Dive into the sea of shellfish dishes available at Laguna Beach restaurants.
By Ashley Probst
There’s nothing quite like a succulent shrimp cocktail or lobster drenched in butter to satiate any seafood lover’s palate. Luckily, restaurants in Laguna Beach have access to some of the best shellfish the West Coast has to offer.
Executive Chef Ron Fougeray of Splashes at Surf & Sand Resort says he enjoys working with crustaceans and mollusks because of their variety and versatility.
“There are so many fun things to do with shellfish, both cooked and raw,” he says. “They work with sweet, spicy, salty, rich, subtle and, my favorite, sour.”
He emphasizes the importance of keeping things simple and not overcomplicating dishes, which takes away from the fresh shellfish flavor. This is also why he prioritizes sourcing the highest quality ingredients from around the world.
“When purchasing our seafood, we buy the best—zero exceptions,” he explains. “We want our guests to know that we are fighting daily to ensure the highest standards of the quality received. I wish they could talk to my seafood purveyors to find out what a pain … I am when it comes to my expectations of quality.”
A wide array of shellfish can be found in dishes throughout this quaint coastal town. From appetizers like crab-stuffed jalapeños at Carmelita’s Kitchen de Mexico to the Maine lobster entrees at Las Brisas and Selanne Steak Tavern or the Szechuan scallops at Starfish, there are myriad sea-centric tastes throughout Laguna.
One of the dishes that Splashes is famous for is its lobster bisque, which is finished tableside during lunch and dinner service.
“We make [a] nice quenelle of lobster tail meat with tarragon and mascarpone cheese. We pour this delicious, rich bisque over this lobster in front of our guests,” Fougeray says, noting that the secret to this dish is roasting the fresh Maine lobster until it’s a dark, golden brown.
Over at Oliver’s Osteria, diners looking for an authentic Italian dinner can enjoy a primo course of tonnarelli ai crostacei, which features homemade spaghetti (made in-house daily) with lobster, prawns and spicy tomato sauce.
The kitchen at Las Brisas is overflowing with luscious lobster-forward meals, such as dinner entrees of butter-poached lobster with potato-chile gratin or Maine lobster for two, which is served with black beans, rice, salsa and fresh corn tortillas. Brunch also offers some tasty plates like the lobster Benedict or crab omelet with scallions, creme fraiche and crispy potatoes.
Another local spot to dine on Maine lobster is Selanne Steak Tavern. Here, the lobster is blanched in a court bouillon, split in half and cleaned before being stuffed with a butter breading. It is then poached to order in a saffron beurre fondu, garnished with lemon zest and tarragon.
If your palette prefers prawns, opt for the Patagonian pink variety. Caught in the deep waters of Argentina, they are incredibly flavorful and offer a superior mouthfeel. The de-shelled prawns are marinated in a citrus-garlic mixture then seared in a cast-iron skillet and drizzled with citronette and chili oil. This gives the dish a kick, as accentuated by the Fresno chile garnish.
At Carmelita’s Kitchen de Mexico, two popular appetizers are the shrimp taquitos as well as crab-stuffed jalapenos with crispy bacon and queso fresco. For a main course, one of the restaurant’s specialties is seafood enchiladas filled with shrimp, crab and avocado. This dish is available on the dinner and brunch menus, with the latter also featuring a wild shrimp and Dungeness crab omelet.
Keeping with the cuisine, it’s all about Mexican shrimp and prawns at South of Nick’s, which also serves up the seafood staple in taquitos as well as blackened atop a green salad. To make the taquitos, whole shrimp are dusted with chipotle spices, rolled in a thin corn tortilla, then served with avocado salsa, pico de gallo and chipotle ranch, and topped with cotija cheese and micro-cilantro. For a healthier plate, the salad has a base of chopped romaine lettuce and baby kale that’s tossed with blackened Mexican prawns, jack cheese, roasted almonds and corn, cucumbers and a jalapeno vinaigrette, then garnished with Campari tomatoes and micro-cilantro.
If you’re looking for something with more Asian influence, the chefs at Starfish Laguna Beach make crispy lobster spring rolls from scratch every morning. Lobster tails are cooked in a bath of star anise and Thai herbs. Once cooled, the meat is cut and hand-rolled with an herbal mix of cilantro, Thai basil, “rau ram” (Vietnamese coriander) and julienned Fresno peppers. The rolls are flash-fried until crispy, then served with kaffir lime aioli and chile plum dipping sauces.
