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Escape to the Ranch at Laguna Beach

The newly revamped Ranch delivers a wholesome good time, not to mention one unique Bloody Mary dish

When driving down the Pacific Coast Highway toward the quintessential California beach town of Laguna, those dreamy visions of a mountain escape don’t readily come to mind. After all, getting there requires wending past a festive beach strewn with sunbathers and weekend volleyball players.

But when you arrive at recently refurbished Ranch at Laguna Beach, you drive up into the hills rather than toward the costal view. You might be a bit skeptical at first, but this rustic-chic ranch has been a well-kept secret with the locals for decades.

Built in 1962, The Ranch is an 87-acre oasis located between Aliso and Wood Canyons in Orange County. With a 9-hole Gary Rogers Baird-designed course, the resort is popular for golf enthusiasts, along with locals who want to escape the fray of a summer tourist town and head to the hillside with mountainous views rather than ocean sunsets. There are cozy creekside bungalows, canyon view rooms, and cottage-style accommodations, but you can also rent an entire “tree house” to yourself. An architectural stunner, this circular home was once privately owned but is now available for individual rentals. After a long day on the course or down at the beach, you can whip up dinner in the full kitchen, throw a party in your gazebo, or just escape to the Sycamore Apa for a hot stone and cold shell massage to calm your muscles and keep the circulation flowing.

Another big draw to this retreat is the Harvest dining room, which has been a top celebratory spot for graduations, anniversaries, and weddings over the years. The restaurant is currently a destination dinning spot in its own right, thanks to Bronx-born Chef Charles Imbelli’s creative and intensely local take on seasonal comfort food. Imbelli is a 2014 Zagat New York “30 under 30” honoree, whose culinary journey has included stops in the Pacific Northwest and California along with New York—where he got his start with an under-the-table apprenticeship when he was just 14.

Imbelli has worked alongside some of the industry’s preeminent names, including David Waltuck at Chanterelle, Danny Meyer at Union Square Events, and Marcus Samuelsson at the Samuelsson Group in New York. He opened American Table at Alice Tully Hall and Uptown Brasserie at JFK Airport, among other properties. The chef also headed up recipe testing and standardization for the group and served as the sous chef for Red Rooster.

In 2013, Imbelli came to California, as many young chefs do, in search of a better quality of life. The East Coast chef led the Ace Hotel’s culinary operations at multiple properties before joining the launch of Venue H, a full-service boutique event caterer in Los Angeles.

[“I love a good Bloody Mary, and the flavors really lend themselves to mussels.]

At the helm of Harvest at The Ranch, one of the top standout dishes is the mussels in Bloody Mary sauce. “For the mussels, we like to use canned La Valle D.O.P. San Marzano Tomatoes, which have an amazing, fresh flavor, with consistent acidity and sweetness,” hey says. Imbelli was inspired by his love for the classic cocktail. “I love a good Bloody Mary, and the flavors really lend themselves to mussels. I wanted to take it as far as I could, by incorporating all of the garnish elements of the classic Bloody Mary into the dish itself. So there’s bacon, and olives, lots of celery, and then of course we garnish it with celery leaves.”

Of course, the future plan is for much of the seasonal bounty to be sourced from the Ranch’s onsite garden. “Our partner in the garden is the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, a guy by the name of Evan Marks. He’s been instrumental in helping us think through the garden,” says Imbelli. “Our plan is to have it planted with lots of hearty, fresh herbs that we can use throughout our menu, as well as certain staple items like rainbow Swiss chard, that we use in our chicken dish, as well as a side.” He would also like to feature a garden salad that rotates seasonally, featuring whatever’s at its best throughout the year. Currently though, the focus of at the Ranch is to get the soil ready for planting. “With Evan’s help, we should be able to see a really fruitful Harvest soon.” And, yes, that garden will also include a variety of tomatoes.

If you can’t make it to the Ranch at Laguna Beach by the summer harvest, you can try this crowd-pleasing dish at home, thanks to Chef Imbelli’s recipe below.

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