Its location is perfect for visitors, but Del Frisco’s Grille has a menu that will keep locals coming back for more

By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)

The seared ahi tuna salad at Del Frisco’s achieves an excellent balance of seasoning and natural flavor Photo courtesy of Del Frisco’s Grille

The seared ahi tuna salad at Del Frisco’s achieves an excellent balance of seasoning and natural flavor
Photo courtesy of Del Frisco’s Grille

Some people take pride in never visiting their own city’s tourist attractions. Most New Orleanians give a wide berth to Bourbon Street, Seattleites avoid Pike Place Market and hip New Yorkers sneer at the idea of visiting Times Square (granted, that last group is already sneering at everything else, so it’s not like they make an extra effort.)

For Santa Monicans, such places may include the pier, save for the occasions when a cool band plays there. No such event was happening when I last visited the area, but I had visitors who enjoy colorful street life and ocean views, so to the pier we went. Their tastes run to high-end comfort food, and so we found ourselves at a restaurant across the street from the pier.

Del Frisco’s Grille has a stylish interior with mid-century echoes — the lighting looks like surplus satellites were cut into slices and repurposed. The menu covers steak and seafood house basics, popular items like pizzas and salads, and a few eccentric things like sand dabs steamed in a paper bag.

Though our server warned us that portions were substantial, we decided to order three starters: mushroom flatbread, kale salad, and a corn, crabmeat and bacon chowder. The chowder arrived first and started the meal on a high note — chowder with bacon is no new idea, but in this case the smoky pork and more delicate crab were in remarkable balance. A dash of basil aioli added to the flavor, which was complex and satisfying.

The other two dishes were less outstanding but still valid innovations on contemporary classics. The flatbread with fontina cheese, wild mushrooms and caramelized onions used high quality ingredients and had a crisp medium crust. It was topped with whole arugula leaves — I would have preferred shredded so that they were easier to eat and the flavor and texture more evenly distributed.

We had ordered the kale salad because it also had shredded Brussels sprouts, along with almonds, cranberries, shaved manchego and orange slices. Kale salads with nuts and cheese are everywhere, but the slight cabbage flavor of the Brussels sprouts and the tangy creole mustard vinaigrette made this one stand out. I think the dish might have been a trifle better with more cheese, but applaud the tinkering with a standard.

The wine menu at Del Frisco’s is weak at the low end and has few by-the-glass options, though some good bottles are available at the midrange. For $40 we got a Tablas Creek Rhone-style red blend called Patelin, and I liked it enough to note for the next time I restock my collection.

Our main courses were a seared tuna and noodle salad, veal meatloaf, mesquite-smoked pork chop and those aforementioned sand dabs cooked in a paper bag.

Paper cooking is a great way to prepare fish — it bakes in a moist environment, coming out fragrant and flakey. Some restaurants like to show off by cutting the bag at the table, risky because the rush of steam can actually burn unaware diners. The execution here produced delicious fish accented with basil pesto, but the dish wasn’t perfect. Whether there was too much white wine sauce or the vegetables cooked with the fish had too much natural moisture, the result was a bit soupy. It was still tasty, just not a perfect example of what this cooking method can achieve.

The ahi tuna had such a thick crust of sesame and chives that I expected the fish to be overwhelmed, but in actuality the flavors were nicely balanced. The portion of tuna was substantial, and it was a very successful rendition of modern Asian-influenced comfort food.

Our server had recommended the meat dishes highly, with good reason — the veal meatloaf with mashed potatoes was what your grandmother might have cooked if she was very good with red wine sauces.

The pork chop was a mammoth piece of meat very well cooked, the bourbon-apple glaze accenting the smokiness from mesquite. The pork was served with Anson Mills grits, an heirloom strain that I had heard about but hadn’t previously tried. If you have never liked grits before, these will be a revelation — they have a bright, fresh flavor that is vastly different from the usual dull mush.

The portions were so large that we might have skipped dessert, but I saw something I had to try. I have an emotional relationship with coconut cream pie, which was my father’s favorite dessert and a treat when I was growing up, and it isn’t on many menus nowadays. The one here is a biscuit tart shell topped with fluffy cream and an extravagant amount of shaved fresh and toasted coconut, and the flavor was everything I had hoped for. The lemon cake that we also got was less impressive (what wouldn’t be), just a nice six-layer cake with a sweet citrusy frosting served straight. An herbal garnish or side might have been a slight improvement.

Our bill came to about $55 per person before tip and including one bottle of wine, which is about what you’d expect for the neighborhood — oceanfront rents aren’t cheap. The meal was sufficiently enjoyable that I might not wait for an excuse like out of town visitors to return for more.

Del Frisco’s Grille 1551 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica (310) 395-7333 delfriscosgrille.com

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