Saturday, July 19, 2008

FOOD: Darren's

The occasion of my friend Mark's birthday brought us down to Manhattan Beach to check out a new restaurant called Darren's. (It turns out the restaurant had opened on Dec 18, so is the exact same age as Mark and Heather's new son Alex.) The menu is probably best described as contemporary LA cuisine, meaning market-fresh ingredients combined in creative ways drawing eclectic inspiration from the Pacific rim and the Mediterranean. Although the market-fresh ingredients are not trumpeted (in the way they are on some contemporary menus that elaborate the provenance of each ingredient), their freshness speaks for itself in the seasonal changes on the menu, and in the flavor of the food itself. Contemplating the menu had me torn in several directions. A buffalo goulash with cippolini and pearl onions sounded quite savory, and the duck duo of pan-seared breast and leg confit with a parsnip-celeriac puree (I love those roots!) both sounded good, but I was finally leaning toward the sea scallops with saffron risotto, English peas and apple compote. On the appetizers, a sweet and spicy lobster chowder was quite appealing, but then the Caesar salad, with white anchovies (no apologies!), brioche croutons, and shaved Asiago spoke to my heart as one who takes Caesar salad seriously. But then I decided to split the tie by going for the beet carpaccio with Humboldt Fog goat blue cheese and watercress in a pomegranite vinaigrette. But then, we heard about the specials, and a sudden instinct urged me to trust the chef and run with the specials. So I started with wild boar ravioli, accented with toasted corn kernels and fried sage leaf in a light savory sauce. The boar meat was light and fall-apart succulent from a slow-braise, encased in fresh pasta pillows, and the delectable morsels were passed around the table for all to appreciatively put a fork in (including Brian and Nancy, whose only previous impressions of wild boar were having been accosted by them at a campsite up the coast). George took the beets, and Heather gave me a bite of her lobster bisque which was truly exquisite. The bisque had a coconut milk base and some Thai spices, including a touch of potent pepper, but I think there was also cream in addition to the coconut milk, and the flavors developed in the most remarkable way: a hot flash of pepper quickly dissolving into a bit of vinegar sour, and then other flavors coming clear as the cream calmed the finish with the rich mouth feel of a great bisque. My main was a half-lobster lying on its side draped in wilted arugula and tiny heirloom cherry tomatoes, atop a risotto with bits of rabbit loin. By slicing the lobster in half lengthwise, the succulent tail meat was easily accessible, while maintaining the dramatic presentation of the lobster shell. George tried the bison goulash, which was slow-cooked to ultimate tenderness with great beefy flavor. For dessert we went light, sharing a beautifully presented plate of fresh fruit and berries, including blueberries, raspberries, mango, grapefruit, and more. I did note sounds of delight coming from Heather, who tried the nectarine crumble. It was an excellent meal. The bar and cellar were also fine. We had started the evening sampling creative offerings on the cocktail menu (George had a candied ginger cosmo, while I tried a "gin delicious", with fresh mint and lime, essentially a mojito but with gin instead of rum). They offered two wine lists, a regular wine list and a reserve wine list (essentially the two-digit and the three-digit wine list). While there were some impressive offerings if you really wanted to splurge, there were also a nice range of wines starting from the 30's. We had a Trefethen Chardonnay and a Justin Cab with dinner. Our table on the front porch, open to the street, was lovely for a summer evening.

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