Art Ortiz, executive chef at Skyloft in Laguna Beach, has a generous nature. Often, he ends up using an eight-dollar Chinese short bladed cleaver instead of one of his costlier knives. The pricy blades are given to a kitchen staffer when they exhibit culinary growth, creativity that produces alluring flavors.
As the cutting-edge gift is given, he wraps the handle with a specific color of electrical tape to designate new ownership. He says that the act builds team spirit in his kitchen.
Skyloft, an open-air rooftop setting with ocean views, offers a wide array of smoked meats, salads and sandwiches, as well as tasty seafood dishes. In the latter category, Ortiz’ Lobster Bake packs a creamy mix of warm lobster and crayfish into the lobster shell. With little or no reserve, he “rages” the tops. A close-up flame from a kitchen torch does the “raging,” creating a browned surface that yields additional flavor, texture and eye appeal.
Delicious, yes. But what really sets the dish apart is the bed of luscious “dirty rice” that sits below the shellfish. This twist on the tradition Creole dish is a rich balance of spicy and vegetal flavors set against the floral notes of jasmine rice.
Ortiz calls it “dirty and clean.” I call it generous.
BEST RESTAURANT MEAL: His favorite is the thirteen-course omakase dinner devoured at Sushi Sasabune on Waikiki. It included oysters three ways: baked, raw and grilled. Afterwards he ordered uni and another round of oysters.
BREAKFAST BLISS: Workdays he downs healthful acai bowls or pitaya (dragon fruit) bowls with berries and coconut flakes. Days off can mean starting the day with over-easy eggs, super-dark rye toast and a Guinness.
FAVORITE OC RESTAURANT: Amorelia Mexican Café in Costa Mesa that specializes in Michoacan-style dishes is his go-to spot for delicious carnitas. He says it’s not fancy, but the pork is delicious and properly presented.
GOOD ADVICE: Teach the staff by feeding them. He says that he is a teacher at heart; his knife and cutting board are his chalk and blackboard.
CULINARY HERO: With Carlito Jocson, original Yard House chef/partner, he learned to take care of everyone within the four walls of a restaurant – guests and staff alike. He worked with Jocson for 11 years, from the age of 22.
LOOK IT UP: “The French Laundry Cookbook” by Thomas Keller reminds him of important things he learned when he started cooking. When eating, the first thing to learn is to really taste. Second, celebrate the texture. The third bite should make you want more.
Skyloft, 422 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-715-1550
Skyloft’s Lobster Bake with Dirty Rice
Yield: 4 servings
2 to 3 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup chicken andouille sausage, cut into julienne strips
1/4 cup seeded, diced bell peppers, yellow, red and green
1/4 cup seeded, diced poblano peppers
1 large shallot, finely diced
1/2 cup drained cooked black beans and pinto beans
1/2 (packed) cup baby spinach leaves (casually torn in halves)
3/4 cup chicken broth
4 to 5 cups cooked jasmine rice, see cook’s notes
Seasoning mix to taste (dry rub), see cook’s notes
Garnish: 2 lemons, halved, charred on cut side
4 lobster tails
4 cooked crayfish, shelled, chopped, heated
Sauce: Japanese mayonnaise, fresh lemon juice and dry rub
Optional garnish: banana leaves and micro cilantro or other microgreen
Cook’s notes: The cooked rice needs to be dry and a little crisp. Cook the rice ahead, spread it out on a rimmed baking sheet; allow it to completely cool. Skyloft’s seasoning mix is proprietorial. You can substitute your favorite dry rub or combine 1/3 cup smoked paprika, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, 2 teaspoons granulated garlic and granulated onion, 1 tablespoon ancho chili powder and a good pinch of ground cumin and cayenne pepper. Store airtight.
- For Dirty Rice: In a large deep skillet, heat canola oil on medium high heat. Add andouille and peppers; cook about 2 minutes. Add shallot; cook until peppers start to soften. Add beans, spinach and broth; cook until liquid has reduced by half in volume. Stir in rice and season to taste with dry rub; cook until almost all liquid has cooked away. Set aside. Char lemons, cut side down in skillet or grill; set aside.
- For lobster and crayfish: Steam lobster tails until just barely cooked, about 2 1/2 minutes. When cool enough to handle, “bowtie” the lobster by cutting shell at top – end to end – with scissors. Snip meat at both ends. Remove from shell, keeping shell intact; cut lobster meat into bite-sized pieces. Place lobster and crayfish in bowl. In a separate bowl, place 2 cups Japanese mayonnaise, a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice and dry rub to taste. Stir to combine. Add enough sauce to generously coat seafood.
- Stuff lobster shells with seafood mixture and place on baking sheet. Spoon sauce on top. Broil about 6- to 7-inches below broiler element until heated through (internal temperature of 145 degrees) and top is lightly browned. If desired, line plates with banana leaves. Serve atop Dirty Rice, and garnish with charred lemon halves and micro cilantro.
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and is the author of three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce,” and “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce.”