I don’t often quote Confucius even in reviews of Chinese restaurants, but the old fellow had a gift for putting timeless thoughts into few words. When the sage said, “The beginning of wisdom is to call a thing by its proper name,” he had no idea that his words would be relevant to restaurant marketing. Or perhaps he did – for all we know, he was inspired to make that statement when his palanquin was carried past a noodle house whose sign gave no suggestion what they served, or even that it was an eatery.
A clever name can be memorable, but it’s possible to go too far and provoke confusion where you hope for curiosity. A case in point was the Redondo Beach restaurant called Grillish, a name which was somehow was both un-descriptive and un-appetizing – it implied that even the people who owned it weren’t sure what was going on there. The restaurant never settled into a concept and closed after a botched re-launch.
Most people would have quit about here. Instead the owners redecorated the place, revamped the menu, and decided to open with a name that tells people what to expect: the Redondo Wine Bistro. The interior fits the name, with long racks of bottles promising vinous variety, and the casual seating and unpretentious surroundings suggesting a genuine bistro – not a cutesy reenactment of a French bistro, but the California equivalent. The menu matched the environment – no paté or steak frites at this bistro, but there are homemade pastas, lots of seafood, and other fare with a Mediterranean flavor.
Diego the manager waits tables when the place is busy, and he was our server on the first visit. He recommended wine flights to start, and we were happy to accede because we like to enjoy variety while staying under the legal blood alcohol limit. We chose one flight of Italian vintages, one of American, and tasted back and forth throughout our meal. The standout was a Syrah blend called ”The Glutton” from a Central Coast winery called Tooth and Nail, a fruity, intense wine with a European-style acid balance, but there were several that we would have again.
For starters we ordered crabcakes and a house specialty called octopus tartufo – chunks of octopus sautéed with gnocchi, pinenuts, sundried tomatoes, and garlic in a cheese and truffle oil sauce. I have never had this combination before and wouldn’t have guessed that it would work this well; the sautéed gnocchi had a soft interior and slightly chewy exterior, and were a texture contrast to the tender octopus. It was a bowl of summery Mediterranean flavors, and a great way to start a meal.
The crabcakes were more traditional but quite good, lightly crisp with a hint of Maryland seasoning and a tasty mango relish on the side along with a small salad. They had plenty of fresh crab flavor and just enough filler to keep them together, which is just how they should be.
At Diego’s suggestion we tried halibut and spinach ravioli for the second course, though we were dubious about the idea of serving these in a bell pepper based sauce. We needn’t have worried – the sauce was mild and didn’t overpower the fish, and the result was delicious. We paired this with a glass of Konzelman Pinot Blanc from Canada – yes, Canada makes white wines in the German style, and this one was excellent.
We continued with Muscovy duck breast over soft polenta with a fig-kahlua reduction, which was the high point of the meal. Muscovy is a large breed of duck that taste distinctly different from other ducks – they are lower in fat and have a fine texture, but are chancy for chefs because they are easy to overcook. This one was very tender, and the sauce with sweet notes of fig and coffee was a marvel.
The meal was remarkable, and we resolved to return for brunch. When we did we were surprised to be handed the exact same menu that we were given for dinner – apparently they plan to introduce a brunch menu soon, but haven’t yet. There were some items we had been curious about at dinner, so we ordered a pair of glasses of sparkling wine, smoked salmon bruschetta, and a deep-fried avocado roll.
The bruschetta had a fine flavor thanks to a tart tomato chutney, but was difficult to eat because the fish came off the bread in a sheet – it would have been a less pretty presentation if it was in strips or chopped, but more practical. We were less enamored of the avocado roll, which had lots of avocado and only a dab of tomato and onions in the center; it would have been better with more of the other fillings, and superb with some of the tomato chutney from the bruschetta.
We continued with seafood pasta and a stuffed chicken breast, and on both the kitchen was back on track. The penne pasta were tossed with tiger shrimp, baby artichokes, tomatoes, onions, and basil in what was described as a mascarpone sauce, though the flavor of the dish owed much more to the herbs and dash of red pepper than cheese. It was very good, the stuffed chicken even better; it had been packed with cheese, prosciutto, and mushrooms, rolled in breadcrumbs, and topped with a shiitake cream sauce for an impressive presentation. The mashed skin-on potatoes with gorgonzola and arugula hit the spot too – my wife usually doesn’t like blue cheese in mashed potatoes and isn’t a big fan of arugula, but one taste of these and she was an instant convert.
The portions were heroic, especially for lunch, so we once again skipped dessert – I intend to try it here sometime, but if everything is as good as the entrees at our two meals, it will take great self-control not to fill up on savories. The prices are a bit on the high side – our brunch with two glasses of wine and no dessert ran $70, but it was worth it. I had gone to this restaurant with low expectations, but Redondo Wine Bistro surprised me with their assured cooking. It’s a gem in Riviera Village and deserves to succeed.
Redondo Wine Bistro is at 1700 S. Catalina Avenue – main entry is on Avenue I. Open Tuesday through Friday 4 PM – 11 PM, Saturday 11 a.m. – 12 a.m., Sunday 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. Menu at redondowinebistro.com, phone 310-316-5800.