If you watch a student fencer, you will see that their moves are big – they’ll slash and flourish while a pro moves half as much but hits their target twice as often. Expertise is like that sometimes, quietly perfect rather than flashy.
Chef Allyson Thurber has a resume most in her profession could only dream of: she worked with superstar Thomas Keller before moving to Philadelphia’s Striped Bass, L.A.’s Water Grill and Santa Monica’s The Lobster. When I heard she had moved to Beachside, the new restaurant at the Jamaica Bay Inn hotel in Marina del Rey, I had to go see what this master was doing.
Thurber made her reputation at seafood restaurants, so it made sense that ocean creatures dominated the entrée list. What was surprising was the simplicity of many preparations – yes, that was a shrimp, mushroom, beet and roasted pepper hash alongside the seared day boat scallops, but some main courses were as simple as grilled fish with mashed potatoes and string beans.
We started with the most intriguing single item on the menu – a salad of Maryland blue crab, red flame grapes, parmesan cheese, arugula, and endive, with a lemon tarragon dressing. Any questions about artistry in the kitchen vanished – this was a flavor combination of the highest order: every element was in perfect balance, not a superfluous ingredient, with everything contributing to the whole flavor. I would order this again – it was the best 12 bucks I’ve spent on a salad.
One of my companions waited until we were already at a seafood restaurant to mention he didn’t like fish very much. He was keeping an open mind, but ordered sliders just so there would be something he knew he would enjoy. The three little burgers were juicy and tasty but unexceptional, honest bar food made with quality ingredients.
We were in a cocktail mood, so we tried house drinks called Muddle Me This, Between the Eyes, and Deal Sealer. The first was an excellent unconventional mojito, the second an eye-opening delicately spicy blend of gin, Campari and soda with cucumber and jalapeno. The Deal Sealer – citron vodka, St. Gemain liqueur, strawberry and basil with a splash of Prosecco – was a knockout. The cocktails here are as thoughtfully crafted as the food, and that is high praise indeed.
More evidence of the kitchen’s prowess showed with our main courses – sautéed Oregon ling cod with truffled yams, roasted baby carrots and sugar snap peas; an order of grilled salmon; and grilled swordfish with an artichoke, spinach, and potato gratin, and shrimp salad.
Mashed potatoes and green beans usually accompany the salmon, but we requested the gratin as more interesting. It was the right decision, as no mashed potatoes could match the richness of flavor of that gratin, and the fact that we had two orders at the table kept us from fighting and thievery.
Our friend who didn’t much like fish had ordered the salmon, as that was one of the few he knew he liked. It was very good – pleasantly oily with a little smoke flavor from the grill and a very moist interior. Excellent quality fish well prepared can seduce even disbelievers, and he devoured every last speck. More surprising was that he also liked the other two entrees just as much.
The wild Oregon ling cod had a mild flavor that had been enhanced with rosemary-herb butter, and it was a terrific complement to the sweet, slightly musky sweet potato puree. By contrast, the swordfish was meaty and almost sweet, with caper butter and a topping of salad in a light vinaigrette adding a touch of sharpness. The portions on all three were well calculated, a satisfying meal of many tastes, and well-priced for excellent quality ingredients and stellar cooking, with all in the $25 range.
We had left barely enough room for dessert, and decided to share two: bittersweet chocolate bread pudding and an apple tart with vanilla ice cream. The bread pudding was fine by itself but was topped with hot fudge – it made a prettier presentation that way, but I would have preferred the fudge on the side so I could have added as much or little as I liked. As for the tart, it was straight from French tradition, a perfect flaky pastry hot from the oven.
Beachside is not an everyday restaurant – dinner for three with two cocktails each was $190 – but the caliber of cooking here is exceptional. Chef Thurber has been there only since July and has the place running flawlessly. This is easily the most impressive new restaurant in the area, and I look forward to seeing how it develops further.
Beachside is at 14160 Palawan Way in Marina del Rey. Open daily 6:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 – 10 p.m. Bay view, patio dining, children welcome, wheelchair access good.