Imperfect copy, in a good way [restaurant review]
The Rockefeller in Redondo Beach does the unexpected
It takes an engraver a lot of time to create the dies to stamp a single coin. Once that has been examined and found to be good, the second takes almost no time at all, and so on with every one afterward.
This is an apt metaphor for restaurant chains: once you have put the effort into creating a popular style and menu, it takes relatively little effort to repeat it. Smart operators will put the new one just distant enough that it doesn’t compete with the original, and bring over some of the people who made that one work. Things can still go wrong, because the new neighborhood may not have the same tastes as the first one, but the restaurateur knows that model can work.
The first Rockefeller opened in Hermosa Beach in 2011, and the rock-lined interior, big bar, and general high style marked it as an ambitious gastropub. The burger-centric menu was mainly noteworthy for offering unusually good side dishes, but soon more ambitious items started appearing on the menu. After tinkering with the formula until everything ran smoothly they opened a second location in Manhattan Beach. The architecture was more rustic but they offered the same menu, down to the Monday oyster specials that had been a hit at the original.
So when they announced plans to open a third location in Riviera Village, I figured they’d pull out the plans from one of those two and replicate it. Instead they did some unexpected things. One change is visible at a glance: it doesn’t look like a pub, gastro or otherwise. Though there is a bar, most seating is low and comfortable, and the decor and lighting make it more like a family’s living room. Let’s underline the word ‘family,’ because they’ve attracted a wider demographic than the other locations. By day and evening there were both more kids and people with gray hair (or none) than I’ve ever seen frequenting the other two.
That ‘day’ part of the previous sentence is another difference. The Manhattan and Hermosa locations open at 5 p.m. most days of the week, while the Redondo branch offers morning espressos and lattes and serves breakfast and lunch as well as weekend brunch. It’s a major extension of the Rockefeller brand that suits the neighborhood well.
On an evening visit we started with fried zucchini and an unusual citrus bruschetta. Bruschetta was fancy toast before toast was cool, but instead of the avocado so popular elsewhere, this garlic toast was topped with burrata cheese, chopped grapefruit and orange, radish sprouts, pepper oil, and a generous sprinkling of toasted coriander. It’s an unlikely combination that works, tangy with citrus bite and spice from coriander and multiple variations of pepper. Toasted coriander seed adds a wonderful aroma and is underused in modern cooking, and it was an inspired addition. Compared to the bruschetta the fried zucchini was a bit plain, but that made it a fine companion item. When the peppery flavors got to be a bit much you could have a bite of simply breaded vegetable with a dip of cool ranch dressing.
We continued with a chicken pot pie, braised pork cheeks, a kalbi cheesesteak sandwich, and sea bass with chermoula sauce. Chermoula is a Moroccan sauce, and though there are many variations they all use garlic, lemon (often both fresh and pickled), paprika or chili peppers, and an array of green herbs and spices. It’s a superb accompaniment to well-grilled fish, which in North Africa would be set atop couscous. Here it’s offered over a wild rice medley topped with baby greens, braised fennel, and fresno chili. The portion is substantial but you won’t get tired of the flavor, because there are a lot of things going on and they’re all good.
The braised pork cheek was a cross-cultural fusion thanks to a base of Italian polenta beneath slow-simmered meat in a slightly smoky, mildly peppery and garlicky sauce. Pork cheek is lean yet extremely moist, and when properly cooked it is meltingly tender. It’s done right here, and this is a meaty, rich dish you could almost eat without teeth. I was less impressed with the kalbi cheesesteak because the meat was a bit overdone and chewy, but the flavors were spot on. I’m not a big cheesesteak fan, but a little kimchi and some marinade on the beef livened up something that’s usually just beef, onions, and provolone.
The Rockefeller can play their flavors straight when they want to – the chicken pot pie is really a bowl of stew topped with a square of puff pastry rather than the double short-crust pie that a New England grandmother would make, but the flavors are mild and rich, and besides, who doesn’t like an excuse to eat puff pastry? We paired our meal with beer, wine, and cider and strolled into the night poorer by about 30 bucks each, a deal for the area.
It was bright sun when my wife and I returned, hoping for a table on their pleasant patio, but some large parties had already settled in. We knew what we wanted before we left the house, having perused the brunch menu online. I’m a big fan of chicken and waffles, an item that isn’t common in this neighborhood, and my wife had noticed the apple frittelli, a kind of fritter native to Corsica. We have been to Corsica but didn’t get a chance to try them, so were curious. If you like a thick-crust fritter with a little exterior crispness, topped with powdered sugar and some fresh caramel on the side, you have to get this. There’s a fine line when it comes to eating them – if you dig in when they first arrive you’ll burn your mouth, but if you wait too long that crispness vanishes.
Those were good, but the chicken and waffle combo was even better. The waffle was made with whole wheat which creates more texture and flavor, and it was crisp outside and moist within. That takes some doing, and these were so good that I ignored the accompanying citrus butter and maple syrup. It was even better when I alternated bites of the fried chicken, which had enough pepper and herbs in the batter to keep things interesting. I wish that The Rockefeller would initiate a fried chicken night, because I could go for a half bird in this batter with greens and trimmings. (That wouldn’t be the only weekly special there, because they’ll soon start offering their popular 99 cent burgers on Tuesdays.)
At dinner they probably wouldn’t offer the guava or peach mimosas we enjoyed, but if you visit for brunch I’d highly recommend either. The food and drink gave the day a delightful start and set us back $45, a very acceptable amount for a splurge. The Redondo Rockefeller’s weekday breakfast menu is a bit more limited but has some impressive items – a short rib breakfast burrito went by that smelled heavenly.
The Rockefeller in Redondo is proof that varying a formula can be a great idea. There are plenty of loud, modern gastropubs in the area, but this is one of a kind.
The Rockefeller is at 1717 S. Catalina in Redondo. Open 6:30 a.m. daily, close 10 p.m. Sun., 11 p.m. Mon.-Thur., 1 a.m. Fri.-Sat. Street parking or nearby lots, beer and wine served, wheelchair access good, sound level moderate. Some vegetarian/vegan items. Phone 424-350-7862, web eatrockefeller.com. ER
by Richard Foss