Richard Foss

Baleen [RESTAURANT REVIEW]

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Baleen’s menu has a daring focus that ignores modern trends, a sign this menu was designed by a chef rather than a focus group.

Baleen executive chef Jesse Souza

The view across the marina from Harbor Drive is postcard-pretty, and several restaurants have been designed so that diners get a great view of the long lines of boats. Spindly masts tower above sleek powerboats, rich men’s toys float adjacent to scarred but business-like fishing boats, and at night the water reflects the twinkling lights of… of whatever that is over on the other side of the bay.

Some of those lights are from a restaurant with a problem  – many people regard it as the scenery from the place they have dinner instead of as a dining destination. Some very good chefs have struggled to find a local audience because they were cooking on a dead-end street at the end of a peninsula; the walk-by and drive-by traffic that keeps a place in people’s minds was zero except for visitors and guests at the adjacent Portofino Hotel. It’s a discouraging situation, and for a long time head chefs came and went, opening strong and gradually lowering their ambitions before seeking greener pastures.

The current occupant of that building is a restaurant called Baleen, and they have demonstrated staying power – they’re going on four years in business, and if anything they have gotten better over that time. I visited shortly after they opened and was unimpressed because the service was slow and chaotic, despite the fact that the place was more than half-empty – another place heading for a fall in a hard location. They didn’t quit, and as time went by I began hearing very positive reports about the place. It was time for a reassessment, and I ventured back to see what was happening.

The big room was full when we arrived without a reservation, and we took a walk to admire the boats until a table was ready. Returning from the tranquil night we were struck by how loud the place was – the big windows give a great view but bounce the sound around, and the background music volume wasn’t helping things. We asked our server to turn it down and she did, and we could listen to her recommendations from the menu.

That menu is interesting, heavy on innovative seafood and beef items with only one pasta, a lamb Bolognese. It’s a daring focus and against modern trends, a sign that this menu was designed by a chef rather than a focus group. Most of the entrees are offered in half portions, so my companion and I decided to create our own tasting dinner by getting an appetizer, a salad, and small portions of three entrees.

The most interesting starter was a cornmeal crepe of duck carnitas with blackberries, served with apple slaw. I thought cornmeal crepe might be another name for “tortilla”, but it wasn’t – the three pancakes had a true soft crepe texture. On first taste the carnitas in sauce was too sweet, the slaw too tart, but when mixed they were actually delicious and presented a delightful flavor and texture contrast. There was enough of everything to make three small crepes the size of tacos, three or four bites each, but that was about the right amount. (If you have a party of four, I understand they can add an extra crepe and more filling.)

The balance of strongly sweet flavors with savory and sharp continued with a “BLT salad” that incorporated two dressings – sherry bacon on the tomato slices under the wedge of lettuce,  jalapeno ranch on top, and a slice of honey-braised bacon to cap it all. The balance here was slightly less successful, the bacon more candy than savory. The mildly peppery ranch had just a hint of jalapeno and could have been kicked up a notch to balance it, but I would have preferred an applewood cured bacon’s natural sweetness.

We ordered glasses of Coppola sparkling wine and Sokol-Blosser Evolution blend to pair with our starters, and they turned out to be able matches, the flowery Evolution with the salad and the sparkler with the duck. The wine prices here are eccentric and slightly on the high side, but the list is well-chosen and half-glasses are available for those who like variety in moderation.

We continued with the first of our entrees, cane sugar seared ahi tuna with cocoanut rice, papaya salad, and avocado wasabi sauce. The tuna was beautifully done and had a nice hint of caramelized sugar, good by itself or with the simultaneously hot and cool dollop of spicy avocado. The mango salad had no such contradiction – while not quite as spicy as in a Thai restaurant, it was a hot and fruity counterpoint that demanded a nibble of cooling jasmine rice. Our respect for the kitchen increased with this dish, which used Asian flavors with a sure hand. Our server Lindsey had recommended a Pinot Grigio, which complemented the spicy flavors better than I expected.

Our other entrees – roasted sea scallops with beef short  rib, their version of surf and turf, and a hanger  steak with bacon and egg hash and garlic spinach – arrived after a short wait. They were worth it – the steak in house-made sauce tender and tangy, hash topped with fried egg a pretty novelty at dinner, and braised short rib so tender that it fell to pieces at the touch of a fork. The standout item was the scallop, meaty and moist with a hint of smokiness, a perfect preparation of a piece of seafood that is often rubbery or flavorless. It is offered on a combination with the short rib or by itself, and I’d highly recommend it either way, because this one is a winner. We paired this course with a Franciscan Magnificat, a Bordeaux—type blend that deserves its name, and Rancho Sisquoc Merlot, a pair of wines that worked nicely with rich, meaty  flavors.

The three half-portions between two people were a substantial meal, and we had room for only one shared dessert – a very good bread pudding with gelato and an apple compote that I found slightly too sweet. Luckily I had gotten it on the side, so I could use a moderate amount and enjoy the flavors as they were.

The service at Baleen was far more assured than on my previous visit, but still a bit leisurely. This may have been an anomaly, because the restaurant had been full when we arrived on a night when there weren’t many reservations, and any eatery can be stressed when that happens. This isn’t a place for a rushed meal anyway – the cooking here is creative enough to demand consideration and reflection.  Baleen is a jewel hiding in plain sight, a special occasion restaurant that is worth a trip to the side of the marina that is more often photographed than visited.

Baleen is at 260 Portofino Way in Redondo. Ground floor open for breakfast and lunch daily, second floor for dinner daily – accessible elevator. Full bar, parking lot shared with hotel, some vegetarian options. Phone 310-372-1202 for reservations.

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