Oh, Capricious Gut!
The best meal I ever ate was at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel's late, great Dining Room: a seven-course extravaganza with a classy broad, wine that tasted like sunshine, a tuxedoed Russian named Nicolai and a final tab equal to the price of my first car (see "Blame It on the Ritz," Sept. 10, 2004). But the Dining Room closed just a week later, victim to a major renovation of the Ritz that the owners promised would hip up the august resort.
The gamble worked. The Ritz-Carlton continues to practice the same extraordinary attention to service but now features a leaner aesthetic to draw in the nouveau riche—airier, with more crystal and whitewash, mostly. It helped the Ritz keep alive its 20-year streak of garnering Five-Diamond status from the AAA, an honor not even the Young Turks on the coast, Laguna Beach's Montage and the St. Regis across PCH from the Ritz, attained in 2005.
The refurbished Ritz-Carlton relaxes even the stiffest stiffs, so I've visited the Ritz quite often during the summer and fall. But I held back on dining at Restaurant 162', the restaurant that replaced the Dining Room. It wasn't their fault; I just naturally resent anything that replaces paradise.
I finally strayed a couple of weeks ago, and, honestly, I wasn't initially floored. The new restaurant's design is gorgeous, with sculptures of California poppies and wall paneling that seems better suited for the office of an Ivy League dean. But the Ritz-Carlton removed a wall so that 162's customers could enjoy the resort's mesmerizing ocean view. Really wonderful, but Restaurant 162' is also next to a lobby, meaning diners get to see idiot tourists in flip-flops and Quiksilver boardshorts pass by along with the waves.
You won't notice those distractions for long, however, thanks to Restaurant 162's inventive tapas-style menu, prepared by Ritz-Carlton executive chef Joel Harrington. My dining partner and I started with soups—an orange-ginger potage for me, clam chowder for her. "Isn't clam chowder the same everywhere?" she asked, but she shut up once she tried hers: a light, creamy soup gussied up with strong clam chunks and potatoes. Great—but not as sublime as my carrot-ginger soup, traffic-cone-orange-bright and sweet but with a zing produced by the slices of dried ginger on top. The two soups proved ideal for dunking the house breads of peppery crackers and herbed loaves.
My dining partner wanted something hefty to soak up the Dom Perignon she imbibed without care for my meager stipend (sorry, boss!) and opted for the sea bass. "Great, this is the type of place with large plates and small portions," she sighed when the waiter brought out the fish. She exaggerates—the fresh, tart bass, paired with toasted red rice bathed in a coconut curry and edamame tempura, was substantial. So substantial, in fact, that my dining partner couldn't finish.
Everything on 162's menu is appealing—I will return for those veal cheeks and lobster—but I wanted a different type of surf-and-turf and thus chose the small plates of Kobe beef and scallops. The Kobe beef came first. I expected a great steak but instead got a pink fillet. It was raw, heated only to room temperature, and had the texture of a water balloon: scary. But inside my mouth, the Kobe beef proved revelatory, a buttery, beefy treasure of unadulterated red meat. Spread upon it were pickled vegetables and a root vegetable purée that bore an uncanny resemblance to melted Cheddar yet tasted gourmet.
Even better were the scallops, my favorite mollusk. Since I ordered the small-plates portion, I received only two scallops, but that was enough. Sweet cinnamon cabbage came with one, and bitter onions sat underneath the other; both impressed.
Dinner ended; dessert came. My chocolate panini was large and sweet, but my dining partner's lime crème brûlée was about two spoonfuls, meaning I took away her spoon the minute she smiled in satiation. I'm not a crème brûlée guy, but Harrington's rendition is as great as I've had it: chilled, with the requisite burnt crust on top and a minty, smooth crème of lime below. Nothing will ever replace the Dining Room in my heart, but Restaurant 162' makes my appetite forget it, at least for a moment. Oh, capricious gut!
RESTAURANT 162', LOCATED INSIDE THE RITZ-CARLTON LAGUNA NIGUEL, 1 RITZ-CARLTON DR., DANA POINT, (949) 240-2000. DINNER FOR TWO, $40-$100, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.
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1 Ritz Carlton Dr.
Dana Point, CA 92629-4205