The reinvention of Baleen Kitchen [RESTAURANT REVIEW]
The baleen whales that migrate along our coast are some of the most majestic creatures in nature, and any time I can get out on a boat to watch them I seize the opportunity. To wonder about their minds and senses and what they think of the land-based creatures who intrude into their watery world is endlessly fascinating.
The only whales visible from Baleen Kitchen, the restaurant at The Portofino Hotel & Marina in Redondo Beach, are the ones painted on the power plant across the marina. They’re not a substitute for the real thing, but along with the masts of sailboats in the harbor they do make a nice view from the restaurant’s outdoor terrace or second floor windows. Baleen Kitchen, the restaurant named after those finned giants, replaced Baleen earlier this year, and with the departure of former Executive Chef Jesse Souza the restaurant has gone back to basics. Not all the way back – there are still some surprises on the menu – but the emphasis is on uncomplicated flavors stylishly presented.
Figuring out just what some of those items are can be a challenge, as the menu takes terseness to a new level. For instance, the item listed in the “Small” column as “Warm blue cheese, dates, and almonds” is actually a dipping sauce for bread. It is possible that the minimalist descriptions are deliberately unhelpful to force diners to interact with the servers who can then provide descriptions, but that tactic can backfire. It was fine on the uncrowded evening when we dined there, but if the restaurant had been busy with people at every table needing descriptions of the food, it could slow things down quite a bit.
We decided to start with a smoked fish spread and papas bravas, the Spanish dish of boiled potatoes that are deep-fried and topped with spicy sauce. The smoked fish dip was actually more solid than liquid, not really a dip but easily spread with a knife. As far as I could tell it was smoked fish, cream cheese, pepper, and herbs mashed together, a tasty mix by itself and even better with the pickles that were served on the side. It came with cold pita bread that did not suit it well, but when we asked about alternatives our server Sandra brought first warm dinner rolls and then some flatbread crackers. The flatbread crackers were by far the best companion to the fish, and I’d suggest that the restaurant make that the default.
The papas bravas were a good counterpoint to the fish dip, one cool and tangy, the other served hot and spiced with a generous but not excessive dose of hot pepper and chopped green onions. The thick sauce had a tomato and vinegar base that added a sweet and sour tang to the peppery flavor, and it was mildly addictive – we devoured the portion even though the two appetizers were really enough for three people.
We decided to pair the starters with cocktails – a good pomegranate margarita and an exceptional drink called a Kensington Zinger, made from gin, ginger syrup, ginger beer, and lemon mint. It was a concoction that was cool and refreshing even on a blustery evening and would be dynamite on a hot day.
Hot days were in short supply when we visited, but the downstairs patio was comfortably warm thanks to infrared heaters. There are three different dining areas at Baleen, that patio, a formal dining room, and a casual lounge area with a mix of tables and comfortable sofas. Of the three I like the outdoor area best, though at night the heaters do emit a red glare that makes the food look a bit unearthly.
The dinner menu at Baleen Kitchen is short – only a dozen items in all, including the burgers, fish tacos, and fish and chips. There are a few interesting items, and we were curious about whether the seafood stew was like a bouillabaisse, cioppino, or something entirely different. (In case you wondered, cioppino is based on a tomato broth, bouillabaisse on a flour and oil base called a roux.) The menu here gave no clue, but our server said after a moment’s hesitation that it was more like a bouillabaisse. And so it was, but not precisely. The broth didn’t quite have the garlicky herbal kick one expects from the Provencal specialty, though the occasional chunks of chorizo added some spice and interest. The portion of shrimp, calamari, fish, and clams was ample, and though I might have preferred a bit more bold use of spices it was a fine hearty entrée for a winter evening.
The pork chop was also more interesting than the description (mustard potatoes, roasted apple, maple) would lead you to believe. I’m wary of anything flavored with maple because it is often used with such a heavy hand that I taste nothing else. In this case there was a good balance between maple, salt, and herbs – I think the pork chop may have been brined before being grilled, which could also help account for how tender and juicy it was. I have a suspicion that this preparation may have carried over from the previous restaurant, since it’s similar to a pork chop I had there a few years ago. The accompaniments are different – roasted apples and very good mashed potatoes with Dijon mustard instead of the complex hash that used to be served – and the new items add up to a comfort food classic.
We were so stuffed thanks to the large appetizer portions that we had no room for dessert, but we went back a few nights later because several looked interesting. We decided on the rustic berry crumble and the “cast iron bread pudding” with pecan ice cream, rum syrup, and candied nuts. I think I had an actual cast iron bread pudding once; it certainly was heavy enough to pass for a dessert made of heavy metal. This one was cooked in a cast iron tray, and while it was light enough I did not find it satisfying. The dominant flavors were of butter and nuts, with the rum sauce just a whimper and the bread very soft rather than having any real texture. The blueberry and raspberry crumble was better but still not top-notch – it had an agreeable mildly tart flavor but the dough on top was a thin crust that didn’t form the broken biscuit-like topping that is traditional. Based on this sampling, the desserts here need work.
Dinner at Baleen Kitchen is on the high side – our meal for two, with two drinks and a glass of wine ran $110, dessert another $16. The food and service were both good, the setting romantic enough that it’s a treat to dine there, and if management keeps expanding on the menu this may be a winning formula for one of the South Bay’s secret hideaways.
Baleen Kitchen is at 260 Portofino Way in Redondo, next to the Portofino Inn. Kitchen open daily 6:30 a.m. – 10 p.m., parking in adjacent lot, indoor or patio dining. Phone 310-372-1202. ER