And then there’s the matter of how accommodating these hidden gems are—gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, special occasion, private party? No problem; they’ll bend over backward to meet your every need. They’ve also got a sweet location right on the water, so you can dine alfresco while gazing at the sea. Best of all, Executive Chef Rachel Haggstrom—the calm, cool, and collected talent behind the restaurants—has extended an open invitation for you to come to one of her dining rooms or patios at the Balboa Bay Resort anytime you like.
With menus that rotate seasonally, special holiday dishes, and ongoing community outreach—including fundraisers and festivals—Chef Haggstrom has a full plate, but she managed to find a few moments to chat with us about Waterline and A&O.
Rachel Haggstrom: I grew up on a citrus grove in Temecula, so I was heavily involved in growing vegetables and fruits. I went to culinary school in San Francisco and then worked at The French Laundry before going back to San Francisco to work under Ron Siegel at The Ritz-Carlton. After that, I went to work in Sweden for a few years.
How did your time at the acclaimed French Laundry prepare you for the position of executive chef at Balboa Bay?I learned a lot about efficiency and how to be organized—and teammates, of course. There’s a sense of urgency at The French Laundry that you don’t really see anywhere else. You learn how to manage your time and the value of every team member.
How do the water-to-table theme and ocean views inspire you in the kitchen?
We source our seafood as locally as possible. Right now, for example, the salmon dish is very much inspired by the water and cresting of the waves. We serve it with sea beans, which are naturally a bit salty like the water and resemble seaweed, and we make a foam with shellfish that resembles the crashing of the waves. And the Tuna Tartare reminds me of Crystal Cove Beach in some ways, while the taro chips, green papaya, and shiso salad components bring the land in and remind me of the driftwood and seaweed you often see where the sand and ocean meet.
Where do you source your seafood?
We try to use halibut that is as local as possible—it could be from Baja or right here in Southern California. Often, our oysters come from Morro Bay or Tomales Bay. We try to stay on the California coast.
And where do you find produce—do you work with local farms?
I have a couple of different vendors that work directly with farms as far north as Oxnard and as far south as San Diego. We even source from some producers right here in Orange County.
Both restaurants have very different vibes and menus. Is balancing diverse concepts a challenge?
It’s actually really nice. It gives you the opportunity to play with different ideas. I thought a gastropub would be difficult at first because it’s not my forte, but it’s a lot of fun and it’s one of my favorite restaurants to work in. Since the two restaurants are so different, a lot of guests like to visit both. They’ll come have a meal at Waterline and then drinks on A&O’s patio, for example.
Waterline seems like it has a modern American seafood slant, while A&O serves up gastropub fare. What other cuisines in uence you in developing these menus?
When we developed the menu for A&O, we tried to think about classic American food with a twist. That’s why you see things like ribs, chicken wings, and caramel popcorn. And even though Waterline is classic American cuisine, we use techniques with roots in traditional French cooking. California cuisine, seafood, and a farm focus drive the menu at Waterline. When I think about Waterline’s menu, I think about the season, and, quite frankly, what I like to eat.
It looks like you had a lot of fun coming up with the menu items and names for A&O—like “When Pigs Fly” and “Birthday Suit.” Did you get to name the items yourself?
The previous executive chef, Vincent [Lesage], and I came up with those together.
Both restaurants have gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, and healthy options to choose from. Is this driven by guest requests? How do you approach cooking for dietary restrictions?
It’s sort of the nature of the business in Newport Beach to be conscious of what the guests are looking for. When you have so many vegetables and proteins, offering gluten-free options is really easy. Vegan isn’t a far-stretch, either.
We noticed you just did a few Brew Fest Weekend beer dinners. Do you have any pointers on pairing beer and food?
The breweries give us a lineup of beers to choose from and we try to pick a variety. The beer takes you to a certain place and you can pick up on flavor profiles to create pairings. In October, we had the Indra Kuhindra from Ballast Point Brewing and I was blown away when I tasted it. It had Middle Eastern flavors like cumin, coconut, and kaffir lime—an explosion of flavor! We immediately thought to pair lamb with it. It’s the same with wine—you pick up on flavor profiles and acidity, then find meat, vegetables, or fruit to go with it.
Will you be doing any more beer dinners in the future?
We’ll be doing one winemaker dinner and one beer dinner every quarter in each restaurant—four pairing dinners total at Balboa Bay each season. It gives us the opportunity to cook outside the box and play with food and alcohol. It’s really fun for the guests to meet the brewers and winemakers.