This year, food enthusiasts can revel in the monthly Chef’s Table Dinner at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. Executive Chef Andres Jimenez selects a seasonal theme each month, and along with chefs from his culinary team, offer a four-course tasting menu showcasing each chef’s creativity on each theme, including RAYA chef Marissa Gerlach who I’m a fan of.
When you arrive, you will be directed to the private dining room, a beautifully hued space complete with its own wine ‘cellar’.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the first one last week, with a theme to kick off the series in honor of Chinese New Year which incidentally, was on Monday.
Char Siu Pork Belly Moo Shu
pea shoots, wild mushrooms, cilantro
Dr Loosen Riesling, Kabinett, “Bernkasteler Lay”
Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany 2010
Our first course arrived with two rolled-up ‘moo shu’ packages of slightly sweet Chinese-style barbecue pork belly rolled into soft moo shu pancakes and topped with fresh pea shoots to give it a refreshingly crisp contrast. Although red bean paste is never used in savory dishes in Chinese cuisine, the quenelle of red bean paste was interesting and I ate it at the end as a palate cleanser in preparation for the next course to arrive.
bamboo shoots, black trumpet mushrooms, Szechuan essence
Yves & Denis Breussin, Vouvray, Loire, France, 2008
Fish is a vital part of a Chinese New Year meal and traditionally, we serve it whole, Here, the inspired dish was exquisitely prepared with the snapper perfectly moist and tender on the inside, while possessing a crispy exterior all over. The accroutrements were reminiscent of a Sichuan-style sauce typically used on a fish dish, which played upon my senses, bringing hints of recognition here and there from my childhood.
Honey Glazed Squab
gingered kabocha squash, blood orange
Freemark Abbey, Viognier, Rutherford, California 2005
I grew up eating squab (or pigeon) and for me it is customary to order a whole one with head still intact. In Hong Kong these days, some restaurants will cut the pigeon into pieces, but always serving it “whole” along with the head.
I would think if a squab was served this way, most people would have a fit and at the Ritz-Carlton, you can be sure you won’t be getting the Asian version. The delicate pieces of meat is cooked to perfection, so delicate yet firm, while the kabocha is lightly perfumed with ginger and the blood orange adds a citrusy lift should you wish for one.
Then there is the ‘bird’s nest’ of finely ‘woven’ red beets spun together to form a ‘nest’ where a variety of vegetables sits with a quail egg perched on top. A mouthwatering and stunning dish, one of my top two dishes of the night.
Green Tea Smoked Short Rib
Mandarin orange glace
J Dusi, Zinfandel, Paso Robles, 2009
The fourth course’s presentation was so pretty I didn’t want to cut into the piece of tender short rib nestled between the baby bok choy and the baby pea shoot bouquet. I love the rich caramelized flavors of the meat which reminds me of the braised meats my mom used to make.
Panko-Crusted Vanilla Rice Pudding
pineapple sorbet, candied orange, cashew crunch
Quady, Orange Muscat, “Essensia”, California 2006
When the last course was served, I was already full and not being a dessert fan, I always have the mentality that I can take it or leave it. Not only was it a work of art, but after the first bite of the crispy but light rice ‘cake’ with the sweet-tart morsels of fresh pineapple, pineapple sorbet and crunchy cashew bits, I was hooked and ended up devouring its entirety.
I don’t know much about wine or which wines to pair what with, however, I know what I like and all five wines served here were all very agreeable and easy-to-drink. If I drank all of them, trust me, they’re VERY easy to drink!
The best part of this journey is you get to savor the talents of the chefs, get to meet them when they personally accompany the course they’ve created and hear them explain the inspiration behind the dishes. And no, it’s not because I’m special, everyone who visits a Chef’s Table dinner will receive the same experience as I did.
From left: Raya Chef Marissa Gerlach, Chef Tournant Steve Wan, Banquet Chef Jim Fritz, Executive Chef Andres Jimenez and Executive Pastry Chef Brian Sundeen.
Chef’s Tables are held monthly in the resort’s Private Dining Room. The dinners start at 7pm and are $169 per person, inclusive of tax and gratuity and wine pairing.
Below is the list of Chef’s Table events you can look forward to. Make your reservations early as space is very limited.
Market to Table — Thursday, February 23
Chef Jimenez showcases how ordinary ingredients found at any market can be turned into an extraordinary menu.
250 Miles of Cuisine — Thursday, March 29
A menu utilizing only ingredients harvested, picked or raised within 250 miles of the resort. Guests will also learn about what ingredients are available within the region and how they can be turned into an amazing menu.
Mushrooms, Mushrooms, Mushrooms — Thursday, April 19
In April, Chef Jimenez presents four wild mushrooms expertly prepared four different ways. I’m excited to see what’s in store for the dessert course!
A Sneak Peek of Summer — Thursday June 28
A sneak peek on the benefits of additional sunlight. Experience dishes from the year’s best season (in the Chef’s opinion) for fresh, healthy, light produce and ingredients that will tempt the palate all summer long.
The Ritz-Carlton has generously offered dinner for two at RAYA for one lucky reader. All you have to do is tell us what is a theme you would like to see featured on the Chef’s Table and why. Please be creative and you MUST reply with your full name! Entries will close Sunday, Jan 29 and winner will be announced on Monday, Jan 30. Good Luck!!
The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
1 Ritz Carlton Drive
Dana Point, CA 92629