Richard Foss

Chef Nael Taki’s new take on Riviera Village’s HT Grill

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HT Grill chef Nael Taki. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

HT Grill chef Nael Taki. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

It can be jarring when a well-established restaurant changes concept, especially when they don’t go through the usual steps of changing the name and décor. Those who visit expecting what they’ve always liked are confused. Those who might like the new menu and not the old one don’t know there’s a reason to stop in.

The solid, fort-like building at the north end of Riviera Village has been through plenty of transformations. In the 1970s it was the Velvet Turtle steakhouse. For nearly the past two decades, it has been HT Grill, a member of the Hennessy family. Very little changed during this period. The kitchen turned out modern versions of American favorites.  The focus was on fresh steak and seafood though retro dishes like beef wellington often made an appearance.

The chef who had been at the helm of HT Grill for almost 20 years left last year, and his successor has some startling ideas. Chef Nael Taki has updated the menu and added some dishes that sound downright strange, such as peanut butter and jelly scallops over marshmallow risotto. The change from conservative to inventive has not been without controversy, but after several meals there I’ve found much to admire.

HT Grill. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

HT Grill. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

Our first visit was for dinner. We started with crab cakes topped with crisped onions and tomato bisque topped with fried basil. Both showed a well-considered balance of flavors. The crabcakes were mostly crab with very little filler, served with some arugula over a sauce with roasted red pepper and herbs. The tomato bisque was even better, full-bodied with vegetable sweetness accented by a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. They were served with a bread basket that featured cakelike focaccia, cranberry nut bread, and a mild herb bread with three dipping sauces, so there were plenty of chances to mix and match flavors. I wasn’t a fan of the focaccia, but the garlic mayonnaise that came with it was great on the crab cakes.

Our server, a genial fellow named Tony, was dealing with a full section but still managed to find time to give good service, including wine recommendations – a Codax Albarino and “Decoy” Sauvignon Blanc that suited the starters nicely. He also recommended a daily special that evening — sea bass with beets, snow peas, and quinoa topped with a sweet red coconut curry. I was dubious about the combination but decided to try it. My wife had a more conventional pasta with grilled chicken, basil pesto, goat cheese, asparagus, and cherry tomatoes.

HT Grill's patio is a popular lunch spot. (Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

HT Grill’s patio is a popular lunch spot. (Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

Surprisingly, the more outlandish dish was the most successful. The mild sweet flavors of beet and curry went surprisingly well with the nutty quinoa and fish, while the pasta lacked a unifying element. The pesto was very mild and lightly applied, and somehow didn’t tie together the flavors. It wasn’t bad, but a more robust, garlicky sauce would have made it better.

For dessert we decided to try churros, which were served with tres leches and caramel sauces along with a drizzle of honey. Though the Spanish-style doughnuts were light and crisp, the sauce was seriously out of balance — sweet layered with sweeter. Churros are traditionally served with bitter chocolate sauce, and I am now firmly convinced that they’re best that way.

We liked the dinner so much that we came back for weekend brunch on the sunny patio. The service this time wasn’t quite as adept. We waited a bit after being seated for someone to acknowledge us and provide menus. But when a server did arrive, she was friendly and helpful.

I had to order shrimp and cheese grits, a Southern favorite that I order any time I can get it. My wife tried a “sailor omelet” of crab, cheese, and red onion topped with what was described as a creole sauce. The creole sauce turned out to be identical to the sauce that is usually served on a Spanish omelette – tomato, onion, and celery with some garlic, bell pepper, and herbs. I was expecting something with more of a kick, at least a hint of red pepper, but it was good for a mild sauce, and the roasted potatoes with onion and bell pepper that were served with it were nicely done.

The shrimp and cheddar grits were served with a moderately spicy chorizo stew and hit the spot. There were tangy shards of onion and sweet tomato that went very well with the cheese and seafood flavors. It was mild compared to versions of this dish I’ve had in the Carolinas and Louisiana, but still a fine way to start the day. We finished brunch with a very good chocolate soufflé that was served with chopped hazelnuts, biscotti, and a smear of fig jam.

I returned again to try an item that had been recommended on our first visit visit – short rib flatbread with onion jam, bacon, and truffle oil. Chef Taki obviously likes sweet and sharp flavors, and the ideas were sound but on this visit the execution wasn’t. The biscuit crust had been overcooked, and the short rib that can be so tender when done right was chewy. I hesitated over sending it back because I thought this was probably a mistake by the kitchen, but my server had disappeared so I ate as much as I liked and left behind some burnt crust. It wasn’t bad, but not up to the standard of our other meals.

The cost for our meals had been in line with Riviera Village restaurants — $75 for the food portion of dinner, with brunch and lunch food items at about $20 per person. There are enough good ideas well executed here to bring me back. It will be interesting to see if Chef Taki develops the following that sustained his predecessor for so long.

Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 12 a.m. Valet parking evenings, lot during day. Full bar, corkage $15, wheelchair access good, some vegetarian/vegan items. (310) 791-4849.  1701 S. Catalina Avenue, Redondo Beach (Riviera Village). B

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