Escape to The Ranch at Laguna Beach

When you’re driving down the Pacific Coast Highway toward the quintessential California beach town of Laguna, 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 to get to the recently refurbished The Ranch at Laguna Beach, you drive up into the hills rather than toward the coastal 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 with golf enthusiasts and locals who want to escape the fray of a summer tourist town and head to the hillside, where they enjoy mountain 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.” 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 Spa for a warm stone and cool shell massage to calm your muscles and keep the circulation flowing.

Another big draw to this retreat is Harvest, which has been a top celebratory spot for graduations, anniversaries, and weddings over the years. The restaurant is currently a destination dining 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, California, and 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 chefs, including David Waltuck at Chanterelle, Danny Meyer at Union Square Events, and Marcus Samuelsson at the Samuelsson Group, all in New York. He opened American Table at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center and Uptown Brasserie at JFK Airport, among others. He also headed up recipe testing and standardization for the group and served as the sous chef at Red Rooster in Harlem.

In 2013, Imbelli went 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 Harvest at The Ranch, one of the standout dishes is 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,” Imbelli says. “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, olives, and lots of celery, and then, of course, we garnish it with celery leaves.”

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, which we use in our chicken dish and as a side.” Imbelli would like to feature a garden salad that rotates seasonally, featuring whatever’s at its best throughout the year. Currently, though, the focus 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 harvest time, you can try this crowd-pleasing dish at home, thanks to Chef Imbelli’s recipe (below).

Bloody Mary Mussels
Yield: 4
Ingredients:
For the tomato sauce:
28 ounces San Marzano tomatoes
1 ounce Worcestershire sauce
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon sriracha
2 ounces prepared horseradish
Pinch black pepper
Pinch salt

For the mussels:
1 stalk celery, peeled and finely sliced
½ head fennel, split lengthwise and finely sliced
1 shallot, very finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 pieces cooked bacon, chopped
¼ cup Castelvetrano olives, sliced
4 ounces vodka
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 pounds Salt Spring Island (or another Mediterranean variety) mussels, rinsed and de-bearded
½ cup celery leaves
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes
8 thick slices of crusty bread, lightly toasted

Equipment needed:
Large heavy-bottomed pot with lid
Microplane (for zesting)
Blender

Instructions:
Place the canned tomatoes in a blender along with the Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and zest, and sriracha. Puree until smooth, then add the horseradish and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Next, prepare all of the vegetables, as well as the bacon.
Add the olive oil to the pot and place it over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add the celery, fennel, garlic, shallots, bacon, olives, and a pinch of salt. Stir the vegetables as they cook. As the base begins to come together and the onions become soft, add the mussels, along with another pinch of salt and one of black pepper.
Continue stirring for about 1–2 minutes, then add the vodka. Do this carefully and stand back from the pan, as the vodka may flare up. Allow the alcohol to cook down for about 1 minute.
Next, add the tomato sauce and cover the pot. Cook until the mussels open, about 5 minutes. Remove the lid and add the butter. Continue cooking uncovered for about 2 minutes.
Remove the mussels to bowls and distribute the sauce equally among them. Garnish with picked celery leaves and Aleppo pepper flakes and serve with your favorite crusty bread to sop up the sauce.