By Richard Foss (Richard(at)RichardFoss.com)
Some stretches of Culver Boulevard are culinary destinations, but with few exceptions the action is at either end of that long street. In the middle there are good but modest Mexican places, burger joints and local hangouts but, until recently, nothing that was a draw for people outside the neighborhood.
That has changed with the opening of Del Rey Kitchen in a strip mall whose previous claim to fame was a long-running café best known for omelets and sandwiches.
Owners Michael Yee and Satoru Yokomori met at the eclectic and much-loved Sawtelle Kitchen and have taken the Japanese-Italian fusion style to their new restaurant. They don’t have their wine license yet and the restaurant is a work in progress, but based on two visits there is already a lot to like here.
On our first visit we noticed a sign as we entered announcing three-course meals for $19.95 and wondered how many choices would be offered. We were surprised to find that the deal applies to most of the menu — your choice of most starters, a house salad and any main course were included. My wife and I decided to start with Peruvian-style marinated tuna called tiradito and a Japanese spicy vegetable combination called Monk’s Delight, with an order of potatoes gratin just because we both find the dish irresistible.
We figured that the modest price probably augured small portions. It didn’t. We ended up taking most of the potatoes home even though they were buttery and delicious. The tiradito was excellent — a garlicky, citrusy style of ceviche using little or no red pepper so that the flavor of the fish stands out. The lightly seared tuna was delicious by itself and even better this way, the light, fresh seasoning teasing the palate. The Monk’s Delight, braised Japanese mountain vegetables with a gelatinous Japanese root called Devil’s Tongue, was even more interesting. The name Devil’s Tongue is from the appearance of the plant rather than its spiciness — it’s mildly salty and not very interesting by itself, but it takes on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked in. Here the flavor was a spicy soy sauce with a little sesame, creating a very satisfying warm Asian salad.
After the side salad (good, but unexceptional), our main courses arrived: pasta with spicy caviar, and pan-seared rock cod in ginger-shoyu sauce. The cod was conventional but expertly done, flaky fish in a delicate sauce with a subtle tang of fresh ginger. I preferred the spaghetti topped with cod and smelt roe and shredded seaweed in a seasoned butter sauce. Like the Monk’s Delight this was marked as spicy, but wasn’t by California standards — there was a tickle of peppery flavor, perhaps a dash of ginger, but nothing to make anybody’s forehead sweat.
We finished with a fine crème caramel flan and left very happy, having spent under $30 per person for an excellent meal. It was so good that I came back the next week with a friend who delights in Japanese cuisine. We ordered the wafu Steak as a starter along with a daily special of braised green beans and a mixed mushroom salad. The wafu steak — rare beef in ponzu sauce with scallion, daikon and a dusting of Japanese shichimi spice powder — had a delightful flavor but was sliced too thick. Very rare beef has to be sliced thin to avoid chewiness, and this wasn’t. We mentioned the problem to the owner and he brought Western-style carpaccio as a replacement. The flavor was less novel, but the sesame aioli and watercress brought it into harmony with the other dishes.
The salad also helped restore my faith in the restaurant—the three types of mushroom sautéed in citrus soy butter and laid over greens a model of Eastern and Western fusion. I’d have preferred a bit less dressing, and will probably order it on the side on future visits, but the ideas were sound. I’d keep those green beans on the menu too, since they are simple but delicious.
We selected pastas for our main course — manila clams and oyster mushrooms with garlic for one, the “Naporitan” tomato and vegetable for the other. The clam and oyster was unusual due to the sake butter sauce, and it was subtle and successful, while the Naporitan was uncharacteristically bold. The house-made tomato sauce with bacon was sweet and slightly smoky, a fine medium for the zucchini, onion, bell pepper and mushrooms. Any Italian restaurant would be happy to serve this, because it was true to both Japanese and Sicilian ideas about freshness and flavor.
We didn’t have dessert on this visit only because we had another engagement, but we’ll be back for more. The owners promise an expanded menu and wine tastings after they get their license, which should amp up the energy level even more. This little strip mall is on the culinary map now, and Del Rey Kitchen looks to be poised for greatness.
Del Rey Kitchen is open from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The menu (see it at delreykicthen.com) is vegetarian/vegan-friendly. No alcohol or corkage. Parking in lot, wheelchair access OK. Del Rey Kitchen
12740 Culver Blvd., Del Rey (310) 822-7788