There may be no better season to enjoy Ray’s Boathouse than summer, when the sun sticks around like an obstinate child refusing to turn in for the night.
Ray’s turns 40 this June and is celebrating with a makeover that began last fall when the more formal downstairs dining room closed for three months of renovation. (The upstairs Café gets its turn later this year.)
The Boathouse reopened in January looking newly sleek, like a luxury yacht outfitted in a crisp color scheme of navy, red and white. But the real excitement is the addition of a bar, which, like the dining areas bracketing it on both ends, offers an unobstructed view of that incomparable westward vista.
Light glances off the rippling water of Shilshole Bay and dances across the bar’s low ceiling and dark walls. Twilight, when it finally comes, is even more bewitching with the distant mountain peaks white-etched in the mauve mist.
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You don’t need reservations — just a little luck — to commandeer a couple of the bar’s low-backed leather seats, or one of the high round tables once-removed from the view. There you might set sail on the “S.S. Manhattan” with Jim Beam and his buddy, B&B, in an orange-juiced cocktail. The designated driver might don a “Life Jacket,” a bracing cocktail alternative made with blood-orange shrub (drinking vinegar) and ginger beer.
The bar menu’s snacks and shareable plates include a faultless crabcake and a fantastic saffron-scented seafood paella laced with spicy chorizo and laden with lump crab meat, smoked sablefish and clams. “Warm gougeres” were somewhat frosty in the middle, but the creamy whipped Gruyere made up for that.
Executive chef Wayne Johnson, who came aboard to captain Ray’s kitchen early last year, conceived the bar menu and the new dinner menu. Johnson hasn’t abandoned those Spanish and Mediterranean influences honed after many years at Andaluca, but he paints with a broader palette here, using butter lavishly and experimenting with Asian ingredients.
Primed by the scenery, pampered by a discerning staff and knowing that the bill wouldn’t be small for the high-quality seafood that has always been Ray’s hallmark, I had high hopes the kitchen would rise to the occasion. Overall it does, with a few missteps that only nitpicking restaurant critics might fault.
A pair of vivid sauces — champagne-yuzu ice and tequila-lime mignonette — escorts oysters brimming with their own briny liqueur. Saffron and garlic permeate a pork-studded broth for steamed Manila clams.
The luxurious Pacific Northwest chowder rightly puts strips of tempura-fried razor clams on a pedestal constructed of potatoes, celery, fennel and smoked salmon. The broth, poured tableside, forms a moat around the tower waiting to be toppled by your spoon.
Broiled Alaskan halibut dressed simply and stunningly with lemon grass, garlic and wilted pea vines trails a silken lemon-cream sauce in its wake; but heavily garlicked maitake mushrooms weighed the dish down like an anchor. A pungent wave of dashi broth threatened to overwhelm gorgeous spring-run Chinook from the Quillayute, but meaty oyster mushrooms, Napa cabbage and Manila clams helped right the ship.
Sablefish in sake kasu is a Ray’s classic. This very sweet version is just saved from cloying by gingered bok choy and jasmine rice. The presentation is annoying, though: Tips of the blackened pin bones spike like a Mohawk ’do for the diner to remove (and there were more hidden within). Who wants to pluck bones from a $35 dish?
Tiny, sweet Alaskan spot prawns, peeled but with their tails intact, also made for awkward eating, nestled as they were among ribbons of fresh pasta tossed with a ginger-sparked curried butter sauce.
Nitpicking aside, it’s a treat to dine at Ray’s. How rare is it these days to ease into wide, well-cushioned chairs at tables spaced farther than arm’s length, where a party of four can comfortably converse? The meal unfolds at the measured pace of a Merchant-Ivory film, and ordering even a $19 half-bottle of wine earns you the attention of the sommelier.
Consider ending the meal with a trio of local cheeses, or an elegant Meyer lemon semifreddo with pistachio biscotti. You might even end it back at the bar, where a front-row seat for the sunset is waiting.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at firstname.lastname@example.org.