Chef of the Year
Chef Craig Connole is a hometown guy, born and raised in Newport Beach, but his food is anything but traditional California cuisine.
Craig’s menus of affordable but delicious plates set the bar for all the other restaurants that now tout inexpensive small plates of food as part of their milieu. Because of him, both Laguna Beach and Anaheim have treasures in dining that attract throngs of foodies.
He was an easy choice as my Chef of the Year because he continues to deliver quality tastes and attractive presentations without ever making a plate more than $10. That he can cram such haute cuisine, style and flavors into all these bargain-priced dishes is a testament to his passion for making fine food accessible to everyone.
He began cooking professionally in Orange County way back in the 1980s, but he was influenced by creative kitchens in and out of the county. Before teaming up with the owners of the charming La Casa del Camino hotel in Laguna Beach and Hotel Menage in Anaheim, Craig did stints with Four Seasons, Meridien and Ritz-Carlton hotels and at a trendy restaurant in Las Vegas. He kept the best of each kitchen experience in his memory and used it collectively to build his individual style. Now, he gives us immense variety at completely lovable prices in both locations.
The Anaheim and Laguna Beach restaurants and lounges have unique personalities, both of which I have delved into further in the following K’ya coverage. As for Craig and his food, he says, “It’s hard to categorize the cuisine. Our repeat clientele comes so frequently that I want to keep it fresh for them all the time.”
And so, he keeps our palates amused and amazed with dozens of $10 and under international dishes. He does know how to keep our curiosity and craving instincts on edge.
Craig also is a partner (with current compatriots Richard Ham and Chris Keller, partners in the two hotels that house the K’ya lounges and restaurants) in the brand-new House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer restaurant in Laguna Beach.
Rooftop Lounge and K’ya Bistro Bar at La Casa del Camino Hotel
1287 South Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
(949) 376-9718 (K’ya)
(949) 497-2446 (Rooftop Lounge)
This is a culinary treasure in Laguna. Anyone who loves palate-pleasing food and appreciates a small tab at the end of a good meal must have this experience. Set inside the legendary La Casa del Camino Hotel, this bustling bistro offers exciting, affordable European-style food. All menu items—and there are dozens of them—are $10 and under, meant to be enjoyed a stone’s throw from the beach.
They also offer half glasses of wines to match all this eclectic fare. K’ya Bistro Bar is urban chic with a style that could fit happily in San Francisco or the wine country and consequently hosts a dedicated crowd. There’s live entertainment every night of the week in the intimate hotel lobby and it wafts into K’ya.
Chef Craig’s menu includes a filet mignon with bleu cheese, white bean cassoulet, coq au vin, curry-seared scallops, grilled lamb with white bean salad, shrimp etouffée, chicken marsala, catfish in a Creole lobster sauce, truffled risotto, red curry chicken and grilled salmon with arugula and caper vinaigrette. The chef adds organic, wild and natural items throughout the menu. All of the aforementioned are $6 to $10 and portions are quite generous.
The Rooftop Lounge has taken on a famed life of its own. Sip fresh berry mojitos and other trendy drinks and nibble on exciting food accompaniments while overlooking the ocean. Happy hours up there run Monday through Friday from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and feature food at half-off prices.
Palapa Bar and K’ya Street Fare at Hotel Menage
1221 South Harbor Blvd., Anaheim
Discover the most fashionably eclectic international cuisine—almost exclusively in the $3 to $10 range—at the Hotel Menage. This hotel is the sister property to La Casa del Camino Hotel and its wildly popular K’ya Bistro Bar in Laguna Beach and, again, chef Craig has regaled us with dozens of choices—this time built around street foods of the world.
These dishes reflect a high-energy, playful vibe. While you can dine on these many foods in the dining room (a place that I find very ap-pealing) or anywhere on the property, the Palapa Bar calls to me as the place to tame my hunger. It sits poolside and feels like I’m kicking back in Hawaii. Incidentally, every evening it also has a perfect view of the Disneyland fireworks.
On the bar menu: Korean ribs, Carolina-style pork sliders, Italian pizza, San Francisco wontons, Hawaiian poke, Mexican empanadas and English fish and chips. There’s also the BYOB menu; no, it’s not about bringing your own bottle, it’s about building your own burger and there are dozens of ways to design your dream one ($6.95, and that includes a drink and fries). At only $5.95 there’s a similar approach to building the deli sandwich you’ll long remember.
Don’t make quick decisions; there’s that other menu with dozens of global street dishes. There is Japanese katsu, Jamaican jerk chicken, American barbecue meatballs, Hawaiian Kalua pork and papaya hearts of palm salad, among countless others.
Happy hour takes place from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily with half-price beer, well drinks and the bar menu. If you stay later, there’s live music on Friday and Saturday in the piano lounge. Eat there and sip on something as enticing as all this global food; then, go home smiling because the bill is so low.