Tangaroa lets the natural flavors of high-quality seafood shine through

By Richard Foss

Pan-sautéed pork belly pairs perfectly with fresh seafood risotto

Pan-sautéed pork belly pairs perfectly with fresh seafood risotto

When I told a friend who lives in Wellington that I was going to visit a New Zealand-style fish restaurant, there was a noticeable pause in the conversation. After a moment he said, “I have no idea what that might be.”

I have visited New Zealand and noticed that it doesn’t have a particularly distinctive cuisine; the food there is mostly based on British favorites. The Polynesian Maori arrived long before the first Europeans, but didn’t develop local specialties because almost nothing that grew there was edible. Those beautiful green fields and
forests in the Hobbit movies are quite lovely, but almost barren of nutrition save for European crops. And the only vegetable the Polynesians brought when they settled there: the sweet potato.

My brother and I arrived at Tangaroa Fish Market & Raw Bar with no idea what the kitchen might be serving, save that it would involve fish that might or might not be cooked. We saw some of those fish as soon as we entered the building, in a case of seafood on ice right inside the door. Most of it was even from New Zealand, which has a rich harvest thanks to a nutrient-rich current of clean water straight from the Antarctic regions. The artistically arranged seafood did whet our appetite, and we picked up menus to see what Tangaroa would do with it.

As it turns out, they do what everyone else does with fresh seafood: grill it, fry it, and make poke, salads, soup and ceviche. Oddly, the combination most emblematic of New Zealand tradition, mixtures of local seafood with sweet potato, isn’t served here — there is no sweet potato on the menu. Since I had some delightful dishes involving both of these elements when I was there last year, this seemed odd. We talked to our server and got recommendations, then ordered accordingly.

The starters were crab cakes over salad and a cup of chowder, followed by fish and chips and seafood risotto with pork belly. The crabcakes had a lot of sweet crab with mild seasonings and just enough filler to hold it together, and they were designed for those who love the flavor of crab. Many crabcakes locally are heavily dosed with creole, Cajun or Old Bay seasonings, and while I like all of those regional flavors there is something to be said for letting the seafood shine through. There was just enough breading to add crunch to the exterior, just enough binder so they didn’t fall apart, and if you wanted to vary things a bit there was a nice dill mayonnaise for dipping. The salad had little or no dressing, but the dill mayo worked fine there too.

The chowder was a bit different from average too, with not a trace of pepper, potato or bacon. It was just creamy herbed broth swimming with mussels, clams and fish chunks and some toasted baguette on the side. Like the crab cakes, the focus was on the natural flavor of the seafood. This may be confusing to California palates that like Sriracha and jalapenos on everything, but it’s an enjoyable change of pace.

The seafood pork belly risotto is one of the more modern items on the menu, and I had ordered it partly because it’s rare to see pork belly combined with seafood. It was a sound decision, as the two items were good individually and even better together. A hefty portion of pork belly that had been pan-sautéed to create a crisp golden crust around a moist interior topped a risotto that had a fresh, oceany scent and an appropriate portion of seafood. It was easily the best item of our meal, and one I’d go back for in a heartbeat.

The fish and chips was good but not mind-blowing, the batter light and airy but not completely crisp. They used good quality fish, which put it a cut above most offerings in L.A., and we also appreciated the fresh, tangy tartar sauce. The fries weren’t completely crisp either, making us wonder whether the oil had been slightly cool or the entree needed another moment or two in the fryer.

In the past decade New Zealand wines have become much more popular, and as might be expected the Tangaroa Fish Market has a strong selection. They also offer vintages from other regions, and our server generously offered tastes of a Vermentino and white Bordeaux before we settled on a Sauvignon Blanc and an unusual sparkling dry rose. It was served in juice glasses, which is not the best tool for the job, and they might want to reconsider this. There’s also a decent beer menu and some low-alcohol cocktails, and they have obviously paid attention to compiling a list that complements the seafood they serve.

We felt like something chocolaty for dessert and ordered the homemade mousse, which was described as being served in a martini glass. Luckily this was a large conical glass rather than the wispy stemmed variety, so there was enough rich bittersweet goodness for both of us. It’s made in-house and served with fresh whipped cream — a nice way to finish a meal.

The name Tangaroa comes from the Maori sea god, who was not believed to be partial to humans who ventured into his domain. The hospitality in this casual spot is inviting, however, and the focus on top-quality fish well prepared gives it a local niche.

Tangaroa Fish Market & Raw Bar 12604 W. Washington Blvd., Culver West (424) 289-8144 tfmraw.com