WHEN it comes to neighborhood restaurants in L.A., it's all about the micro-climates -- the prevailing winds can be so different in different parts of town, you can't just plant a bistro any old where and have it flourish. The Del, an 8-month-old spot in Playa del Rey, has been slowly, quietly taking root in its unique little cul-de-sac of a beach community. It's by no means full-grown -- a dining room just opened in November after months of lounge-only service, and a large patio is due by summer -- but already it's rich with endearing personality.
FOR THE RECORD:
The Find: A headline on a review of the Del in the Jan. 9 Food section said the restaurant was in Playa Vista. It is in Playa del Rey. —
Right now, it's a place that makes you glad you left home for a solo dinner -- that burger at the bar (juicy, with a soft brioche-type bun and a melting veil of good cheddar) is worth the trip. And the scene, happily, isn't one -- working people from the Playa Vista condos or beach people from the neighborhood nearby. Folks who've noticed its gradual appearance (there wasn't a sign until around Thanksgiving, and even that's temporary) stop by for a beer, then return when they want somewhere to settle in for a chat with friends over drinks. The food's interesting enough to make you want to come back and work your way through the menu.
Part of the appeal is the tongue-in-cheek landmark status of the building, a cavernous 1960 faux cottage known for years as La Marina Inn, a holdover from the would-be swinging era of Marina del Rey and environs. Owner David Reiss (Beechwood, the Brig, the Alibi Room) and his partner Jeff Best (Firefly, Powerhouse), who together own the Match in North Hollywood, have a history of successful, amusingly sensitive renovations that avoid the missteps of gentrification. Their spots bring new life to neighborhoods by transforming sites where alky bars or tired hash-houses held sway into appealing hangouts with an easy vibe. Reiss, who's been in the restaurant business since working as a kid in his family's ice cream parlor, says it's been a daunting project because the building's "gigantic."
So bit by bit, the place has been taking shape, and diners find a slightly different environment each month. The lounge area opened first -- atmospherically dark-walled with a smooth wide-plank wooden floor, classic black horseshoe booths and a warmly glowing fireplace. An intriguing collection of folk-artish portrait paintings wink down from the walls -- is that dinner-jacketed man depicted with a carnation in his lapel supposed to be Peter Lorre, maybe?
At the very start, Beechwood chef-partners Brooke Williamson and Nick Roberts worked on the bar menu. Then Canadian Matt James Tymoszewicz came on board as chef in June and had a dinner menu in place by July. Both menus have evolved and changed, and the dinner menu reflects seasonal changes too.
His food's a lot of fun -- contemporary and personal, with gee-whiz touches that inspire diners to exchange tastes and yet pleasingly straightforward. Pub food's not neglected: The ale-battered fish and chips, the burger, and a couple of steaks -- a hanger steak and a 30-day aged rib-eye -- are the foundation corners of the menu, but the real pleasure's in some of the more offbeat offerings. An appetizer of blue crab and toast is heavenly. Beautiful bits of crab meat combined with chopped radish and celery are wonderfully seasoned and barely dressed with Meyer lemon, molded into a generous square and served with toast points. This dish with a glass of wine is a perfect weeknight meal, especially if your dinner companion gets an order of fries -- terrific crisp-salty skinny ones -- that are offered in an exuberantly enormous mound.
Vermouth-steamed mussels are an odd little dish -- but delicious and wonderfully satisfying. Green-lipped beauties arrive without their shells in a bowl of what seems to be risotto but is butternut squash spaetzle with fabulous little Brussels sprout halves tucked into the stew. Another time the pasta is Israeli couscous instead and the sauce is a warmingly spicy harissa.
Butter lettuce salad sounds pedestrian -- pecans, pears, Champagne vinaigrette -- but looks like a lotus blossom gently opening on the plate, each crisp petal sprinkled with bits of nut, morsels of pear and ricotta salata tucked in between. Roasted potato soup is rustic and rich, smoky with bacon and topped with a perky chive croquette.
Entree plates are nicely executed seafood, meat and pasta dishes with creatively thought-out sides -- some of the latter so appealing you want to order the dish to try, say, the combination of celery root fondue and rainbow chard (that comes with a roasted trout) or the array of beluga lentils with apples and turnips in garlic-parsley sauce (this with grilled rack of pork).
Pan-fried halibut is prettily crisp-golden outside, tender and moist within. It's balanced on four or five roasted hearts of baby fennel. A kill-your-blues comfort dish of housemade gnocchi, "pearls" of carrot and fragrant hen-of-the-wood mushrooms has enough Parmesan to render the dish addictive.
Terrific sourdough rolls, hot and yeasty, are part of the deal. Fair prices give you a sense that the owners want your business.
The Del isn't trying to be a gastropub or wine bar -- there are four beers on draft (but plenty of microbrews in the bottle) and the 10 or so wines by the glass are a global roster of affordables ($6 to $9 a glass). Refreshingly, it doesn't yet offer specialty cocktails -- although summer on the patio may be a different thing altogether. That's another thing about our L.A. micro-climates. They're always changing.
The DelLocation: 119 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey, (310) 823-6800; www.thedelrestaurant.com.
Price: Bar menu, $8 to $15; appetizers, $6 to $11; entrees, $15 to $26; desserts, $6.
Best dishes: Kabocha tempura, butter lettuce salad, vermouth-steamed mussels with butternut squash spaetzle, house-made pappardelle with braised leg of lamb, pan-seared sea bass with Cognac-mustard sauce.
Details: Open for bar snacks and dinner from 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and until 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Full bar. Lot parking. All major credit cards.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times