Authenticity and innovation off the beaten path
Trani’s Dockside Station is in an unlikely location for an inventive, modern restaurant, but they make it work
by Richard Foss
The life of commercial fishermen has always been hard, dirty, and unglamorous, which hasn’t stopped restaurants evoking it in their decor. Decorators scavenge nautical wrecking yards for patched nets, rusty lobster pots, and bits of anything that might plausibly have been used to catch fish. As soon as the last rusty binnacle is nailed into place, a sign goes up offering a fried shrimp platter and a happy hour beer special.
I headed for the recently opened Trani’s Dockside Station half expecting some variant on this theme, because predictable as the formula is, it sells. The Trani family has been running restaurants for four generations in San Pedro, so one might forgive them for cashing in on that vibe. One thing doesn’t fit that scenario, though: the location in the former Canetti’s Seafood Grotto. This area of maritime service businesses and fish warehouses – real ones, not restaurants designed to look like them — is well off the tourist path.
Short answer: that’s not their market. The area at the foot of 22nd Street still looks like the unglamorous working port that it actually is, though the mission revival architecture of some nearby buildings is attractive. If this neighborhood ever gentrifies, it will be a prime spot for a mall, as horrifying as that might be to those who like the area as it is. As for the building that is now Trani’s Dockside, the exterior is unchanged except for fresh paint, a new art deco sign, and an outdoor patio. Inside it’s another story. Canetti’s environment was outdated by the 1960s but had a shabby charm. Trani’s Dockside has a contemporary feel. There are mid-century modern touches like the Scandinavian design chairs and a beautiful curved bar that was salvaged from another restaurant, but no nautical nostalgia except a few large photos from the heyday of local fish processing.
We were less thrilled about one other modern feature of the place – the interior is loud, averaging 82 decibels with bursts over 95. I was dining with someone who prefers quiet places, so we reserved an outdoor table. The patio has overhead canopies, but these are decorative rather than functional because the afternoon sun is from an angle. A set of roll-down shades could fix this, and we hope the management considers installing them.
The menu is contemporary, avoiding fish and chips, clam chowder, and other cliches. There are fresh-shucked oysters and scallops straight from the bar, ceviche, and a sashimi appetizer, but two of our party don’t eat shellfish so we tried other things.
Our starters were stuffed squash blossoms, wood-grilled mushrooms with almond pesto, grilled bread with braised chile puree and tomato powder, and a “slab” salad that sounded suspiciously like a variant on a wedge salad. It was, and a nicely made one.
There were more interesting ideas in the squash blossoms, which were fried in tempura-style batter, dusted with parmesan, and presented with a dip of housemade ricotta, herb salt, and honey. The season for squash blossoms is very short, but if these are available when you go, get them. There are just four blossoms that will take two bites each, but plenty of textures and flavors to experience. The other starters were impressive too, though all were on the small side. The chili puree with the grilled bread uses a pale white chili that packs a mild heat, but is moderated with olive oil so that it’s intensely flavorful. The grilled oyster mushrooms hit the spot thanks to seasoned crisp breadcrumbs and a pesto made with almonds that added a slightly milky sweetness. The lemon creme that came with them wasn’t essential to complete the flavors, but if we had any bread left, we would have used it to mop up every drop.
We had well-made house cocktails with our starters, of which the “sageing grace” with gin, St. Germain liqueur, lemon, sage, and grapes was the biggest hit. We had time to savor the beverages because service here is not yet up to speed – our starters came out over the course of 15 minutes, and it was over an hour and a quarter from the time we ordered until the first entree arrived. Trani’s Dockside Station has been open for less than two months, and delays in service are a common problem in new restaurants, but this was still a rather long delay.
We had selected a roasted sculpin filet, chicken saltimbocca, lobster fusilli, and a lobster salad for our main courses, and these also did not arrive together. The lobster salad was appetizer sized, but I selected it out of curiosity about pairing lobster chunks with Peruvian purple potato, carrot, sweet peas, tarragon oil and herb aioli. It arrived artfully arranged, but our helpful server Katheryn suggested mixing it all together, which was a smart move. I’d suggest offering this in two sizes, one as an appetizer and one as a meal, because the flavors were so interesting that it would be a worthy entree. Luckily the saltimbocca that someone else at our table ordered was a very large portion and they were inclined to share. The chicken paillard layered with cheese, prosciutto, and sage leaves topped with a wine gravy was a classic very well executed, though a little green vegetables or pasta on the plate would have made a more appealing presentation, and been a better-balanced meal. We had ordered a side of broccolini with sweet and sour stewed cippolini onions and garlic breadcrumbs, and were glad we did.
The sculpin (a species of rockfish) was a generous portion of fish that also needed something else on the plate, because the lemon-caper, wine, and clam broth really needed some pasta, bread, or potatoes to mop up every drop of sauce. Unfortunately, the lobster fusilli was the low point of the meal, as it had been undercooked. I like my pasta al dente, but this was gummy rather than the slight chewiness that Italians prefer. When we brought this to the attention of our server she removed it from the bill, after mentioning that other diners had complained too. It was a shame since the sauce had a fine flavor, but we just did not find this item edible.
We paired the meal with a bottle of “The Fableist” Albarino from California’s central coast, which had a slight piney flavor and floral notes. It complemented the seafood nicely, and is something I’d have again.
Five types of ice cream were offered for dessert, along with panna cotta, an intriguing item based on toasted marshmallow with mascarpone gelato, and the “Apple Jax’s,” black sesame shortbread with strawberries and green apple powder garnished with mint leaves. We ordered the Apple Jax’s, which we quite enjoyed, and three scoops of gelato that went down very well after two hours outdoors on an uncommonly warm evening.
The delays in getting food from the kitchen aside, the service at Trani’s Dockside was excellent, and we enjoyed dining there. This is a first-class dining destination with authenticity in its surroundings and innovation on the menu, and for that experience it’s not overpriced. Figure on spending about a hundred dollars a person for appetizer, dinner, and drinks and you won’t be far wrong. Bring a wide brimmed hat if you dine outdoors, or request one of the quiet tables in the back if you are particular about sound, and prepare for a delightful evening.
Trani’s Dockside Station is at 307 E. 22nd Street in San Pedro. Open 5 – 10 p.m. daily except Tues. Parking lot. Wheelchair access good. Full bar, some vegetarian items, noise level high indoors. Reservations via Resy, phone (310) 833-1188. Website at tranisdockside.com.