By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
If anybody tells me that they noticed the Destini Café in Playa del Rey the first time they drove by, I will never get into any car they’re driving – they obviously spend far too much time sightseeing instead of watching the road.
The restaurant’s sign is back from the road and hidden by trees even during daytime, and at night it’s invisible – you only see a neon sign announcing that something is open.
My first impression was uninspiring – a little counter by the kitchen, with only a rack of exotic teas to indicate that something ambitious is offered. The dining area in the rear is prettily decorated with dripping fountains and statues of Buddha, and at night it’s lit by strings of lights.
The menu straddles East Asia; there are Chinese, Korean, Thai, and Singaporean items – usually a bad omen. Most pan-Asian places make only one cuisine well and offer the others to lure in customers who don’t want their specialty. Based on two visits, Destini Café is that rare exception – there were successes across the cultural range.
On the first visit my dining companion was late, and I sat in the shade of the trees with a book and a pot of pu-erh tea. Destini offers almost 30 different teas, and the heavy, aromatic pu-erh isn’t the best complement with food, but it’s a relaxing drink by itself. On arrival, the first thing my companion said was “I drive by all the time, but haven’t seen this place before.”
We decided to start with a shrimp wrap appetizer, followed by a Korean bibimbap rice bowl and an order of the “Bourbon sauce chicken, Cajun flavor.” The wraps got things off to a bad start – they had a strong and unpleasant flavor that couldn’t have been deliberate. When we expressed displeasure to our server, he took the plate away and removed the item from our bill, which we appreciated.
The authenticity of the bibimbap was unexpected – the dish of rice served in a hot stone bowl and topped with beef, vegetables, and a fried egg was faithfully done. Non-Koreans often don’t understand this dish – if the rice is left undisturbed in the hot bowl, it forms a crunchy crust, so you leave it for a few minutes so it gets crisper if you enjoy it crunchy. If you like just a little crispness, then you stir to heat the vegetable toppings and shredded beef. Unlike many Korean dishes it is very mild, though spicy bean paste called gochujang is provided for those who like heat.
The bourbon chicken with “Cajun flavor” did not have the gratuitous heat that is usually implied by that term, but a mild flavor of bell pepper and onion appropriate to Cajun cuisine. Rather than spicy, it had a sweetness and tang in an otherwise standard dish. The accompanying rice had mung beans, as is traditional in Korea – another hint about the chef’s ethnicity.
I returned the next evening with my wife, who was charmed by the pleasant atmosphere and amused by the dinner music – a combination of reggae and a lovelorn frog singing somewhere near us. The Destini Café is next to a park and marshland, so the frog concert is probably not unusual.
We decided on shrimp chow mein, “diabetes egg foo young,” and Singaporean chicken curry. “Diabetes” means diabetic-friendly; it’s a vegetarian foo young with no rice. There are many versions of this Cantonese omelet, and all they have in common is an egg pancake stuffed with vegetables and served with a brown sauce. It’s a simple dish that is tasty when well-made, and this one was delicious.
The Singaporean curry was more complex – chicken leg and vegetables served in a soupy yellow curry that was mild and fragrant. I was surprised at how well this was made, though it was less spicy than tradition would dictate, it had the authentic touch of coconut milk and herbs. It came with the rice and mung bean mix and was a rich and filling meal.
The shrimp chow mein showed that whatever problem there had been with the appetizer the previous day, it wasn’t the shrimp themselves – they were tasty, tossed in a smoky-tasting sauce with noodles and bits of cabbage and broccoli. We liked it but couldn’t finish it because the portions were sizeable.
The bill was modest, less than $30 for food only (we brought a bottle of Riesling). For a good dinner in peaceful surroundings it was a bargain, and along with the meal we got a story to tell our friends – one about a hideaway café that does many things very well.
Destini Café is at 423 Culver Blvd. in Playa del Rey. Open daily except Monday 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. Parking in rear, no alcohol served, children welcome. 424-228-2140.