizzle is made without cream or butter (oh gee, what a caloric savings, I think).
The Raspberry Cheesecake and Thin Mint Fudge Cake are melt-in-your-mouth wonders, but I have to say the chocolate minty mousse-y is my favorite of the two simply because I love the nostalgia of Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies (quite passionately).
With The Ranch’s throwback theme to simpler times with its golf course, its refurbished housing and its simple, elegant events, Chef Camron’s old school cooking, meshed with new school California cuisine is the quintessential solution for this place.
In the end, Chef Camron simply belongs here in this nostalgic gem on Southern California’s coast.