Monday, August 08, 2011

No. 201: Cafe del Rey (Marina del Rey)

It's been years since I have been to Cafe del Rey, but I definitely remembered having a good impression of the spot (particularly its amazing waterfront views and classy service,) so when their PR folks informed me of that the restaurant is getting a new executive chef and invited me to check out its new, seasonal offerings -- I eagerly accepted the opportunity to dine here again. It also gave me a good excuse to hang out around the coast all day, where I rollerbladed up and down Santa Monica, Venice & Will Rogers beaches.
My +1 that evening was a little late, but that gave me some time to check out the space, talk to ths staff & chat with the new chef Daniel Roberts. A few fun tidbits I learned during the pre-dinner chats.

1) I knew Cafe del Rey's been around a while, but didn't know that they have been in business for two decades. For a town where even successful restaurants can fold in a year or two, that kind of longevity is impressive!
2) Chef Daniel takes great pride in turning the restaurant into a "scratch house," producing numerous components of its dishes & drinks in-house, from the sours & infused spirits that goes in cocktails to the fresh pastas & cheeses in assorted starter & main dishes, and even curing their own seafood & dehydrating fruits.
3) As part of the 'makeover', Chef Daniels as steered the menu towards a contemporary Mediterranean focus (which of course was different than the more classic Americana style that I remembered them serving in the past.) But when he says Mediterranean, he means the entire sea -- not just the South of France - Italy - Greece trifecta that typically comes to mind. There are influences from Israel & the Middle East, North Africa, Spain . . . and it shows in the menu in dishes such as Moroccan Lamb Burger w Harissa-spiced fries & Zatar-crusted Dover Sole w Israeli Couscous.
4) Personally, I love that Cafe del Rey's wine menu offer flights, for those who like to try/compare different wines and see what pairs best (a.k.a. indecisive people like me!) Of course, there's a great variety of by the glass, bottles & half-bottle options too.

Of course, I also took my +1's tardiness to ask staff about their favorite dishes, though Chef Daniels himself evaded that question -- noting that he's proud of the entire menu and that there's something for everyone to enjoy. Fair enough response.
Spicy Lei
Upon my friend's arrival, we quickly sat and placed our cocktail orders. While I enjoyed my Gingered Bourbon Lemonade, which was a refreshing summer sipper with just a little zip, I loved my friend's Spicy Lei (pictured above) - a lip-tingling concoction made with El Jimador tequila, pineapple juice and their housemade cilantro-mint-jalapeno syrup. I was worried that it would be too sweet or too herbacious but neither was the case.

Following our drinks came our dinner, which I sum up as contemporary Californian-Mediterranean fare that taste familiar yet intriguing at the same time... always a good combo to keep people trying more and making return visits.

And while our whole meal was delicious, here are some truly amazing highlights (i.e. dishes I'll be ordering again upon returning):
House Cured Salmon
House-Cured Salmon w Micro Greens, Artichoke Chips, Basil-Lemon Limoncello - I knew this was a must-try when I heard Chef Daniel's process of making this salmon, which involved a medley of ingredients (lemon, basil, onion, vodka, coriander were the ones I was able to jot down) in a salt & sugar cure. And it is definitely unlike any other cured salmon I've had before, with a myriad of subtle nuances (a little vegetal, a little citrusy) and a luscious, fatty texture. Making this even better was the shot of of their housemade basil-vodka limoncello, which complemented the salmon's flavors.
English Pea Agnolotti
English-Pea Agnolotti - I'm a professed fan of Rustic Canyon's sublime sweet corn agnolotti, but I dare say this version gives theirs a run for the money. The pureed pea filling was sweet and fresh-tasting, and the accompanying peas & tendrils were snappy, bright, crisp-- all well-rounded out by a nutty, rich brown butter sauce. Definitely highlights simple elegance at its best, showcasing the season's best with a straightforward presentation.
Chateau Steak
Chateau Steak
Chateau Steak w Truffled Mash, Truffled Potato Crisp, Baby Zucchini, Rosemary-Brown Sugar Bacon and Bearnaise Sauce - 2 things I have to say about this dish: 1) in my notebook, I wrote "ROSEMARY-BROWN SUGAR BACON = YUM!" (yes, all caps) and 2) my +1 paused and savored this in 5-10 seconds of silence at her first bite. Now, I'm not a baconphiliac but their house version is amazing with layers of flavor, the brown sugar's sweetness melding delightfully with the rosemary's woodsiness, before giving away to the crisp, smoky pork belly. Of course, it's no surprise that this bacon also elevated the steak's profile when eaten together. Also impressive is the delicate, nest-like pile of the potato crisp, which was nicely seasoned and not over-the-top with truffles. Our waiter also paired this nicely with the 2009 Felino Cabernet Sauv. from Argentina, which has surprisingly soft tannins for such a young red but still have sufficient body and oompf for this hefty course.
Marcona Semifreddo
Marcona Almond Semifreddo w Port-Cherry Sauce and Cherry Leather - or, according to my friend, foodgasm #2. The intensely vibrant sauce was a nice contrast against the creamy, nutty semifreddo. And the tart leather added a nice solid, chewy texture to the whole equation. It also paired wonderfully with the Tawny Port flight, illuminating the fruitier & spicier notes of younger version and to the smoothed out, nutty, maple-vanilla flavors of the older one (we happened to like the middle 20 yr. old best.)

After sharing these and four other courses, we were left in a blissful food coma, lazily admiring the views of the marina at night while discussing our highlights of the meal -- and what we gotta try when we come back next time ( for me, definitely that Zatar dover sole and also the Petaluma Farms chicken, partly because it comes with their housemade ricotta gnocchi.) Here's hoping that return trip comes sooner rather than later, while the weather is still pleasant and the sunsets are long, lingering and gorgeous.

Or perhaps their $35 three-course brunch, with bottomless bubblies or mimosas...

What Do Others Say?
- Lesley Balla, for KCET, wrote about their lamb burger ("mixing Manchego cheese and harissa into the meat before grilling makes this burger particularly unique.") and post a recipe for you to try @ home.
- The Minty loved the food, and thinking about incorporated this space for "a bar crawl with fireplaces!"
- LAX Magazine noted that "the chef’s take on California-Mediterranean cuisine . . . makes each visit to Cafe del Rey a new adventure."
- Gourmet Pigs posted that "Cafe del Rey's diverse and seasonal menu seems to have something for everyone . . . The Marina del Rey residents already know to go there, but there's really no reason for the rest of the Westsiders to not check the place out."

More photos on flickr set here

Cafe del Rey
4451 Admiralty Way
Marina del Rey, CA 90292



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