It doesn’t come cheap, but Richard Sandoval’s confident global fare satisfies

Part of me used to dread The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, the dean of our deluxe coastal resorts. Dressy cocktail attire was the discomfiting price we paid for rich, albeit superb, French food and impossibly suave service—no ocean view included in the stratospheric tab.

When Restaurant 162’ opened in 2005, the posh property finally flaunted its seaside assets in a retooled dining space that was less fussy, but no less expensive. But the California fare wasn’t special.

Once again The Ritz has waved its makeover wand, this time with Raya, an adventurous take on fine dining for an elegant Reagan-era hotel. Pan-Latin restaurateur Richard Sandoval is the acclaimed chef/brand behind the distinctive cuisine, but he’s rarely in the kitchen since he nurtures a global empire of 15 restaurants from Dubai to D.C. The smiling fellow chatting up diners is chef de cuisine Greg Howe, a transplant from the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota.

On first inspection, Raya hides in plain sight. There is no door, no eye-grabbing signage or telltale cues—we simply head for the massive windows overlooking Salt Creek Beach and find ourselves at a split-level space dotted with velvet chairs and sleekly set tables. A young woman behind the high counter confirms yes, this is Raya. We’re given a choice of tables with an ocean view because our hostess notes there are children seated near the most desirable. We gamble on a spot and never hear a peep from the small fry.

Below us, surfers catch the final waves at twilight and we give thanks for the absence of a marine layer. We peruse the menu crowded with unfamiliar dishes and order a bottle of intense, flinty Sancerre to aid our study. Our kindly waiter patiently answers a barrage of questions: What is requesón? Spanish ricotta. What is boniato? Tropical sweet potato. What is kabayaki sauce? A sweet blend of soy and rice wine. Clearly, he hears these questions often.

We start with three seemingly simple openers—Kumamoto oysters, a salad of organic tomatoes and avocado, and the sweet corn soup with masa dumplings. Creative toppers such as chipotle honey mignonette can’t help oysters that aren’t plump or flavorful. Chunks of tomatoes are fine partners to rich avocado and a tender squash blossom stuffed with mild requesón, brightened with a smattering of pickled onions, slivers of tart apple, and a zesty vinaigrette.

Corn soup with truffled masa nuggets, shellfish, avocado, and huitlacoche puree sounds wonderfully rich given its menu description—and its sophisticated mix of smooth, chewy textures and sweet, musky flavors are a thrilling encounter. The straw-yellow soup is poured tableside into a white china bowl bearing bits of crab and lobster, plus a speckled swirl of huitlacoche—the dark corn fungus adored since Aztec times. Howe won’t offer this lovely dish again until corn season returns. More likely to be on the menu right now is the carpaccio of roasted beet, another exceptional starter. Queso de Valdeón—a Spanish blue cheese—is the tangy, creamy foil to thin, juicy beet slices. Lively pear-and-green chili salsa add sweet heat, and pistachios are the nutty note in the gracefully bitter black mole vinaigrette.

Natural Colorado lamb rack is properly roasted and pairs well with a delicate corn puree and a vibrant vegetable relish. Sandoval’s teaming of the lamb with hoisin and adobo—both barbecue-like flavors—illustrate his talent for finding affinities between Asian and Latino cuisines. One haunting dish is thoroughly American (North and South Americas, that is): beef huarache starring medium-rare slices of dry-aged New York sirloin. It’s actually an appetizer, but I sub it for an entrée and it plays the role admirably. An oblong crust of masa, slightly crisp on the outside, is the base for black-bean purée, sizzled peppers and onions, a bit of manchego cheese, and savory planks of Prime dry-aged beef. Miso black cod is a lush, sweet treatment of the naturally rich Alaskan fish. The addition of both a kabayaki sauce and lemon aioli with togarashi (Japanese spice blend) verges on overkill.

On another night, Raya’s appetizers star again, this time at the Ritz’s 180blu, a new rooftop patio adjacent to Raya. The bar menu here mostly reprises Raya’s appetizers, complemented by fiercely creative cocktails such as a Patron Silver tequila margarita flavored with tamarind, and rimmed with togarashi salt. A metal cone bursting with chubby truffled fries hardly needs the accompanying achiote-chipotle dipping sauce. They’re a deliciously caloric match for Wagyu short-rib sliders built with pickled poblanos. Excellent hamachi sashimi with lime ponzu, apples, and mint is more virtuous and stands up to chilly sunset breezes.

Raya won’t thrill diners headed to the Ritz-Carlton in search of old-school formality. But its modern style, Sandoval’s cuisine, and Howe’s confident rendering of a global-minded menu is an energizing update for this renowned resort. For those who can ante up, Raya makes the Ritz-Carlton enticing once more.

Hamachi sashimi, sweet corn soup, tomato-avocado salad, beet carpaccio, beef huarache, rack of lamb, roasted halibut, miso black cod, Wagyu sliders, French fries.

Appetizers, $14 to $22; entrees,
$24 to $40; Sunday three-course,
a la carte brunch, $65 per person.

Sunset breeze too chilly at 180blu? Stay warm with the same drinks and bites at Bar Raya, next door to Raya and off the lobby. Go early to snag a sunset seat.


The Ritz-Carlton
1 Ritz-Carlton Drive
Dana Point




Photographs by John Cizmas

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.

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