Thursday, July 8, 2010

Raya at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. Delivering Tranquillity, One Plate At A Time.

Highway 1 (or Pacific Coast Highway as it is commonly called) has played host to some of the most amazing restaurants and scenic views Californian’s have been fortunate enough to enjoy since its inception in 1919. With the Pacific Ocean serving as its backdrop, it’s only fitting that the handiwork, coming from some of the worlds most amazing Chef’s would be infused with flavors imported from other nations.  

Richard Sandoval Restaurants, a leading international restaurant group with properties in The United States, Mexico and The Middle East, is once again pushing the culinary envelope with Raya, a Pan-Latin Coastal Cuisine themed restaurant housed inside The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel.

Upon entering the beautifully designed restaurant, with its alluring dark hardwood floors mixed with the platinum and amethyst décor, guests are greeted by massive floor to ceiling windows overlooking the wonderfully maintained grounds of the property. The views of the ocean at sunset (I recommend you try to get reservations around that time for the picturesque scene alone) allow you truly relax and enjoy the culinary adventure you are about to be taken on.

Overseeing this beautifully positioned piece of architecture is Chef de Cuisine Greg Howe, whose serious passion for his craft was exuberant as evidenced by his eyes lighting up like 4th Of July fireworks when talking about various ingredients such as the Huitlacoche Puree amongst others in a few of the evenings dishes.

Greeted by our incredible waiter Noé, who without a doubt, hands down is an asset to the restaurant, we were given a bit of background on the menu and what to expect that evening coming out of the kitchen.  After taking a few moments to ask what kinds of drinks we commonly enjoyed, he made a few wonderful sounding suggestions and away he went to get the night started.

Quickly returning with a Yuzu Fresca and Tamarind – Togarashi Margarita, we knew we were in for something special. The Yuzu Fresca, made with fresh strawberries and Stoli Citros is a refreshingly, light drink that doesn’t overpower the senses.
The highlight of the drinking section came though, in the form of the Tamarind – Togarashi Margarita. A Latin – Asian inspired concoction, with Togarashi Salt and Patron Silver Tequila, which was like a Michelada on steroids with it’s spicy kick. The Tamarind –Togarashi Margarita is a drink I will be trying to copy in our test kitchens.

With the chosen appetizers consisting of Hawaiian Tuna Ceviche and Beef Huarache arriving shortly after our first round of drinks, we began what was to be a truly memorable experience.
The incredibly fresh bits of perfectly diced tuna, jicama and red onions mixed with the crispness of the puffed rice when spiced with chili de arbol was better than any shrimp ceviche you could imagine. Truly a delight the Hawaiian Tuna Ceviche, is something you have to try in your lifetime, especially if you have an allergy to shellfish and wish to enjoy the fresh flavors of ceviche.

Those of you familiar with the word Huarache, might know it in regards to sandals, but believe us, this dish is nothing like a sandal at all. Named after the shape of the sandal (of the same name) this dish is almost an entrée in its own right.
Crispy masa flatbread, topped with Manchego cheese, onions, chile toreado aioli and tender bits of Dry Aged NY Sirloin combined together resulting in some of the deepest layered flavors you could imagine.

Another round of drinks was delivered, followed by our soup and salads. Now this is where the hints of inspiration from uncommon ingredients began to shine. When our Sweet Corn Soup and Maggie Farms Arugula Salad hit the table, I didn’t know whether to eat them or take pictures and enjoy the colorful creations presented to us.

Starting with the Sweet Corn Soup and its Truffled Masa Dumplings, Huitlacoche Puree, Crab, Clams, Lobster and Avocado smelled, looked and tasted like a million bucks.  Huitlacoche for those unfamiliar with the term is a “disease” that infects corn, that when taken off of the corn in its infant stages produces a mushroom like, sweet, savory, woody and earthy flavor that enhances every dish it is added too. I know that the restaurant says they don’t do take out, but I hope they would make an exception for this dish in the future.

The Maggie Farms Arugula Salad, had the best dressing / balsamic vinaigrette ever. That is a bold statement to make, I understand but believe us when we say, the pea shoots, cranberries, almonds and goat cheese were brought to life by this spiced up version of a classic dressing. Once again, it just goes to show you how a few simple things coupled with a bit of desire can be enhanced beyond your palates belief.

The main courses were delivered to us and by this point we were excited to see what kind of culinary feats they were going to pull off next. Having chosen the Miso Black Cod and Roasted Halibut, I was interested in seeing how the Asian and Latin flavors would be play off of one another in one of these masterpieces designed for the mouth.
The Miso Black Cod with Daikon Radish, Lemon-Togarashi Aioli, Asparagus and Kabayaki Sauce stole the show.  A delicately flavored, moist piece of Alaskan Black Cod arrived, that was so tender, you would’ve thought it was cooked sous-vide due to such perfection.

The Roasted Halibut with Truffled Boniato, Roasted Corn Salsa, Chive Oil and Crispy Jalapenos was the final entrée to touch the table. Lovers of Halibut, an ultra low-fat fish that needs very little seasoning to make it an astounding dish, I was interested in seeing its subtle flavors pumped up with the Truffled Boniato and Crispy Jalapenos. Not like we were shocked, by this point at how amazing the fish was, but what really put the dish over the top was the Truffled Boniato, which is a tropical Sweet Potato. Chef Howe and his kitchen brigade put their culinary skills on fine display with the dishes they created this evening.

The final stages of the race towards a food coma came when the desserts hit the table. Leaving the selection of desserts up to the staff in the kitchen, we were pleasantly surprised when a trio of desserts showed up to our table.

The Lemongrass Panna Cotta stood tall with all of its glory showing and looked like an award from the Oscars decked out in gold leaf. A passion fruit reduction with lime sorbet, tequila gelee and Fleur de Sel. The mere presence of the Fleur de Sel and all its expensive salty glory turned this dessert into something that people of all ages could enjoy. Not overly messy, not too heavy or to light to where your eating air, just perfectly made Panna Cotta with a tang from the lime sorbet.

The fresh made Churros took me back to being kid growing up in Southern California. Being so relatively close to so many Hispanic and Latin communities I have grown up with a fond love for fresh made authentic Churros (not those Disneyland creations or those frozen boxed kind you find at your local Costco.)
I am talking fresh made dough fried to perfection and coated with the freshest cinnamon and sugar.  Accompanied by 3 delicious dipping sauces (Chile Ancho –Chocolate Suace, Cajeta and Citrus Anglaise) I didn’t know where to begin but quickly found myself eating all of the Churros on my plate. 

The Chocolate Tart with its Mexican Chocolate, Almost Crust, Sour Cream Sorbet, Espresso Anglaise and Carmelized Passion Fruit by far and wide was the sneak hit of the entire evening. To attempt to bring the joys each bite of the tart and scooped out bits of passion fruit brought to dinner would be an injustice to it’s truly genuinely intricately designed existence.

The Ritz-Carlton name has long stood for excellence and the ability to indulge yourself in the greatest luxuries life has to offer, and with Raya there is no exception to this rule.

It can be said that newfound pleasures in life are greatest enjoyed with cheerful company and full stomachs. With Chef Howe’s team of talented hands overseeing Chef Sandoval’s inspiring creations, Raya at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel will create more memories than the striking beach backdrop they are perched above.


  1. Great article, excellent looking food and atmosphere! However, there is one correction to be made - the Ritz Carlton is actually located in Dana Point, CA.