You have to know it’s there
Nobody accidentally finds Redondo's Baleen Kitchen, but it’s worth the trip
One way of asserting status among people who love dining out is to reveal a secret spot – somewhere nobody else knows about where you can almost always get a seat and a really good meal. The appeal is obvious, both in being first among your friends to find a cool place, and it being sufficiently little-known that you can probably get a table even on a Friday or Saturday when everywhere else is slammed.
The people who run that secret spot are probably less enchanted with the whole idea, because they’d much rather be well known and full every evening. Their hideaway has to become less of a find to be successful unless it has some other source of money.
Baleen Kitchen is that kind of secret spot. Thanks to its location on the King Harbor spit that also holds the Portofino Inn, all that most people have seen of it is the sign on Harbor Drive. The convenience for hotel guests and their event catering gives them a customer base, so they’re financially stable even though most local diners have only a hazy idea that they exist. Over the years this restaurant has shifted style, including stints as a jazz cafe, rustic Italian trattoria, and a brief flirtation with the cuisine of New Mexico. Current chef Hung Quan has been on the job for about two years, and has taken the kitchen in a direction that is eclectic and has subtle references to his Vietnamese heritage.
That inflection might not be obvious in a dish like the calamari Ajillo, chunks of squid in a piquant sauce with Spanish-style chorizo, but it’s there. Spaniards don’t pickle jalapenos or sprinkle cilantro leaves on their dishes, but Vietnamese do, and it shifts the flavor in an interesting way. The vinegary, garlicky spiciness in the tomato-based sauce is cumulative, so those with tender tongues should be warned, but if you like it hot this is a great starter.
You might cool things down by also ordering the Noble Garden chop salad of shaved fennel, roasted beets, quinoa, farro, radish, tomatoes, cucumbers, and candied pecans. Chef Hung made a decision to serve this with two dressings, a green goddess on the plate below the salad that had already been tossed with an aged sherry vinaigrette. It’s a novel idea, but I would have preferred the dressings on the side. I had ordered this mainly because I enjoy a fresh green goddess and run across it so rarely, but the stronger flavor of the sherry dressing obscured it. Though we liked this just as it came from the kitchen, having the option of tying either or both with this mix of vegetables would have been interesting.
The burrata salad had a beautiful presentation, with the ball of soft, fresh mozzarella topped with chopped grilled broccolini, baby greens, and pistachio, and served over romesco sauce with a drizzle of olive oil was unconventional because of what wasn’t there. I can’t remember when I was served a burrata with no tomatoes, but there they weren’t. It was an uncommonly good use of fresh mozzarella, the soft, rich cheese a fine foil for the nuts, greens, and zippy sauce based on pureed roasted red pepper, sundried tomato, almonds, and garlic. The salad and calamari were both served with grilled sourdough, and we used every bit of it soaking up that sauce.
For our mains we selected king trumpet mushroom risotto, swordfish Veracruz, and a coffee-rubbed ribeye steak. The kitchen didn’t go overboard with the coffee rub, and if I hadn’t known it was there, it probably would have taken me two or three bites to identify the flavor. The charred scallion chimichurri was probably intended for the steak, but I liked it better with the roasted fingerling potatoes. The broccolini on the side was a bit underdone by my standards, but if you like your vegetables hot and just past raw you’ll be delighted.
The swordfish Veracruz was an interesting take on the Mexican classic, because the use of preserved lemon in the sauce gave it a North African accent. This was magnified by adding black and purple olives to the usual green olives for a richer flavor. This was served over wilted spinach and what was referred to as crispy white sweet potato. It wasn’t particularly crispy but that was okay because the flavor completed the dish.
The risotto was the most conventional entree, a luscious dish with king trumpet, porcini, oyster mushrooms, and snap peas added to the rice cooked in stock with parmesan. King mushrooms have a texture similar to a scallop when cooked, and their mild nuttiness combined with the heartier porcini and oyster notes for a rich mushroom flavor.
We started the evening with cocktails from their very good selection, but paired our meals with wine from the by-the-glass list. I was interested to see a Stag’s Leap white on the list, but after trying a taste found it inferior to the Meiomi. For the pairing with the steak, the Meiomi Pinot Noir won out in a tasting against the Justin Cab, so I’m going to pay more attention to Meiomi wines from now on.
Three desserts are made in house, the key lime pie, spiced chocolate cake, and a sticky toffee pudding. All were very good, but to me the key lime stood out for its tart balance and soft cheesecake texture.
We came back a few days later for brunch, with the hope of a table on their outdoor patio with a view of the marina. That was closed for a private event, so we sat upstairs at a table in a corner alcove. This doesn’t have much of a view but is the quietest table, and the acoustics in some other parts of this restaurant leave much to be desired. If you want a quiet table, ask for one in the corner by the fireplace.
We started the day with good strong coffee and moved on to corn cakes, a birria benedict, and the “Cali” burrito filled with carne asada, rock shrimp, tater tots, cheese, pico de gallo, and guacamole. The shrimp flavor was prominent in the burrito and they hadn’t bulked it out with tater tots, so that the carb to protein balance and flavors were both spot on. The escabeche looked like the usual Mexican pickled carrot and onion salad, but those pickled jalapenos were back again. They hadn’t been de-seeded and packed a punch. I didn’t eat much of those pickles, preferring to dip the burrito in the mild but flavorful tomatillo sauce that was provided.
As good as that burrito was, the birria benedict was better. The smoky, spicy stew was made with enough lamb to give a full flavor, enough beef to make it mild enough for American tastes. Adding chipotle to Hollandaise is an inspired idea, and it ties together the birria and poached eggs. The arugula salad wasn’t something I’d eat by itself, but as a palate cleanser between the other rich dishes it was perfect.
The cornmeal pancakes with lemon mascarpone and blueberry butter were an updated New England classic. There was a high cornmeal to flour ratio so there’s a grainy texture and they crumble easily because of the low gluten, but that’s inevitable in a real corn pancake recipe. The berry butter Dining at Baleen is remarkably reasonable for waterfront dining with a good service – breakfast for three ran about $100, and a dinner at which we over-ordered was $240. The restaurant was about half-full at peak time on both visits, and I can’t help but think if more locals knew this place existed that would change. Baleen is a short drive from places that don’t match their quality and value, and deserves to be better known.
Baleen is at 245 Portofino Way in Redondo. Open daily 7 a.m – 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. – 9 p.m. Validated parking. Full bar, corkage $20. Wheelchair access is good with elevator. Sound level moderate. (310) 372-1202. HotelPortofino.com. ER