Oak Grill Welcomes New Executive Chef, Peter Lai

Simple. Modern. American.

Oak Grill – Island Hotel


hile there is scarcely a shortage of dining within a stone’s throw of the Pacific, few have been able to rise to the level of mastery that Oak Grill has. Nestled comfortably within the Island Hotel in Newport Beach, Oak Grill offers guests and locals the very best in resort dining.

Having been classically trained in the very nest culinary techniques, and continuing to honor his familial traditions, Executive Chef Peter Lai introduces his forward-thinking approach to coastal cuisine, which he defines as, “Simple. Modern. American.”

After a single bite of the White Wine Steamed Clams, you are immediately presented with the conundrum, “How can anything ‘simple’ taste this complex?” It is a simple equation for a culinary genius like Chef Lai. Superior ingredients + care + skill + vision = delicious. (I’m horrible at math, and I could easily follow that!) This absolutely exquisite delicacy is as simple as it is gorgeous. This American take on a French favorite delights with each and every savory bite, and does so with a mere five key ingredients. It goes to show that there is no substitute for skill in the kitchen, and that indeed, less is sometimes considerably more.

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Tasting Notes: Roasted Chilean Sea Bass

The fish greets the palate as moist, bouncy, mild and ever-so-slightly-sweet, while fennel and arugula supply a light peppery/acidic quality. The risotto is sublimely creamy, but not overly rich thanks to the light bitter-citrus flavor of the dill, and texture is enhanced by the firm peas, and crisp baby asparagus.

We would have to agree with Chef Lai, the Chilean Sea Bass was our favorite dish on the menu, hands down. And it may very well be the best fish you’ve ever tasted, but don’t take our word for it. Take a bite.

Tasting Notes: White Wine-Steamed Clams

The white wine sauce is not a mere bystander in this dish, but rather shares the stage with the perfectly tender clams. Mild and sweet leeks along with the robust and smoky flavor of the thick-cut bacon lend their flavors to the sauce, but more importantly, enhance the entire flavor profile of the clams when all tasted together. Crostini is provided to spare everyone the embarrassment of licking the bowl in order to savor every morsel of the dish.

You don’t get much more American than buying and serving homegrown ingredients from small, local suppliers which are often the “mom and pop” shops of yesteryear. Fresh ingredients are delivered daily from local fisheries, farms, dairies and butcheries to supply the kitchen. These superior ingredients all are harmonized with Chef Lai’s vision of combining various cultural influences with the decidedly American palate.

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Q&A With Chef Peter Lai

 Q: You got your start at an early age in your family’s traditional Chinese restaurant. How did that guide your creative palate? 

Chef Peter Lai: Working in a Chinese restaurant when I was young helped me to realize how certain flavors, seasonings or even colors on a plate work with one another. I also developed the kitchen work mentality that has helped shape my everyday culinary life to what it is now.

Q: You describe your cuisine now as “Simple.Modern.American.” What are the major influences that present themselves most prominently in your vision of this style?

PL: I like to bring out the flavor of the main component and keep complex sides, sauces and textures to a minimum. I employ classical as well as modern techniques to prepare dishes and keep the end result simple and flavorful.

Q:  Some of the great food trends like French nouvelle cuisine, Asian fusion, and Spanish gourmet, have redefined the dining landscape over the past few decades. Where do you see the next big trend coming from, or going to?

PL: We’re already seeing the next trends. For example, the street food scene is amazing here in California. Also, the everything-from-scratch kitchens are now using modern day techniques to make items that many restaurants used to buy from outside their kitchens. Preparing ingredients like their own condiments creates another level of uniqueness and sustainability; and scratch chefs know exactly what products were used in their dishes.

Q:  You graduated Summa Cum Laude from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu Academy in Austin, Texas. What was your favorite moment from that educational experience?

PL: I very much enjoyed meeting all of the other chefs with different backgrounds, yet with the same passion and love of food as I have. It was a great environment to collectively learn from each other – something I encourage in our kitchen.

Q:  Of all the amazing chefs out there, who is your favorite?

PL: One of my favorites is Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York City. I admire how  he always maintains his own extremely high standards and rigorous requirements of cuisine in the same restaurant since 1994. And, he has a genuine love for food and a contagious enthusiasm for the way his kitchen’s food is prepared and presented.

Q:  Do you have a favorite meal?

PL: I love comfort food…a nice chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and southern green beans makes me happy.

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Q: With all of the inspirations that you have blended so masterfully in your work, how does Oak Grill bring special inspiration to the practice of your craft?

PL: I have an abundance of wonderful resources here at Oak Grill and support from other talented chefs. This gives me the ability to work on special feature dishes, along with menu planning and development. The team here is an amazing group of kitchen professionals – one that most chefs can only dream about.

Q: How do you plan to expand on Oak Grill’s already stellar commitment to using local and seasonal products?

PL: I insist on offering produce that is at the height of the season. These local, of-the-moment ingredients deliver the best flavors and keep the cost down, which we are able to pass on to our guests. I am constantly working with our purveyors to ensure quality and always interested in promising new local companies and producers.

Q:  How does “root-to-stalk” vegetable cooking manifest itself on the plate?

PL: We choose to utilize almost all of the vegetable instead of adding to the food waste we commonly see. We incorporate the whole vegetable into sauces or garnishes. For example, using baby heirloom carrots and roasting them whole without peeling them first, leaves the carrot in its natural beauty. Then, we use the carrot leaves and tops in pesto, in infused oil or to make a chimichurri for a dish.

Q: Your new menu seeks to maximize the “wellness” that comes from the dishes you offer. Can you offer some insight into how you will achieve that?

PL: I’ve added healthier options to our menus, cutting out unnecessary fats and fillers. For breakfast, I included a quick Berry Chia bowl option along with a Juice, Smoothie and Acai Bar station. We’ve removed many starches from main entrée dishes offered at lunch and dinner, focusing on the freshness of seasonal produce.

Q:  Orange County is widely known for its coastal fare, so how will your new seafood choices make Oak Grill’s menu stand out to the discerning seafood lover?

PL: We look to offer higher grades of popular fishes to deliver more flavor and freshness – which makes the difference to discerning diners. I also like to offer one-off options of seafood that is not commonly found such as razor clams, silk snappers and Tasmanian ocean trout.

Q:  What makes the charcuterie and fromagerie offered at Oak Grill so unique?

PL: We choose to include complex and unique flavors of meats and cheeses made in California; while making sure they are easily paired with wine or hand-crafted cocktails.

Q:  What are some of the special offerings that you have in store for carnivores? Rare aged cuts? Unique or unusual meats? Humanely-sourced products?

PL: Being from Texas, I am a fan of game meats so look for Cornish game hens, ground bison and wild boar on our menus. I’ve also brought more sustainable options for both meat and seafood. As an example, we’ve brought in solely vegetarian and grass-fed prime beef and wild line-caught fish.

Q: What sorts of special events can we look forward to in the near future at Oak Grill to commemorate your taking of the helm in the kitchen?

PL: Look for us at various community events, including the Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival. And, look for our seasonal events in Oak Grill. We’re presenting a beer dinner during Oktoberfest which will pair special menu items with various craft beers.

Q: Finally, here is what everyone is dying to know: what is your favorite dish on the menu?

PL: The Chilean Sea Bass dish is my favorite, hands down.

Oak Grill – Island Hotel | 690 Newport Center Dr | Newport Beach, CA 92660 | 949.760.4920 | oakgrillnb.com

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