Sea Change for the better [Restaurant review]
by Richard Foss
There was a time when restaurants fit into categories, serving only the French, German, Mexican, Italian, American coffee shop, or whatever else was their specialty. California cuisine blew up that expectation, creating eclectic cuisine as its own category. Suddenly you had to scan the menu carefully and weigh unanticipated flavor combinations in your head. The small plate revolution followed closely, so that not only the flavors but the whole rhythm of the meal was freeform. It was exciting to some people, intimidating to others, and confusing to most until we got the hang of it.
The first establishment in the South Bay to wholeheartedly embrace this culinary revolution was Chez Melange, and owners Michael Franks and Robert Bell kept things edgy for decades. After they moved to their current location the front room of the restaurant became Bouzy, a gastropub with a more stable menu, but in the main dining room culinary exploration reigned. A few items were perennials, but all else was as variable as the seasons and the whims of chef Robert Bell.
It was therefore a surprise when this most daring of restaurants announced that the main dining room would have a new name and a new focus. It is now Sea Change, and most of the menu is based on things that lived underwater. It’s a smart move.. While many restaurants offer eclectic cuisine there isn’t another restaurant in this nightlife-intensive neighborhood that specializes in seafood.
The interior of Sea Change has been freshened, the room transformed from a dark and clubby cave to a brighter and altogether more appealing space. It’s amazing how a simple repainting and new upholstery changed the feel of the place, which is now much more welcoming.
The new menu is recognizably a product of the same aesthetic that created Chez Melange, with multicultural and whimsical elements. You can get kung pao lobster and Thai-style curried Hawaiian ono, but also Southern shrimp and grits or a hangtown fry, an oyster and bacon omelet invented during the gold rush. On our first visit our party Included pescaphobe eater who focused on the short list of Chez Melange classics and was reassured to find that there were things she could, eat as well.
We asked our server to suggest starters and were served Boston clam chowder, an avocado stuffed with shrimp, clam and corn fritters, a “Japanese” salad that included seaweed, Persian cucumber, and pine nuts, and a starter of grilled octopus. Though we hadn’t planned it that way, it was a tasting of seafood fads of over 200 years. Chowder was popular in Colonial days, fritters in the 1880’s, shrimp stuffed avocados were big in the 1920’s, Japanese-American salads hit in the ‘70s, and grilled octopus went big at the end of the ‘90s. Had we wanted to chart the development of the American palate with regard to seafood, we could hardly have done better.
Boston is noted for chowder that includes salt pork and has a light broth that includes cream and butter. They also add a bit more pepper and herbs than other regions, and this one hit that mark on all counts. The clams were tender, the flavors integrated so that no one stood out from the others. The clam and corn fritters here have a more Southern flair – think hush puppies with some chopped clam mixed in and a creole remoulade sauce on the side.
Avocados stuffed with shrimp are a delight that has mysteriously gone out of fashion. The flavor balance is simple, two things that are rich and luscious with a little housemade French dressing to add interest.
The octopus derives from a different tradition, where brighter and more complex Spanish and Mediterranean French flavors play together. Grilled octopus tentacle tastes the same about everywhere, smoky mild seafood with a distinctive slightly chewy texture, but the right accompaniments can enhance the enjoyment. The mix of butter beans and celery stewed with potato and black garlic and accompanying dabs of black olive pesto provided a succession of clean, simple flavors to pair with the grilled tentacle. The little plate with a lot of flavors was a reminder of why tapas caught on and octopus went from bait to entrée.
The salad was close to the standard Japanese mix of lettuce, seaweed, and scallion with ginger miso dressing, but with a few extra touches. The pine nuts and crumbled nori added a bit of umami and texture, and the slightly peppery cress was an interesting substitute for the radish that would usually fill that niche.
For mains we got petrale sole with couscous, kung pao lobster, chicken schnitzel, and steak frites. The schnitzel and steak proved that the people in this kitchen didn’t forget anything about cooking meat when the focus changed to fish. Our non-seafood eater and her husband tore through both so fast that I barely managed to steal a few bites. The schnitzel came with a blueberry-port sauce that I recommend be served on the side – it’s good but sweet for some palates. As fine as that butter-fried schnitzel is, the gruyere cheese and rye bread pudding outshines it – it was invented here but encapsulates Northern European flavors.
The sole was sautéed with what was described as a falafel crust, which made me expect a thick chickpea batter with fish inside. That wasn’t quite what was going on, because the point was to show how the Middle Eastern seasonings that are usually used in falafel go with seafood. It works, too — the delicate fish was heavily dusted with cumin, coriander, parsley, and other flavors I couldn’t quite identify. A dollop of yogurt over the fish and mild, fragrant couscous underneath made it a satisfying meal.
The one item that didn’t quite work for me was the kung pao lobster, and it wasn’t for the usual reason. The red chili heat and bell pepper often overwhelm everything else, but were muted in this version. That left the soy, sesame, and other mild elements in the forefront, and though those are perfectly good flavors they aren’t what I associate with kung pao.
The wine list here has always had many selections that go well with seafood, and we asked our server to select some for us to sample. Our server offered tastes of a Vermentino and a Quady Rhone-style blend from Oregon, while the carnivores in our midst shared a Paoletti Piccolo Napa blends in the Bordeaux style. The cocktails are on point too. If you enjoy a good Manhattan you should try the “Summer in the Hamptons,” a variation that uses a spicy rye and lavender bitters to deliver complex herbal and floral notes.
That cocktail was the only after-dinner item we had despite some tempting options because we had binged on the starters. There weren’t any seafood items on the dessert list, and the seafood was what I had come to try. On departure, our impression was unanimously favorable. Sea Change is delivering a revitalized experience in a more dynamic space. They’re serving a little of everything and a lot of seafood. It’s a good next chapter for the people who wrote the book on modern dining in our area.
Sea Change at Chez Melange is at 1611 S. Catalina in Redondo. Open daily 4 p.m. – 9:30 p.m., Sunday brunch 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. Valet parking weekends, lot, or street. Full bar, corkage $15, some vegetarian/vegan items. Reservations recommended. (310) 540-1222. ChezMelange.com.