Another fan favorite at Starfish is the Szechuan scallops, which can be served on their own or combined with prawns. Both are wok-fired and tossed in a “modern rendition of traditional-style Szechuan sauce,” according to co-founder Gretchen McConnell.
“Our scratch sauce—made from chile, soy, garlic and a few secret ingredients—gives this dish unmistakable familiarity with a unique flavor that one one can quite explain,” she notes.
The shellfish is tossed with fresh green beans and garnished with sesame seeds for an eclectic flavor profile that’s simultaneously sweet, savory and spicy.
Scallops abound at The Cliff Restaurant, which offers two standout dishes: raw and pan-seared scallops. The former is one of the eatery’s bestselling appetizers, served on the half shell with seaweed salad, ginger and wasabi cream (available for lunch and dinner, individually or by the dozen). A nighttime special, the pan-seared scallops are cooked in garlic, butter, sea salt and pepper. Like all of this eatery’s seafood dinners, this dish is accompanied by sauteed vegetables and a choice of rice pilaf, garlic mashed potatoes or a baked potato.
The seared scallops at Splashes incorporate high-quality U-8 Bristol scallops from Maine, and are currently being served with a vibrant pea puree that has a hint of mint and basil. This is paired with a fricassee of house-made boar pancetta, English peas, a small dice of butternut squash and pomegranate seeds.
“It’s sweet and salty, which works wonderfully with the scallops. The sauce component on this dish is a carrot and cardamom gel. The idea behind this was ‘peas and carrots.’ I also added a clear carrot glass to add the, ‘What is that?!’ factor,” Fougeray says.
Yet another preparation of scallops can be found at Selanne Steak Tavern. This rendition features Pacific diver scallops, which are hand-picked by scuba divers and delivered daily by Santa Monica Seafood. They are then pan-seared and served with a cauliflower puree, pickled mushrooms, and a chervil and porcini powder garnish.
If you can’t quite decide what type of shellfish you want, head to Sapphire, Cellar-Craft-Cook, where partner and Executive Chef Jared Cook’s own indecision inspired a dish that incorporates steamed Manila clams, Mexican white prawns and PEI mussels.
“Since I couldn’t decide, as I enjoy all of them, I included the three [types of shellfish] in one mixed seafood dish,” Cook says of the top-selling crowd-pleaser that’s been on the menu since early 2020 when Russ Bendel took over Sapphire from Azmin Ghahreman. “Chorizo, tomato, garlic and saffron are personal favorites that enhance seafood by adding layers of flavor, so they are in the recipe.”
To make this shellfish-centric appetizer, Cook starts with a knot of butter in a preheated saute pan, then adds chorizo, tomatoes, garlic and shallots. This mixture is cooked for about a minute before the Manila clams, Mexican white prawns and PEI mussels are stirred in. Couscous, which has been precooked with saffron, is incorporated before deglazing the pan with chardonnay. The dish is then finished with chicken stock, chopped parsley and butter, as well as salt and pepper to taste.
“Order a side of grilled rosemary focaccia for dunking in the broth,” Cook says, noting that he prefers to enjoy this dish on the patio while overlooking the ocean with a glass of Chablis wine.
Serving Up Shellfish
Local chefs Jared Cook and Ron Fougeray share their tips for home-cooked shellfish dishes.
Splashes Executive Chef Ron Fougeray knows firsthand how challenging it can be to source fresh shellfish. “Always shop at a trusted vendor and inspect what you’re buying prior to taking it home,” he advises.
Cooking methods are equally important, and Fougeray suggests keeping it simple. “At home, I love using the barbecue. … With shellfish, it’s important to let it shine and to not overcook it,” Fougeray says, noting that some of his favorite ingredients for shellfish dishes are butter, citrus, fresh herbs, white wine, spices and fresh pasta.
Seasoning can make or break any meal and Jared Cook, partner and executive chef at Sapphire, Cellar-Craft-Cook, has a few go-to ingredients to add flavor: sherry vinegar, honey and smoked paprika. “Tip: Use more salt and pepper—it’s all about well-seasoned food,” he adds.