A Tasting Tour of Orange County's Finest Hotel Restaurants

When commuting from San Diego to L.A. I rarely stop to smell the roses. My goal is to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible; and I may know an exit or two for a coffee stop, but as a whole, that two hours in the middle is a big grey area.

Recently I had a couple of days to explore this unknown territory and was excited to discover such a magnificent coast that has just the vibe you would expect: an energetic buzz filtering down from Los Angeles mingled with a laid back Southern California mentality; the perfect combination for a two-day coast up the coast.

Say "Cheese" at Montage Laguna Beach

Breathtaking panoramic views and elegant, comfortable decor offers a relaxed dining or tasting experience day or night at The Loft restaurant. On my visit I wanted to watch the waves, enjoy a fine glass of wine and explore the exceptional artisan cheese gallery which is unique to The Loft. Store bought brands will no longer satisfy your pallet after your personalized tasting event that comes with your own fromagerie that will guide and enlighten you along the way.

Our fromagerie was eager to tell us about the aging processes of the cheeses and boasted about the exceptional selection. With over 100 artisanal cheeses to choose from, he claimed the largest selection on the West Coast — if not the U.S. He had an extensive background and a passion for cheese that I had never experienced before.

To further complement the finely developed flavor and texture of each cheese, 70 honeys and 30 different house-made jellies and compotes were presented. Honey gets better with age, like a fine wine, the chef explained, and each of these jars held a personal story. Employees are encouraged to bring back honey if they come across a unique jar on their journeys. Since honey's flavor is based on where and with what flower a bee pollinates, each taste has a distinct blend to savor.

Experience the Sustainable Flavors of The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel

A late lunch at famed Chef Richard Sandoval's Raya restaurant was a delightful mix of fun finger foods and elegant fine dining with some seasonal surprises along the way. Raya, which features Pan-Latin Costal Cuisine, is located in the back of The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, overlooking the ocean. The resort has an organic garden where many of the herbs, vegetables and fruits are grown for the restaurant. Visitors to the property can even sign up for an Ambassadors to the kitchen Eco-Adventure to tour the property and learn about sustainable gardening and then head to the kitchen to learn how to cook with organic food. I was eager to taste the sustainable seafood, local produce and creative Latin flavors.

I started with a variety of two-bite tacos that were no traditional beef and cheese fare. Lobster with chile de arbol, avocado and cilantro; smoked swordfish with pickled chiles and mango salsa; and pork belly with habanero coleslaw and kabayaki were my choices that day. My personal favorite was the pork belly with its sweet/savory appeal and crunchy slaw texture, but each presented a unique and specific flavor. I was sad when the delectable bits were gone but then relieved when I learned that I could repeat this experience every week at Taco Tuesday at the 180blũ oceanfront restaurant.

Seasonal foods are always a treat and must be a part of any dining experience if available. I think I lucked out completely making an end of the summer trip because I got to taste the best corn soup (with huitlachoe dumpling, avocado and queso fresco) I've ever had. End of the year corn is always the best and the flavor was so sweet, I could hardly believe when they said it didn't contain any additional sweetener.

Since I was on the coast I had to have seafood for my main course and the Seared Sea Scallops were perfectly presented with char siu pork belly, sushi rice, white soy moja and nopalito. The scallops were exceptionally fresh and tender and the searing brought out the subtle richness. For dessert I couldn't resist the sound of Spiced Churro con Kahlua Pudding. While the churro was perfectly spiced with sugar and cinnamon, the Kahlua pudding was the part I couldn't put down. A thick layer of gooey caramel mixed with the not so sweet pudding combined to make the perfect little treat to end the meal.  

Balboa Bay Club and Resort

Sometimes when I go out for a nice meal I want to get back to the basics and Balboa Bay Club and Resort gave me just the right dose of casual sophistication. The 15-acre property is the only full-service waterfront resort in Newport Beach. Vacationers as well as live-in residents in the short and long term apartment rentals take in spectacular bay views and classy drinking and dining options. Although the superb food and wine are the constants you can count on, there is outdoor recreation and a variety of events that keep each visit fresh.

Upon entering The First Cabin Restaurant, guests feel transported to an exquisite dining room on a cruise liner. A full wall of windows looks out onto the bay where beautiful yachts are docked and smaller vessels float by as if pushed by the breeze. An impressive collection of over 600 wines will ensure the perfect pairing for any pallet. If you would like a more intimate experience, there is a private dining room that holds up to 18 guests.

Chef Joseph Lageder selects the area's freshest ingredients for his menu which highlights steak and seafood. I selected the seared spice-rubbed salmon as my main dish which was nicely seasoned and accompanied by mango wrapped in crispy prosciutto, wasabi potato mousseline and a caramelized honey balsamic reduction. The plate was fulfilling with a special blend of complimentary colors and textures that was more inspired by the flavor of ingredients than the desire to impress.

After your meal spend a day relaxing at the spa or burn off your lunch at the state-of-the-art fitness center. Take a tour of the bay on an electric Duffy boat ride or soak up the sun on the private beach. Discover authentic beers and a special menu for Octoberfest. Get into the festive state of mind with Newport Beach's renowned annual boat parade in December where over 100 boats get decked out with decorations for the season. Be sure to check out the events page to plan for one of the many upcoming outings.

Surf and Sand Hotel, Release Your Routine

The gorgeous property of Surf and Sand Hotel sits like a man-made cliff hovering just inches away from the break of the coast line. The guest rooms or suites, the restaurant, and spa are sure to replace any look of dull daily ware and replace it with a beachy sunset glow.

A recent $3 million renovation has revitalized the California coastal design with modern lighting and original artwork. The pallet of ocean colors pull the calmness of the beach setting into the sun drenched guest rooms. I have to admit that while I appreciate the beauty and comfort of a nice hotel room, I'm not typically a hotel room dweller. In this case however, upon arrival I kicked off my shoes and floated to the balcony. The crashing waves and cozy chair lulled me into a rare luxury in itself, and an afternoon nap. I awoke to the silhouette of a paddle boarder outlined in a brush-stroked sunset.

As the sun dipped below the horizon the dinner crowds streamed in to Surf and Sands' unforgettable restaurant Splashes to enjoy the Mediterranean-inspired dishes from Executive Chef Jeff Armstrong. The menu changes with the seasons so you never know what delicious surprises you may find.

Want a complete Travel Quote including airfare, special hotel rates and FREE upgrades? Contact our Travel Specialist today! I started with a concoction dreamed up by resident Mixologist and Pastry Chef Ryan Velilla. The Musa Mule, made with banana infused vodka, house-made ginger beer and fresh lime was a perfect light and refreshing treat in the ocean breeze. Fresh and local seafood was on the menu and I had to try the barbecued octopus with white bean and citrus salad and herb oil. As I hesitantly closed my eyes on the first bite of tentacle with little suction cups, I was happily surprised by the flavor and texture of the entire dish. 

I also tried the local fish ceviche with house-made chips and grilled shrimp skewers with grilled pineapple salsa. The vibrant display of color and texture of each dish drew me in and made each bite that much more anticipated.

As I took a dip in my personal Jacuzzi tub, I perused the spa menu which includes facial, body therapy, and massage treatments as well as spa packages, nail care and waxing services. All products used in the spa are natural and certified organic. Although I didn't make it to the spa I will be sure to return for a longer stay on my next trip up the coast.

For more information on where to find the best places to stay, eat and play in Orange County, visit

Jamie Gungler

Jamie Gungler loves to explore and live life to its fullest. As a writer for Justluxe she enjoys sharing her unique travel experiences, reviewing products and more. ...(Read More)

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