We know where we are. The grumble of the surf, the crunch of sand on the sidewalk, the aroma from a trillion-plus little plankton respiring into the offshore breeze tell us: We’re in Marina del Rey. Without even sticking our heads out of 12 Washington we could guess, just by a glance at the bar full of Hawaiian shirts and Reeboks.
If you make a reservation for dinner at 12 Washington, all you are asked for is your first name. How beachy. But beachiness is not all that’s going on here. The menu changes every two weeks and it’s full of things like ch-ch-ch . . . chanelles , as one waiter guessed-- chanterelles , that is. No kidding, chanterelle mushrooms, right down in hot dog and soda pop territory.
There are a handful of fairly serious restaurants north of here in Venice, and the owner of 12 Washington (who calls himself either Pierre or Peter) used to own one of them, Land’s End. There are signs of that connection all over the place: the same buttery mussel chowder, the same goofy dish of sole with bananas and almonds (hold on, there seem to be hazelnuts in this one), the same taste for capers and even more for wholeseed mustard.
Despite the bananas, this is basically a fairly French and fairly conservative restaurant. The tomato sauce for your Malpeque oysters is the almost forgotten sort that tastes of cinnamon and clove rather than horseradish. An appetizer of shrimp in a cream sauce full of minced shallots might come with a whiff of curry powder in the traditional, utterly non-Indian, French-curry style. The closest you’re liable to come to Cajunism is an artichoke stuffed with crayfish.
The menu is mostly seafood: baby salmon with a pesto-flavored sauce, say, or linguine with scallops and a sauce that tastes of tarragon and wholeseed mustard, or prawns with a garlicky lemon-butter sauce. Meat is not a second-class citizen, though. There is often veal in one or another cream and chanterelle sauce, subtly flavored with something like port or peaches (the peaches are not so bizarre with veal as they sound).
I can’t really imagine why this should be, but when the menu changes, every other week or so, there are days when not all the items on the menu are actually available. At least the improvisations they offer in their place seem honest and sound. When I ordered an appetizer of brie in fried Japanese eggplant, which I still want to try, it turned out there was no eggplant in the kitchen. However, I was offered a perfectly OK brie baked in brioche instead. At the same meal, the listed mushroom salad became mushroom caps stuffed with tomato concasse , which sounds uninspiring but was pleasantly clean-tasting.
Apart from the creme caramel , which tends to be rubbery and rather flavorless (surrounding it with sliced strawberries and rosettes of whipped cream, doesn’t make up for that), the desserts tend to be very good. They might be a mixed berry tart made with puff paste and both a custard and an almond layer beneath the berries, or a luscious chocolate mousse cake with a minimum of cake and a maximum of mousse.
All surprisingly good for this neck of the beach. The shortcomings of 12 Washington are a tendency to put wholeseed mustard sauce on a rather high percentage of things and caramel sauce on absolutely every dessert. Also, everything sort of looks the same. Served in these large, fairly deep platters, every entree is something-or-other in a pool of sauce.
Make that a tidepool of sauce. We know where we are.
12 Washington, 12 Washington St., Marina del Rey. (213) 822-5566. Open for dinner daily. Beer and wine. Street parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $36 to $55.