Ray's of Light on Shilshole

A beachfront stalwart updates its menu, with mixed results.

According to what's probably the most popular feature in Us Weekly, stars are just like us! They take their toddlers for first haircuts and buy bagels by the dozen. But what the candid photos of Pete Wentz wearing pajama pants and Jessica Alba pushing a grocery cart really prove is that good-looking celebrities are nothing like the people who listen to their music, see their movies, or read US Weekly. That's because most non-Hollywood civilians blessed with perfect breasts or chiseled cheekbones wouldn't dream of slouching about town in broad-brimmed baseball caps and oversized hoodies, as deflecting attention from physical beauty isn't the American way.

Yet that's exactly the course that Ray's Cafe is pursuing with the latest iteration of its menu, which includes an assemblage of small plates intended to recapture eyes that might otherwise be trained on the restaurant's regionally definitive Shilshole Bay view. With summer scenery that's the sea-and-sky equivalent of Ryan Gosling, Ray's would probably still have to invest in vibrating table pagers if it served nothing but gruel and buttermilk. But the 40-year-old institution—older if you date its birth to 1952, when Ray Lichtenberger erected the 50-foot red neon RAY'S sign that still glows today; younger if you're counting from 1987, when a devastating fire flattened the restaurant—is keen to remind potential patrons that it's also worthy of a visit on cold, misty days when the landscape's gray and chowdery.

This year, Ray's hired executive chef Wayne Johnson, late of Andaluca, to craft dishes that could reasonably be expected to hold their own against a pink sunset, and to draw younger customers who pride themselves on their food seriousness. The overhaul started with the second-floor cafe: Although Johnson was careful not to strip the cafe's menu of its fish-and-chips trussing, he's already plumped it with nearly a dozen dishes that would have been unthinkable when Lichtenberger was renting boats off the dock. Now there are platters of gluten-free steamed bok choy, shiny with sesame oil, and rockfish tacos scrawled with cilantro-avocado cream sauce.

Unfortunately, it takes a fusillade of culinary tricks to compete with Ray's surroundings, and too many of them often end up on the same plate. The small plates which are supposed to represent the restaurant's foray into the present are aggravatingly busy, swamped with a swirl of overstated flavors that makes diners feel as if they're on the wrong end of a game of telephone. Johnson's concepts have been serially addled by too much soy sauce, too much butter, too much oil, and too much salt, no doubt applied by overtaxed and still-learning cooks in a very big kitchen.

But, hey, you're at the beach, which means freewheeling's the norm. If you don't feel like subjecting yourself to Ray's recent experiments, you can still order a salad or a burger and have a lovely plein air evening. Ray's has long been known for turning out solid versions of coastal classics, and the current round of tinkering isn't threatening to rock that reputation. Service remains well-mannered, with plaid throws delivered to shivering customers at a lickety-split clip. And a Ray's Cafe meal is enormously impressive at its poles: A smart cocktail list and a selection of desserts created by pastry chef Lorna Stokes, who arrived from Cantinetta in April, harbor the restaurant's greatest pleasures.

 

Because blankets can only do so much, Ray's has perfected the boozy coffee cocktail, spinning elaborate after-dinner warm-ups from chocolate and butterscotch liqueurs, Tuaca and amaretto. But there's much on the bar menu for those deceptive early-evening hours, when the notion of needing a blanket seems absolutely ludicrous.

A Manhattan made with peach bitters is a seasonal model of the genre, and the Nordic Summer beautifully melds contemporary tropical-beverage trends with a salute to Ballard's heritage in an ice-filled pint glass. "Have you had aquavit?" asked the bartender when I ordered the bubbly drink, which also includes caramelized pineapple purée, lemon juice, bitters, and soda. The many people who order the cocktail for its name are nearly always disappointed, he explained.

The vast size of Ray's Cafe means an outdoor table is usually available within the 45 minutes that was the standard hostess promise when I dined there on balmy nights. Soon after you're seated, perhaps while contemplating a second cocktail, you're likely to succumb to the lure of the small plates, which sound light and inventive on the page. But on both my visits to Ray's Cafe, every dish disappointed. Bulbs of bok choy, liberally scattered with black and white sesame seeds, were radically undercooked, putting more stress on a knife already tested by the greens' slippery coat of oil. Spears of asparagus were nicely grilled, but sadly smothered by lemon juice and salt. Artichoke hearts had lingered far too long in a sauté pan, so the plate's only discernible flavors were oil and char.

The miniature fish dishes were as vexed as those featuring vegetables. A wedge of grilled halibut has an alluring crust, but the fish's nuances are surrendered to a supporting mound of buttery mashed potatoes and a rich tomato beurre blanc that function as their go-betweens. Like the halibut, the salmon looks pretty from every angle, with a coarse mustard-dill crème fraiche insinuating itself into grooves left by the grill, but the sauce is heavy and the curried mashed potatoes are a few scads of butter beyond tasteful.

Sablefish is so naturally buttery and rich that hanging around the fishing hole with a sablefish snack might well have been the prehistoric equivalent of watching golf and eating nachos. Yet Ray's Cafe inexplicably makes the supple, sake-poached fish sweeter by blanketing it with a honeyed soy sauce.

So much for novelty. Fortunately, Ray's Cafe's menu doesn't end there. For eaters who can stand sweetness at dinner's forefront, fat skewers of smoked salmon—stood upright like sparklers in a thick wheel of pineapple, garnished with a peppery cucumber relish— make a fine starter. Candied almonds lend a welcome crunch to a salad dotted with goat cheese and dried cherries, then dressed with a balanced herb vinaigrette. And none of my guests registered any complaints about tightly woven crab-and-rock-shrimp cakes or linguine featuring gaping, meaty clams and a pistachio pesto sauce.

Still, the standout entrée isn't really an entrée at all, but a sandwich elevated to the dinner hour by popular demand. A soft slice of brioche functions as the base for Rogue Creamery's white cheddar, arugula, plenty of Dijon mayonnaise, and a creamy-yolked egg that's crisp at its edges. Described by our server as his favorite hangover cure, the open-faced fried-egg sandwich is pretty marvelous regardless of how you misspent the previous night.

Desserts are even better. Crème brûlée may be a cliché, but Stokes' lemony version, basking in a scoop of blueberry ice cream, is tart and pure. A pyramid of banana mousse and Nutella ganache, texturized with hazelnut dust, is an extraordinary yoking of flavors. Bundled under a blanket, pulled up to a table set with Stokes' mousse and a steamy coffee cocktail, it's impossible not to guzzle the spectacular view and feel supremely contented.

Price Guide

Salmon skewers $12.95

Sablefish $15.95

Artichoke hearts $6.50

Linguine $16.95

Egg sandwich $10.50

Banana mousse $7

hraskin@seattleweekly.com

 
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