After generating plenty of attention for his high-flying Indian wedding dinners, it was only a matter of time before talented chef Sanjay Rawat was going to open his own restaurant, Kahani, right on the expansive Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel property in Dana Point.
Opened on October 7, the intimate, dimly-lit dining room already buzzes with folks looking to experience what might be the most high-end Indian food restaurant in Southern California right now. Diners will have to catch Rawat and his kitchen team’s magnificent cooking through its residency, and hopefully, all the parties involved will see it as an operation worth continuing into 2024.
Backing up a bit, Rawat’s luxe Indian fare has been in constant demand since beginning at the Ritz-Carlton in spring 2022, including a popular Diwali celebration hosted at the resort last fall. With some 30 to 40 percent of the weddings at the seaside property serving Indian food, it only made sense to put Rawat’s skills on a more regular basis. Rawat announced Kahani last month (the word means story in Hindi), with the goal of showing a personal expression of his culinary journey as a chef. Right now that’s translating more on the plate than the actual dining area, which makes sense given the fairly quick turnaround.
Located near the entrance of the resort, the space looks scarcely changed from the wood-paneled enoSTEAK, with tasteful Indian art and design appointments replacing the old paintings across the dining room. A large glass wine cellar still sits in the center while the furniture and fixtures are mostly carried over from the defunct steakhouse. This doesn’t really detract from the Kahani experience, though, as a large golden elephant beckons diners in from the lobby hallway.
Upon sitting down, a filigreed, ornate table runner feels light years from a standard-issue hotel steakhouse, with dishes like corn cardamom soup, blackened tuna with pickle-cucumber broth, and spiced burrata with mint chutney headlining the starters. A terrific Ajwain scallop comes sliced into coin-sized bites with okra masala, tamarind gastrique, and a cauliflower crema so refined it feels plucked out of a fancy French restaurant but with flavors turned up to 11.
Going into the entrees, Chennai-style sea bass comes lightly seared, retaining its juiciness and sitting upon a garbanzo-squash ragu, tinted with mustard oil and curry leaves. Two whole racks of lamb come like mini prime rib roasts, placed over forbidden rice and laced with mint chutney, yogurt, and masala oil. Tender wagyu short rib chunks come with an intense rogan josh sauce, turmeric sago, and shishito peppers. Sides of melt-in-your-mouth malai kofta with a gorgeous tomato curry will keep Indian food fans grounded on a more familiar comfort, while jeera rice or garlic naan helps fill in any carbohydrate gaps on the table. For dessert, a tri-layer gajar halwa cake is a cardamom-inflected carrot cake with candied walnuts.
Even just a week after opening, it’s clear Rawat is navigating high-end Indian flavors and dishes on a level that virtually no one is executing in the Los Angeles/Orange County area outside of perhaps Sujan Sarkar in Downtown LA’s Baar Baar. But even then Sarkar’s approach seems to be more innovative and avant-garde, while Sawat presents his food like upscale American but flipped on its head with Indian ingredients. Orange County diners can only consider themselves so lucky to have a destination like this for the remainder of 2023, and maybe longer. Sawat and Kahani will host a special Diwali package on the weekend of November 3, with reservations available for the Diwali Mela on November 4 here.
Kahani is open Tuesday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel in Dana Point. Reservations are available here.