Eat & Drink This Now: Raya at the Ritz-Carlton

Glazed piloncillo shrimp at Raya. Photo by Greg Nagel

This summer, I unlocked my inner Matthew Modine and completed a vision quest. Instead of dropping 20 pounds to wrestle the best kid in the lower weight class, I gained 20 pounds in search of the county’s most scenic bites. Although the adventure led me to some ritzy places, I had perhaps forgotten about the ritziest one of all: the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel.

Tamarind-togarashi margarita, Photo by Greg Nagel

The posh, seaside South County property has two restaurants: a vino-forward steakhouse called Enosteak, which serves hefty hunks of prime beef while surrounding a glass wine lair, and Raya, a bright, airy seafood space overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

The view from Raya of the sun setting over Catalina. Photo by Greg Nagel

The tables at Raya are positioned similarly to those at a sunset dinner theater, reminiscent of what you’d find on the upper deck of a Crystal Cruise ship. As the curtains are drawn open at sundown, the sun, sea and sky mesh into a blur of nectarine colors.

Wild mushroom, goat cheese and truffle oil huarache with a Holy Mezcal. Photo by Greg Nagel

The man behind Raya is chef Richard Sandoval, known for executing roughly 30 upscale hotel-restaurant concepts across the U.S. and abroad, and his pan-Latin menu blends vibrant seafood in a color palette similar to the stunning view.

Chipotle miso cod. Photo by Greg Nagel

Sandoval also designed the cocktail menu, which has drinks that play well with the cuisine; they’re fruity and balanced to enhance whatever fresh fish dish you choose. Definitely start with the tamarind-togarashi margarita, which uses reposado tequila, with tamarind to give it a rusty hue and the Japanese salt on the rim. It takes what’s great about a margarita and boosts the flavors into a mango-chile-like sucker. If you like a spicier cocktail, go for the Holy Mezcal; the guava-based drink with fresno and jalapeño peppers is a tad smoky, really tropical and refreshing.

It’s strange to glean Asian influence from the piloncillo shrimp starter, but the deeply carmelized, Mexican-sugar-coated camarones gave me flashbacks to eating walnut shrimp in San Francisco’s Chinatown. They’re plump, juicy and oh-so sweet.

Achiote salmon. Photo by Greg Nagel

The signature mains are where the chef shows off a bit. The flavors coming out of the achiote salmon will absolutely be a dish I’ll return for. The same togarashi that rims the margarita plays a small role in the underlying veggies, tying everything together like a gift. Achiote gives the salmon a red-clay-brick hue that’s smeared on top like the glaze on a kiln-fired decorative Aztec sun god.

Lemongrass shaved Ice. Photo by Greg Nagel

“You can’t complete your vision quest without dessert,” notes my server with a grin. I’m generally not a fan of dessert, but the lemongrass shaved ice is something I can get behind. Hibiscus cotton candy tops the tropical shaved ice, a super-satisfying Thai tea custard and tropical fruits. If all dessert tasted like a refreshing poolside treat and not death by whatever, I’d get it more often.

Mark your calendars for the Ritz-Carlton’s inaugural beer-and-food event on Oct. 20, featuring South County breweries such as Docent, Pizza Port San Clemente and more.

Raya at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, 1 Ritz-Carlton Dr., Dana Point, (949) 240-2000;

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