High ambitions, harbor view
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
The long curve of Admiralty Way in Marina del Rey has been a restaurant row for decades, though for much of the time the offerings weren’t particularly ambitious. The first exception, and for a long time the only adventurous dining in the area, was Café Del Rey. There a succession of chefs explored various culinary avenues – I remember enjoying Japanese-French fusion when it first opened, then a foray into hyper-exotic combinations when I returned in 2008.
In 2013 the menu has calmed down from that exuberant and sometimes overheated style that put oxtail risotto and halibut on the same plate. It hasn’t become stodgy – new chef Daniel Roberts still presents daring ideas, but they are grounded in French and Italian ideas of flavor with surprising forays into other cuisines. I enjoyed Roberts’ cooking when he was at Baleen in Redondo Beach, and had to see what he was doing in his new digs.
The restaurant’s décor has not greatly changed – the odd angles of the building and vibrant colors still appear futuristic after all these years. We settled into a comfortable booth with a view of boats in the Marina and pored over the menu while nibbling on focaccia, finally settling on starters of house cured salmon on wheat blinis and a bowl of carrot-ginger soup.
The salmon were cured in the Scandinavian gravlax style that gives it a gentle tang of salt and sugar, then put atop thick little pancakes and topped with a smear of crème fraiche and caviar. They were four bites of rich and multi-layered goodness, a refined nibble to start the meal. They happened to be superb when paired with soup in which the carrot was the dominant flavor, with ginger and a dash of coriander modifying it delicately. We quite approved; the last time I tried carrot ginger soup in a restaurant it seemed to be mostly hot ginger by volume, and the subtlety of the vegetable flavor was overwhelmed.
We continued by splitting agnolotti – small raviolis filled with English peas sautéed in brown butter, then put over a bed of pureed peas with pancetta and pea tendrils. There were three different flavors of fresh peas here: raw, pureed and whole, and the effect was magnificent. I strongly advise ordering this – the season for pea tendrils is short, but this item would be worth a special trip.
To pair with our meals my wife ordered a Gauthier Sauvignon Blanc, while I chose a wine flight – three short pours of different wines. Some were designed by region, some by the grape, and I was having trouble until I came to a mixed flight called “Indecisive.” Since that described my state of mind, I ordered it. One of the few constants at Café Del Rey has been the excellent wine selection, and this well-calculated, eclectic flight encapsulated that as well as anything – a Kenwood California sparkler, Lodi Zinfandel, and delightful Spanish Garnacha.
For main courses we selected handmade squid ink pasta with lobster, caramelized fennel, and tarragon, plus a remarkable pork tagine with black quinoa, dates, pancetta and vegetables. The pasta was very good, the lobster cream sauce with a dash of chili a perfect fit with the seafood, but the tagine was a revelation. Since this style of braising is native to the Muslim world it is very rare to find pork used, and since quinoa is from Peru, that isn’t done either, but together they were marvelous. The pork was tender and intensely flavorful, the quinoa was nutty and firm, and the mix of yam, zucchini and cippolini onion with coriander cream added wonderful accents. The portion was unexpectedly large, and we took a lot home to enjoy the next day.
We had over-ordered at dinner, but had to try dessert – an olive oil cake with blood orange meringue along with a flight of dessert wines. We had hesitated over another item we saw, and our server surprised us with a complimentary glass of Banyuls dessert wine. The only deficiency of Café Del Rey’s menus is that they don’t describe obscure items like this one – Banyuls is a rarely and delightful wine, and if more people knew what it was they might order it. This sweet wine is famously good with chocolate but it paired well with the lightly tart orange and rich cake, and even though we were full we enjoyed every morsel and drop.
Our lavish dinner for two ran $150, but we had over-ordered and a satisfying meal might be had here for much less. Given the excellent service, pleasant environment and stellar food, it was well spent.
Café Del Rey is at 4451 Admiralty Way in Marina del Rey. Open daily for lunch or brunch and dinner. Valet parking, full bar, children OK. Menu at cafedelreymarina.com. 310-823-6395.