Our dinner at Café del Rey in early March was an earth-shattering experience, literally. As the ground jolted and the windows rattled I thought, “Well, this would be the way to go. Good company, good food and a beautiful…” And then before I could finish my thought the quake was over.

“…A beautiful view” is what I was thinking, and it’s the first thing you notice as you walk in the front door of this iconic restaurant. The large windows across the rear of the building take full advantage of the Marina’s vistas.

Tender Wagyu New York steak Photo: Angela De Felice
Tender Wagyu New York steak
Photo: Angela De Felice

Café del Rey has been a fixture in the Marina since the early ’80s.  It has survived many food trends in that timespan, most recently embracing the movement toward sustainable, seasonal food, under the direction of executive chef Chuck Abair. 

Chef Chuck, formerly Michael Cimarusti’s Sous Chef at the exquisite seafood mecca Providence, was Sous Chef at Café del Rey earlier on in his career.  He has made a splashing comeback, and we were excited to see what little nuggets he may have picked up during his hiatus.

Although his career began in brasseries around Orange and L.A. Counties, chef Chuck remarked he has no intentions of leaning specifically towards French cuisine in his latest outpost.

A steaming bowl of mussels Photo: Angela De Felice
A steaming bowl of mussels
Photo: Angela De Felice

Sustainable farming and offerings from his purveyors are what inspire him. While he misses the rapport he had with other neighborhood chefs under the canopies at Wednesday’s farmer’s market in Santa Monica, he mentioned he and sous chef Adrian Vela enjoy a satisfying creative dynamic.

The menu now changes on a daily basis, anchored by a few favorite go to items. The menu staples had a brasserie bent so we decided to go for it, thinking we’d be in for a treat given the chef’s foundation.

Our first selection sailed out in a waft of garlic and brine. A steaming bowl of mussels wading in a tasty broth of red wine, garlic, shallots and tomato should have been drowning instead – all the better to mop up the savory juice with accompanying grilled baguette.

Beet and Burrata Salad was on deck next. The Jerez-soaked cubes of beet brought out the nutty flavor of lamb’s lettuce (also known as mâche), while the creamy texture and mild flavor of the Burrata was akin to tying a bow around this simple gift.

We were off to a very good start, enhanced by the flight of wine we were enjoying. After browsing a very intriguing wine list and cocktail menu, we discovered a selection of four flights of wine. Randy, the sommelier in our relationship, described them as “well thought-out and imaginative.”

Groupings with names like “Tour De Mediterranean” and “Your Cab Has Arrived” offered three 2-ounce pours and landed in high style on a special carrier. This gave new meaning to the term liquefaction zone.

The decadence continued with a very pampered cow. The Wagyu N.Y. Steak by way of Australia benefited over his lifetime from the Japanese technique of occasional massage and red wine-soaked feed. So did our palates. Rated “Marble grade 5,” it is the highest level the Wagyu Association rates its meats, and we can attest to the tender quality of this tasty flesh.

I don’t think I’d recommend the Duck Confit. For those of you who are unfamiliar with duck, it tends to be a very fatty, therefore moist bird. This particular French dish involves the laborious process of curing the duck leg and 36 hours later immersing it in duck fat, for a long leisurely poach in the oven. I’m not sure why, but the meat was incredibly dry.

Served in a tagine (rather unceremoniously, without the accompanying lid) the contents had such promise. The curry was packed with flavor, and the quinoa and veggies were healthy and light. Maybe this was a rogue duck.

We ended the evening on a high note with what Randy deemed a “legendary dessert.” Angel Food Cake with a refreshing scoop of Meyer lemon gelato, candied kumquats, grapefruit and Marscapone culminated in a light, bright core-shaking dessert.