Laguna Hills is not the type of place that evokes thoughts of gourmet food. A sleepy city with a population of around 30,000, its largest attraction is the small Laguna Hills Mall, which also serves as the focal point for its dining and social scene. The two most popular restaurants in Laguna Hills are King's Fish House and BJ's, both major chains and both part of the mall. It's no wonder, then, that I usually give Laguna Hills a miss and head down the coast to Laguna Beach when I'm looking for good grubbing in that part of South Orange County.
That's why it was so startling to stumble across the amazing dishes served at Break of Dawn. Well hidden behind an El Torito in an annex of the Laguna Hills Mall, Break of Dawn is a relatively new brunch restaurant which, in any larger city, would be a local hotspot. The food is simply amazing. The presentation of each plate is stunning, and the flavors both delight and comfort. Even in Laguna Hills, it's managed to attract a following of faithful regulars.
(Iced Vietnamese Coffee)
Break of Dawn is a labor of love for owner and chef Dee Nguyen. Formerly Executive Sous Chef at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel, Chef Nguyen was on the fast track in the professional cooking world when tragedy struck. His son, Berlin, suffered a "medical mishap" that left him permanently disabled. After reevaluating his priorities, Chef Nguyen left the Ritz-Carlton to open Break of Dawn, a brunch restaurant which he hoped would give him more time to spend with his family.
At Break of Dawn, Chef Nguyen takes simple, classic American brunch favorites and fuses them with the French and Vietnamese flavors of his heritage to create culinary works of art. It's a difficult proposal, but one that he's mastered in both concept and execution. His food is familiar with flare, homey with heart.
Take the Eggs Benedict, for example. Two pillowy eggs, poached to jiggly perfection, are served perched on thick slabs of seared ham supported by tender biscuit halves. The lightest touch of your fork is all that's needed to part each delicate white cloud and release the liquid sunshine within. The masterstroke is the sauce, a combination of pesto and the traditional Hollandaise that packs a powerful herb and butter wallop. Even the herbed country potatoes, simply fried, are worth mentioning for their excellent seasoning, crisp skins, and fluffy interiors.
The Crème Brulee French Toast is another fine example. Thick slabs of raisin brioche are soaked in egg batter and fried, then served in a warm pool of barely set crème brulee. The entire dish is dusted with sugar and torched until the sugar caramelizes, then dusted again with cinnamon sugar. The crystallized sugar shatters in your mouth with every bite of custardy bread. The crème brulee, flavored with Kahlua and coconut, coats every piece like a rich sauce in this sexy bread pudding on crack. Two familiar items, an entirely new dish.
Chef Nguyen's balanced fusion of Asian and Western flavors really comes out in my personal favorite, the descriptively named Beef. Generous chunks of beef short rib, sans bone, are braised in a rich stock and served on a seared, dim sum style taro cake. An earthy mushroom ragout, sautéed baby bok choy, and fruit compote accentuate the meltingly tender rib meat. Two merlot poached eggs, their oozy insides a perfect match for the dark sauce, flank this delectable offering.
The Duck continues this trend with a flaky pile of unctuous duck confit dripping with a Goji berry sauce and swimming in a sea of buttery cauliflower sauce. A fluffy chestnut omelet, sautéed baby boy choy, and thick slabs of toast are stacked above the duck in an orgy of unlikely bedfellows that combine to form a truly sexy whole. The contrasts between tart Goji berries, rich duck, sweet chestnuts, and mysterious cauliflower somehow all work together. I could never come up with something so imaginative. It takes a true master.
For the less adventurous, the Break of Dawn offers more traditional dishes, such as the Two Eggs. Two eggs are cooked to order and served with country potatoes, toast, and your choice of bacon, ham, or sausage. If doesn't get much more American than that.
Even when going with more traditional flavors, Chef Nguyen can't resist reimagining each dish and adding his own special twist. Corned Beef is a popular breakfast staple, but it's taken to an entirely new level at Break of Dawn with a whole grain mustard sauce, sweet potato hash, tender slices of corned beef, more of Chef Nguyen's expertly poached eggs, and a tangy topping of braised cabbage. Brilliant.
Even a trip to the American South has its surprises. The Pork boasts a hefty mound of pulled pork tossed in a smoky barbecue sauce, a Jalapeño cornbread brick, and crunchy cabbage slaw. But, who would expect the pork to be topped with poached eggs fried tempura style as a nod to Southern fried chicken? It's fried pre-chicken! The mind boggles.
(Steamed Hot Chocolate)
Break of Dawn - Where old brunch favorites are given a new life and nothing is quite what it seems. Executive Chef Dee Nguyen's fertile imagination has created a number of delightful dishes that are nothing short of breathtaking, but won't break the bank. Looks like I'll be visiting Laguna Hills a lot more often.
(The chef makes small changes to the menu seasonally, so prices and available items may fluctuate.)
Traditional Dishes - $6-$10
Sweet Dishes - $5-$11
Savory Dishes - $7-$15
Break of Dawn
24351 Avenida De La Carlota #N-6
Laguna Hills, CA 92653