4.18.2011

Cafe del Rey: The Marina's Mediterranean Hot Spot

Cafe Del Rey. As a native Angeleno, for year's I've known it as the "nice restaurant" on the odd stretch of Marina del Rey's restaurant row. It sits on Admiralty Way between the wharf-themed Warehouse and Tony P's, a sports bar/restaurant with a bevy of beers on tap. Until recently, the Marina was not a culinary destination; rather it was a viable option "in the middle" to meet a South Bay-based friend for a Casa Escobar margarita or deep-fried appetizer. Boy, has that changed. From the opening of Southern-meets-molecular Vu to Top Chef Jamie Lauren's post at Beechwood, new places and (renowned chef's) faces have taken the Marina landscape by storm. Add Abbot Kinney hot spots Gjelina and Tasting Kitchen to the mix and you have a veritable culinary force to be reckoned with.

Dining Room with Marina Views
Photo credit: Lisa Cohen

They say adaptation is key to survival, and a recent visit to Cafe Del Rey proved to me that the dockside landmark has not only survived the onslaught of new competition, it's thriving. Executive chef Daniel Roberts (Asia de Cuba) has reinvigorated the kitchen, developing a Mediterranean menu inspired by the bold, fresh flavors of the French and Italian Rivieras. The remodeled bar and upgraded dining room boasts an energy provided by a mix of locals, businessmen and groups of 30-somethings ready to indulge in a great meal. During my visit, two older gentlemen at a neighboring table were enjoying a rousing game of Domino's and (presumably) an even more enjoyable bottle of 1995 Bordeaux. I would have been jealous had manager and wine aficionado Shaun Freeman not poured my dinner date and I a tasting of some of his favorites, including Frank Family Zinfandel and a Decoy by Duckhorn blend that we enjoyed while watching the sun set over the Marina.

Executive Chef Daniel Roberts

A selection from Cafe Del Rey's extensive wine list
Looking around at our neighboring tables, each and every person seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their meals. A glance at their dishes -- presented by the kitchen with an obvious painstaking attention to detail -- explained why: they were both gorgeous and mouth-watering. Nearly all of Cafe Del Rey's dishes are made from scratch, including hand-cut pastas, house-cured salmon and a killer Parmesan focaccia served with green olive tapenade.

Homemade Parmesan Focaccia with Green Olive Tapenade
(green olives, garlic, shallots, red pepper flakes, thyme, EVOO).
While Roberts' menu emphasizes seafood -- think seared ahi tuna, Scottish salmon, Maine diver scallops and pan-roasted Mahi Mahi -- chef also offers a selection of proteins for the meat lover: Chateau steak, Moroccan lamb burger, pan-roasted duck breast and a bone-in veal chop. Each ingredient is sourced from where it's best in quality, in season, or sold by artisanal vendors who are at the top of their craft. For example, chef Roberts gets his truffles from the Italian-born "Truffle Brothers," who import top-notch white and black truffles, oils, butters, etc. It wouldn't be nearly as great of a story if it weren't for the fact that the Truffle Bros. show up at the kitchen's back door and sell their wares from their "Truffle truck."

When our dishes came, I needn't look any further than my plate of "Tuna: Nicoise Style" for proof of Cafe Del Rey's reinvention. The de-constructed "salad" was almost too beautiful to eat. The tuna glistened like a gem and was topped by a arrangement of crumbled hard-boiled eggs, Kalamata olives, chopped green beans and tiny Fingerling potato "chips." Delicate housemade agnolotti, filled with mascarpone and topped with freshly-shelled spring peas, pea tendrils and a brown butter sauce, disappeared within moments of arriving. The aroma of a truffle pizza made with a mix of mozzarella and Truffle Bros' truffle creme teased us with its scent before hitting our table. I couldn't help it; I had two pieces! Doesn't sound like a lot? It was half of the pie. When the main courses arrived, I was thrilled at chef's inclusion of cuttlefish to a squid ink farfalle, prawn and piquillo pepper dish. The cuttlefish provided a great textural bite to the tender pasta and supple shrimp. Up next: Maine diver scallops were served alongside black trumpet mushrooms, pea puree and another batch of fresh springs peas.

"Tuna: Nicoise Style"

Truffle Pizza | Mozzarella, Truffle Creme

Spring Pea Agnolotti | Mascarpone Filling, Peas

Squid Ink Farfalle | Prawns, Cuttlefish, Piquillo Peppers
Maine Diver Scallops | Pea Puree, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Spring Peas
Just when we thought we were done, out came dessert. While dinner (with the exception of the truffle pizza) was light and included halved portions, I silently prayed that the desserts would be small and refreshing. My prayers were answered, as a honey panna cotta with blood orange sorbet, honey tuile and fresh berries, and miniature raspberry mousses on pistachio crusts with lime meringues appeared at our table. Talk about the perfect palate cleanser! A few bites of the honey panna cotta (an underrated flavor, if you ask me) and I was in heaven. Looking back at our shared appetizers, entrées, desserts and wine, I was reminded that Cafe Del Rey is an institution in the Marina for a reason. And the restaurant's "new-ish" Chef Roberts is doing wonderful things in the restaurant's kitchen, inspiring his staff to put out equally inspired dishes, and putting his passion for Mediterranean flavors on the plate.

Honey Panna Cotta | Blood Orange Sorbet, Berries

Raspberry Mousse | Pistachio Crust, Raspberries, Line Meringue
Thank Mary Park at Wagstaff for being such a fun and fabulous dinner date! Can't wait til our next adventure. In the meantime, I may have to check out Cafe Del Rey's three-course Easter brunch ($38/pp) this Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., complete with bottomless mimosas and live jazz trio "Juan Carlos Quintero."

4451 Admiralty Way
Marina Del Rey, CA 90292
(310) 823-6395

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