DINE | Raya

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Pan-Latin Meets Orange County

Raya at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel serves up Latin flavors with an Asian influence, complemented by a stunning view. – By LBM Staff

To say that Raya is an upscale Mexican restaurant would be completely laughable. For one thing, that would be like saying that The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel is just another beachfront hotel in Orange County. First of all, The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel is mucho sophisticated, yet very cool and approachable (if you haven’t seen it lately, you haven’t seen it at all). Secondly, even fairly savvy foodie fanatics would be hard-pressed to even classify this fine-dining destination as “Mexican” at all. Let’s say it together: Pan-Latin.

The Pan-Latin tag, which features a mix of Latin flavors with Asian influences, comes from celebrated restaurateur, Richard Sandoval. Richard has 22 restaurants worldwide and Raya is one of his newest prizes; and most certainly the one with the best view. Perched 162 feet above Salt Creek Beach, diners can savor Latin-fusion flavors in dishes such as rock shrimp quesadillas with bacon, togorashi and sesame, while enjoying awe-inspiring views of sunsets and surfers. Safe to say, this is not your typical Mexican-restaurant-on-the-beach food experience.

Chef de Cuisine Greg Howe carries forward Richard’s philosophy at Raya, creating unique coastal cuisine prepared with sustainable seafood, local produce and grass-fed meats.

“Chef Sandoval has created flavors based on travels and experience,” Greg says.  “The cuisine is not something that was contrived to help create a restaurant menu, but rather ‘food that we want to eat’ using local ingredients. The flavors work well because they are created from memory, not through experimentation.”

Although Greg has a lot of experience working side-by-side with culinary icons (including Richard, Charlie Trotter and Jimmy Schmidt), he has developed his own flair for creating colorful dishes using only the freshest local produce and seafood available.

The partnership of Richard and Greg explodes in flavors that, at first, almost confuse the senses. For instance, the Pacific Kumamoto oysters-on-the-half-shell feature roasted tomatillo salsa and chipotle honey mignonette as accompaniments. It’s sweet with a pleasant, somewhat unexpected kick. And, the sweet corn soup (which might be the best thing on the menu) is made with truffled masa dumplings and a huitlacoche purée, which gives the dish a light, smoky finish.

Many notable seafood selections include miso black cod, pistachio and chile ancho-crusted Hawaiian tuna with mole verde, sautéed prawns and organic achiote king salmon. Each dish exhibits its Latin-Asian twist in its own way. The salmon, for example, is grilled and served on top of a combination of sautéed chayote (a Mexican summer squash), wild mushrooms and smoked bacon. The entire dish is served in a bowl with achiote ponzu and topped with the chipotle aioli.

Although the Pacific Ocean steals the show, the ambiance of the airy room at Raya is thoughtfully done and features hard woods, rich colors and a dramatic kelp forest sculpture, created by artist Brad Oldham. The service is quintessentially Ritz, which makes the overall dining experience something to remember. LBM

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