The views are exhilarating: That much you should already know about Raya, the new restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. To get a more expansive vantage point of the Pacific Ocean, you’d have to be on a cruise ship. The wide windows are as tall as masts. Off in the distance, you see the glassy ripple of the ocean as it reflects the colors from the sky at dusk. Closer to shore, the tiny figures of surfers ride the crests. Such is the reason why seats nearest the windows are coveted. You either need to secure your reservations days in advance or else know people who are willing to bump somebody who has one.
But as good as the scenery is, it becomes a secondary distraction once the sweet-corn soup arrives. Yes, you must order this. You wouldn’t think a bowl of soup could divert your attention from that view, but it will. Served unassembled so you can appreciate all that goes into it, it’s as if a Ferrari dealer gave you a peek under the hood before handing you the key.
On the plate are the components for your joy ride: a perfectly cooked clam; tiny tufts of crab and lobster meat; puréed avocado in an artful swipe; a truffled masa dumpling that looks like a tater tot; and, finally, a black blot of puréed huitlacoche (more on this later). All could easily constitute a gourmet-plated dish unto itself, but then, when you give the signal, your server drowns it with gold liquid poured from a gravy boat.
Your first sip is astoundingly silky. Your second makes you realize it’s as fun as an Etch A Sketch. Wave your spoon one way, and it sends the inky huitlacoche streaking through the yellow soup like a calligrapher’s quill on parchment. Wave it another way, and you’re reacquainted with the salty flecks of crab meat you met earlier.
And that’s just the beginning. The rest of your meal—everything from the dainty cornbread squares they give you in lieu of bread to a dessert of helium-light churros with three dipping sauces—would be spectacular if eaten in the Ritz-Carlton’s broom closet or, heck, a Motel 6. The men responsible are Richard Sandoval, the mastermind who designed the menu, and Greg Howe, the chef de cuisine who executes it nightly.
Sandoval, largely unknown to Orange County, is the rare chef who hasn’t been overexposed by Bravo or the Food Network. The Culinary Institute of America-trained Mexico City native made a name for himself in New York City with three eateries and has award-winning restaurants in such cities as Vegas, Dubai and Acapulco.
But what you should credit the man for most is the cojones to serve huitlacoche at the Ritz-freakin’-Carlton. That’s right—the fungus (a.k.a. corn smut) that infects corn crops and is not-so-lovingly referred to as corn cancer and “raven’s shit” is featured in not one, but two dishes. I already mentioned the soup, but the corn smut makes its most lasting impression on the short rib. A lonely dab rides atop the meat, its presence even more indispensable than the sides of Oaxacan cheese mashed potatoes and broccolini. The tarry goo tastes tangy and vaguely alcoholic, easily upstaging the beef, which, by the way, took the enthusiastic waiter a good five minutes to explain was braised for 10 hours. The process renders the immovable meat pillar a softy, peeling away in effortless shreds as though it were cotton candy.
Sandoval doesn’t relent in touting his Mexican roots with other dishes. He’s almost gleefully unapologetic. He has two kinds of huaraches, beef and mushroom. He does a mole that could challenge your abuelita’s. And on a perfectly cooked hunk of salmon, he uses achiote paste to season and sauce the fish. With chayote, bacon bits, chipotle aioli and mushrooms, the annatto-based flavoring agent ties together a plate that already has a lot going on.
On his octopus carpaccio, he coaxes the tenderness out of the slices so it eats like turkey cold cuts. Sandoval’s two ceviches are ceviches in name only, as neither the shrimp nor the tuna utilizes lime in any measurable quantity, but the shrimp ceviche stands as proof that mixing coconut milk and sambal together results in culinary kismet.
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You are meant to scoop up the dish with the yucca and fried plantain chips they provide, but I say forget about etiquette: Take the whole bowl and gulp down the leftover coconut liquid like a shot. You may be at the Ritz-Carlton, but if no one’s paying attention to the view, they’re not looking at you either.
Raya at the Ritz-Carlton, 1 Ritz-Carlton Dr., Dana Point, (949) 240-2000; www.ritzcarlton.com. Open daily for breakfast, 7-11:30 a.m.; lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sun.-Thurs., dinner 6-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat., 6-9:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$150, food only. Full bar.
This review appeared in print as "Buena Vista: The Mexico-accented cuisine at the Ritz-Carlton’s Raya fits the matchless view."