Panini Grill’s ambitious kitchen also serves fresh fish, rack of lamb and zesty Manhattan chowder
By Richard Foss (Richard(at)RichardFoss.com)
Restaurants generally promote their most upscale item, even though they may have a wide selection. It’s no surprise when a place called House of Prime Rib also sells a burger, but it is when a place called House of Burgers also serves prime rib.
When I went to Panini Grill in Marina Del Rey, I rather expected that the place would specialize in Italian-style flattened grilled sandwiches. They do serve them, but it was obvious that the kitchen was more ambitious — alongside sandwiches and salads on the menu were rack of lamb, steaks and fresh fish. A coffee counter and full bar added to the sense that this strip mall sandwich shop was much more than it looks like from the outside.
On my first visit my companion ordered chicken curry while I decided to get a panini, since that was presumably a specialty here. Both dishes came with a side, and we chose Manhattan clam chowder and an Oriental-style green salad. Tomato-based Manhattan chowder runs a very distant second in popularity to the New England-style, the thick milk-and-potato-based soup that is what most people mean when they say chowder. Purists argue that Manhattan-style chowder isn’t chowder at all, since true chowder involves cream and there’s none in the recipe. Regardless, tomato-based chowder can be delightful when made right and this version was zesty, like the broth of an Italian cioppino with clams. The salad was not up to the same standard. It offered a varied mix of greens with grated jicama, mandarin orange segments and wonton chips, but the dressing was bland and dull. Ginger or miso would have livened and improved it.
That tentative approach to spicing was also evident in the curried chicken, which had a yellow gravy with no discernible taste of pepper and only mild hints of onion and ginger. The Japanese do make curry this way, but we had expected a true Indian curry, which can display boldness of flavor even without being hot. It was a pretty plate, served with good steamed vegetables and rice, but not an interesting meal.
The blackened chicken panini was much more successful thanks to an unusual flavor combination —the mildly peppery chicken was paired with a tangy pesto sauce along with fontina cheese, lettuce and tomato. The meat by itself was slightly under-spiced, but with the pesto it was excellent, and I’d order it again.
My wife and I returned for dinner and decided to try more ambitious items: rack of lamb and trout with grapes and almonds. We looked longingly at a beautiful plum tart in the bakery case, but decided to wait until we had finished dinner to make sure we had room. Our meals included starters, and we selected split pea soup and a Caesar salad.
The split pea soup was in a vegetarian stock and had bits of carrot to add texture and flavor, and I found it improved with just a bit of pepper. The Caesar was uncharacteristically bold for this kitchen, a zesty dressing with plenty of cheese and cracked black pepper. We liked it, but my wife found the pepper a bit much.
The main courses arrived nicely presented, the trout with purple grapes and toasted slivered almonds next to a slice of grilled zucchini and a mound of what was described as brown rice. The fish in a savory herb butter sauce was delicious, but we each had one bite of rice — it was cooked in a very salty mushroom-soy stock and was inedible. The lamb entrée had no such flaw; the chops had a tasty slight char from the grill and were served in a mushroom sauce that was slightly salty but worked well with the rich meat. The steamed vegetables and mashed potatoes were hot and fresh, and it was a very good meal.
Our server noticed that we had barely touched the rice and asked why; when we told him he went to the kitchen and brought back a slice of the plum tart as an apology. It was a nice gesture that showed that the staff pay attention to their customers, something that happens all too rarely. The plum tart was quite tasty, and I enjoyed it with the last of a glass of the Napa red blend wine that had gone nicely with the trout.
Dinner for two with three glasses of wine ran $65 — not sandwich-shop pricing, but Panini Grill much more than that. Some of the most ambitious items were most successful, and there is obviously some talent in the kitchen. The atmosphere here is pleasant and the service good. If they can get everything to the level of their best dishes, Panini Grill will be a crowd-pleaser. §
Panini Grill is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. There’s ample free parking, good wheelchair access and vegetarian/vegan-friendly dishes. $5 corkage.
Panini Grill, 4325 Glencoe Ave., Marina Marketplace, Marina del Rey (310) 823-4446 paninicoffeecafela.com