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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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; ritzcarlton.com .