When I suggested to my wife that we have dinner at the Marriott in Manhattan Beach, I had to remind her where it is. You would think a six-story hotel would be a hard thing to lose, but the location behind other buildings a block off Rosecrans doesn’t exactly stand out.
Until recently, the food hasn’t either. While other hotels like Belamar and Shade have developed a local clientele by serving modern food in stylish surroundings, the Marriott’s restaurants have served competently prepared but uninspired meals that were decades behind the times. I had heard that things had changed with the arrival of new chef Charlie Gold and decided to see if there was some life in the place.
It was evening, so their main restaurant, called View, was closed – the competition within walking distance has apparently led them to only open that large space for breakfast and lunch. We took a table near the lobby bar, called Escape, instead. It’s not cozy or intimate, but for a section of a large open space it was pleasant enough, with distant background music and the buzz of conversation from the nearby bar.
The menu is more interesting than the surroundings, and the same items are served at lunch in one restaurant and at dinner in the other. Unusually, the selections are organized by the preparation time rather than whether the protein in question came from land, sea, or air. Headers like “In Five Or Quicker,” and “In About Ten” are interspersed with “Deep Fried Goodness” – presumably if you crave deep fried food you don’t care how long it takes, unless that position indicates seven and a half minutes. We weren’t in a hurry so ordered based on our cravings – starters of beer battered onion rings and sweet potato tater tots, followed by their “MB Marriott signature” octopus cocktail.
And speaking of cocktails, we ordered those too – grilled citrus punch and a gimlet. The punch harked back to Victorian recipes that used a mix of fresh and roasted fruit along with both wine and brandy. It had the taste of sangria with the slight smokiness from the grilled lemon, a fine combination. The gimlet was a modernized version of a classic – muddled cucumber and bruised basil lent garden sweetness and a fresh herbal flavor. Both drinks were a cut above average, and our server informed us that the most interesting drinks were added within the last few months, and the staff had to learn how to make them. Whether this was an initiative of Chef Gold or an independent effort, it is paying off.
The big windows face the golf course which is unlit after dark, so there are only the distant lights of the homes in Manhattan Village and the reflection from the lit trees in the lobby. It’s probably lovely around sunset, and we may return to admire that view over some more drinks.
The onion rings and tater tots arrived in tin buckets, the octopus cocktail in a more conventional bowl flanked by fresh corn chips. I found the onion rings unexceptional by themselves, but they were served with an excellent coffee barbecue sauce. I was surprised that the sauce isn’t offered on anything else on the menu – if I had it around, I’d be trying it with anything I had in the refrigerator just to see. The sweet potato tater tots came with a mildly spicy mayonnaise but didn’t really need it, because they were fine by themselves. Sweet potato is sufficiently dense and moist that when made into conventional fries they’re often soft and oily – something about hashing and frying them solves this problem.
I found the octopus cocktail slightly below this standard only because the sauce was on the timid side – it was similar to the traditional Yucatan style cocktail, but without the kick. The seafood was tender and there was a fresh tomato flavor with some tartness, and my spice-averse wife preferred it that way. If a little hot sauce, some chopped green onion, and cilantro were offered on the side, we might have both been happy.
We decided to split a main course, and settled on pan-seared sea bass over what was described as a warm artichoke and olive couscous with sundried tomato and shallot vinaigrette. It wasn’t a salad as most people would think of it, but a combined starch and vegetable dish with distinctive North African flavors. The couscous was the large pearled variety rather than the fluffy fine grain, and it had a gentle nutty flavor that played well with the more assertive green olives, pickled onion, and large pieces of tomato. The simply seasoned fish was actually a sideshow here but was a good foil for the other flavors. I wouldn’t have wanted the fish to be more highly spiced, because it was better as a companion than a competitor.
We had just enough room for dessert, so decided to order Belgian chocolate bread pudding and two more drinks – a berry and gin concoction called “Bramble On” and an aperol and sparkling wine-based “Bitter Sweet.” Those two drinks were excellent companions to the rich dessert, and I’d order this exact combination again even though the bread pudding isn’t my favorite style. I prefer bread puddings with a crisp crust and perhaps a dash of rum or brandy sauce, but this rich, eggy soft custard with dark chocolate complexity worked just fine. It all added up to good meal at medium prices – dinner for two with four drinks was $134.
As we lingered over our drinks, my wife and I mused about the experience. The service was professional but seemed to expect us to eat and run, typical of hotels where the staff has a clientele of clock watchers between meetings. Every person we interacted with assumed we were staying there, a sure sign they don’t get many local customers. They might get some now, because they deserve them – this kitchen has woken from many years of sleep and made major improvements. If they hadn’t been open for over thirty years I’d call them a promising newcomer, but instead I’ll keep them in mind for a return visit.
The View and Escape restaurants are in the Manhattan Beach Marriott, 1400 Parkview Avenue in Manhattan Beach. Open daily, 6 to 11 a.m., validated parking in lot, full bar. No online menu. (310) 546-7511.