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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Sea-Change at Gulliver’s in Marina del Rey

It’s obvious now that Gulliver’s was all wrong for Marina del Rey. Flagons of ale, serving wenches, the beef of Olde England--pshaw! A boaty seafood restaurant, that’s what the Marina really wanted all along.

So the old Gulliver’s has been metamorphosed into Marinela--stripped and sanded and put through a total sea-change so that the wood no longer looks dark and clubby but sun-bleached and salt-pitted. The ceiling is now full of bright-colored catamaran sails and the effect is quite boaty indeed. In fact, the decks can get pretty crowded on a weekend.

Avast the hearty trencherman motif; Marinela is for oceanic grazing. There are only six steaks and chops against a couple of dozen seafood entrees, to say nothing of 50-odd appetizers and salads. The owner is also the proprietor of the Bicycle Cafe, so we can expect a degree of eclecticism: the odd dash of curry, salmon with dill here and there, a New England clam chowder. Mostly, though, the food is Mediterranean.

And altogether it’s pretty lively--things like charred swordfish with lime butter, or an appetizer of scampi grilled until they get an almond-like flavor, served on three-colored pasta. It must be said that Marinela does sometimes go overboard on pasta. The well-cooked osso buco (oddly topped with orange peel instead of lemon peel) comes with linguine instead of rice, practically impossible to eat with the wide-tined fork and the thin sauce.

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At one point, Marinela announced it would be a Basque restaurant. All that’s left of that idea, apparently, is a simple dish of chicken stewed with tomatoes, peppers and strong-flavored, paper-thin slices of Basque ham, and a fish chowder called thoro (often spelled ttoro , and correctly pronounced something like “choro” in Basque). However you spell it, thoro is a winner, thickened with toasted bread crumbs and strongly dosed with saffron.

Saffron, in fact, is a dominating note here. There’s a wonderful appetizer of poached oysters flavored with saffron and aniseed and topped with a buttery froth. There are mushrooms stuffed with crab in a surprisingly serious crab sauce (more saffron), and very acceptable paella with chicken, mussels, clams and saffron. Of course there’s bouillabaisse , consisting mostly of shellfish in this case, with a lot of saffron and Pernod.

The small onion tart on the appetizer list is a little odd, a puff pastry shell filled with threads of onion that have been fried dark brown in oil and topped with some black olives. It’s savory but rather oily, and really more like an overgrown canape than an onion tart. The only real clinker I’ve found here, though, was a shrimp cocktail with shamefully mushy prawns.

For dessert there are a lot of ice creams in such concoctions as a mocha and hazelnut c oupe , but mostly it’s a big pastry selection. The most distinctive are a warm apple tart (made with ordinary apple slices rather than the usual paper-thin ones) and an elaborate strawberry shortcake, more or less a frosted cake with whole strawberries in the filling.

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So it’s the end of a beef-oriented era at this location. Those sounds you hear are the clatter of mussels in sauce poulette and the crunch of calamari. And the creaking of the yardarm and the keening of the gale, too, I suppose.

Marinela, 13181 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. (213) 821-8866. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Full bar. Parking lot. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $41 to $73.


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