Style and Substance
Sea Level, at Shade Redondo, has it all
What are you paying for when you go to a restaurant? It’s more than the cost of the ingredients and the salaries of the staff, the value of the lease on the building, the plates and silverware and all the other things that had to be purchased before the place served its first meal. You’re paying for the luxury of having whatever you want whenever you want it, and having it made better than you could make it yourself. If you visit an upscale place you’re shelling out a premium for both the kitchen’s creativity and a stylish experience.
The new Shade Hotel in Redondo has tied its fortune to being the stylish spot by the harbor, and the sleek modern towers stand out amid the dated and staid architecture elsewhere in the area. The Sea Level restaurant expresses contemporary high style in the vibe of the buzzy, artistically lit room, and it’s no surprise that the menu reflects the same ethos. Everything suggests a modern and multicultural version of luxury, and that’s what they do here. Chef Aaron Robbins formerly presided over the aptly named Culinary Lab group that owns some of the more experimental restaurants in LA, and at Sea Level he adds artistic touches to a base of American classics.
My first visit was shortly after the restaurant opened, and they were still working out kinks in the preparation and timing. There were highs and lows: a small but excellent crab salad had a superb balance of flavors, but a simple dish of fried calamari came out overcooked and dry. Pan-roasted jidori chicken with roasted root vegetables, and a pork chop with apple and onion sauce with crisped brussels sprouts were superb, but pistachio-crusted codfish was strangely chewy, though presented with delicious vegetables. The ideas were promising, but things needed to be tuned up.
I recently returned and took an outdoor table by one of the fire pits, which was useful rather than ornamental because the evening turned out unexpectedly chilly. The only problem with this dining space is that whatever drinks you have will be warmed by the heat, which is fine if you like coffee but not so good with white wine. We started with a Bourbon Backfire, a tart, peppery combination of citrus, agave, and jalapeno, and a “Haven on Earth” tiki-style cocktail made with coconut rum, elderflower liqueur, lime, and soda. The name comes from the use of Haven rum, a white rum blended with coconut water. If you like coconut based drinks then get this, because it’s a fine and refreshing cocktail.
For starters we selected Chinese-style pork belly buns, a “Zinc chopped salad,” and a daily special of a sweet potato and shrimp soup. This was three items for two people and the portions turned out to be generous, but we were glad we tried all three. The pork buns were served in the style of Chinese roast duck, soft white buns holding meat, radish, sweet hoisin sauce, and peanuts with a mint-sambal dressing. Mint and Indonesian chili sauce are an unusual but effective combination, but the starter was a near miss rather than a hit because the pork belly was a bit crisp and dry. They may have deliberately left some pork skin in the mix for texture, but there was too much of a good thing.
The other two items were a complete success. I don’t see shrimp and sweet potato combined often, and this soup made me wonder why; the sweetness and mild seafood are perfect companions. It was a simple idea perfectly executed, and one has to applaud when someone lets good ingredients speak for themselves. The salad was rather more complex but no less successful, with a base of arugula topped with currants, tomato, pepitas, roasted corn, crumbled Japanese rice crackers, and salami with a basil-buttermilk dressing. It was a complex mix with no single element dominating, and the dressing was applied with such moderation that I had to run my finger along the bowl to taste it and find out what it contributed to the whole. It was there and doing its part, but not an overt flavor.
For main courses we selected sea bass topped with spiced macadamia nut crumble alongside spinach and roasted potatoes, and a filet mignon with green onion puree and morel sauce with potato gratin. The bass had a perfect crisped skin, and sweetness of the macadamia nut was offset by the bed of citrus beurre blanc on which it was served. A roasted lemon was provided in case we wanted to add that flavor, but it was perfect just as it arrived.
I’m not usually a fan of filet mignon, a tender but bland cut of beef, but this one was unusually well cooked and a fine foil to the two sauces. My only quibble is that the morel sauce was put atop the green onion sauce, so that you couldn’t get one without the other. It’s a pretty presentation, but I like to mix and match flavors so would ask for them to be put on the plate separately when ordering this again. The potato fontina gratin was a fine accompaniment, served in a cute little frying pan that I scraped to get the last bits of melted cheese.
Our server had suggested a Franciscan Chardonnay with the fish, which I thought a bit heavy for the pairing. He knew his wines better than I did, because the Chard stood up to the citrus butter better than a lighter bodied wine would have. The B Wise Cabernet he advised was luscious with the steak, and we respected his knowledge.
For dessert we had a black bottom chocolate pot de crème with almond toffee crisps and dark chocolate shavings, and an unusual and superb variant of strawberry shortcake that was served over a corncake and topped with ice cream and pastry crisps. Shortcake is usually blandly sweet, but this contributed much more flavor and was one of the best desserts I can remember. It was a great finish to the meal, and if it is still offered when you are there, get it.
Our dinner for two with a cocktail and a glass of wine each ran $191, and for impeccable service and an inventive meal we felt it was worth it. Sea Level offers a one of a kind environment and exceptional and inventive food, and though I arrived for that second dinner skeptical I was converted. You come here for something memorable, and they deliver.
Sea Level is in Shade Hotel Redondo at 655 North Harbor Drive. Open 7 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. daily, valet or street parking. Full bar, corkage $20, some vegetarian items, wheelchair access good. Menu at rb.shadehotel.com, phone 310-921-8950. ER
by Richard Foss