Marina Hideaway [restaurant review]
At Baleen Kitchen, the menu reflects no particular culinary trend, a strategy rests on how well classic dishes are presented.
I know someone who works with tech geniuses who are self-consciously unconventional, and whose work attire includes asymmetrical haircuts, unlikely body jewelry, and kilts both traditional and modern. My friend stands out even in this company, because he prefers a tasteful conservative suit and properly knotted tie. Is it a personal style choice or a comment on his contemporaries? It’s not obvious, and he doesn’t say.
I was reminded of him when I visited Baleen, the restaurant north of the Redondo Pier that shares the end of a little peninsula next to the Portofino Inn. Most owners would would paint the building in bright colors and coat it with neon so people would know it is there, but instead the exterior is neutral and signage is minimal. It’s almost the dictionary definition of hiding in plain sight.
Once you’re inside there is more character, but it’s eccentric. The pretty bar and lounge has a Caribbean resort style, with the focus of the room on the artistically lit bar. The dining room has plenty of windows with views of the marina, but at night has a dark, clubby mid-century aesthetic. It’s quiet, low key and curiously disconnected from the locality; while many places emphasize local history and culture, almost nothing reminds you where you are.
The menu is relatively short and follows no particular culinary trend, offering slightly updated versions of classics. That strategy demands that the place live or die on how well things are executed, and based on two recent visits Baleen does well on that score.
Starters are the same at lunch and dinner, and between the two visits I sampled grilled shrimp over polenta, duck carnitas with chipotle blackberry sauce and apple slaw, a Caesar salad, and their “noble garden” salad. The duck carnitas is a holdover from their old menu and is served over an unusual, soft cornmeal crepe instead of a tortilla. The tart green apple and smoky and sweet sauce worked very well the last time I was here, but this time the balance was slightly off. The duck had been cooked in the berry sauce and was a bit sweet, even when mixed with the tart apples. Pepper sauce is available for those who like to add a bit more bite, and I think a dash makes a significant improvement.
The grilled shrimp over soft polenta was better than average, thanks to a sprinkling of pico de gallo, and the Caesar was a classic well executed. The most surprising item was the garden salad, which featured quinoa, farro, avocado, beets, blue cheese, mint, and almonds along with the greens. The two grains, the mint, and the almonds gave it a slight Middle Eastern feel, the beets and the balsamic vinaigrette dressing a sweet and sour edge. It was altogether successful and raised my esteem for the kitchen.
At lunch a few burgers and sandwiches are offered, including one called the “Andrew Jackson burger” that we ordered while puzzling out why it was called that. After a moment it occurred to me that our seventh president’s nickname was Old Hickory, so it was probably a reference to the bacon that was in this sandwich, along with a fried egg, braised short ribs, crisped onions, coleslaw, onion, and cheddar. The bacon had been sugar-braised, which I don’t usually like, but it fit in with the other flavors. The sandwich was sky high and slightly messy, but along with the pile of crisp fries was a fine meal.
At dinner I tried their cioppino, while my companion had a hanger steak that came with arugula and a few stalks of asparagus. The tomato-based broth on the cioppino was first rate, fruity and peppery with delicate hints of herbs and garlic, and the portion of seafood was generous. It was easily the best item I had here, and I’d have it again any time.
The steak was less to my taste because it was cooked past the medium that was requested and had been under-salted. Since salt brings out other flavors during the cooking process, adding it to a steak that has been cooked without it doesn’t entirely remedy the problem. The meat had a nice smoky flavor from the grill and we liked the housemade steak sauce and chimichurri that came with it, so it was a near miss not a fail.
Baleen has a decent wine and beer list and a surprisingly inventive offering of signature cocktails, which are named after movies shot in Redondo Beach. The “Dazed and Confused” was an egg white flip with Peruvian brandy, lemon, vanilla, and hemp oil, and was the first cocktail I have tried locally that used any cannabis derivative. I was told that it isn’t psychoactive, and it does add a nice funky herbal background flavor. For those who prefer more conventional tipples, the “Better in Thyme” evokes Southeast Asia with lemongrass and basil along with gin and Cointreau, and the “Butterfly Room” is a solid and enjoyable tiki drink. Someone with an excellent sense of flavor concocted these, and it’s worth going a bit out of the way for mixology fans.
A few interesting housemade desserts are offered, but they were out of the apple tart that most interested us, so we elected to skip.
One salad, two entrees, and two cocktails ran $102, about what I’d expect for waterfront fine dining. Baleen is an interesting anomaly in the local scene, quiet when most competitors are loud, understated in both cuisine and environment. It’s an interesting and eclectic hideaway, and most residents probably don’t know it’s there.
Baleen Kitchen is at 260 Portofino Way in Redondo. Open daily 7 a.m – 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. – 10 p.m., Sunday brunch served. Parking lot, full bar, corkage $20. Wheelchair OK, elevator to dining room. Menu at hotelportofino.com, phone (310) 372-1202. ER
by Richard Foss