I attended the Riverside Dickens Festival last week, a celebration of all things Victorian and of the literature of one prolific writer in particular. Two hundred years after his birth, Dickens continues to inspire filmmakers, academics, actors and reenactors, and at least one restaurateur – the one who opened Oliver’s Café in Redondo.
Oliver’s Café takes its name from Oliver Twist, a book about misery and privation, which makes it a slightly unlikely theme for a restaurant. This could have been overdone to create a Disneyland-like effect, but thankfully isn’t. Broadway playbills and movie posters for the staged versions of the book adorn the walls, Victorian antiques are used tastefully, and the music in the background is modern pop rather than Victorian music hall ditties.
Under founding chef David Linville, the dining experience was interesting but both food and service were erratic. Linville left about four months ago and the menu has changed from a steakhouse with eclectic sides to a more ambitious modern menu. The contemporary ideas seemed at odds with the décor, but at a recent meal the food was uniformly good and every idea worked.
We started with an asparagus salad and an order of mussels with French fries, both of which arrived elaborately arranged. The grilled asparagus was stacked in a neat square like a corral around a mound of radicchio salad topped by a hard-boiled egg that had been breaded and fried. It was a diverting presentation, and people from an adjacent table were peering at it. More importantly, it was tasty, the asparagus slightly smoky from the grill and parmesan vinaigrette on the salad a nice counterpoint. The mussels in a saffron sauce were laid out in a fan and topped with mild red Fresno chilies that added a spicy counterpoint to the chunks of mild Spanish-style chorizo and dusting of herbs, and the fries were double-cooked Belgian style for crispness. We mopped up the sauce with the warm rosemary bread that arrived at the table, our appetites and expectations both whetted.
We had hoped to have wine to complement the starters, but there were numerous delays as our server negotiated with the bar. The wine list didn’t reflect what they were actually serving, apparently because the restaurant was changing their providers, and the bar had not thought to let the staff know what was actually available. Our server was new to the restaurant and not very knowledgeable about wine, and she became visibly flustered as she had to return repeatedly to tell us that different items were not available. She was doing the best she could, but there is obviously room for improvement in communication here. We ended up with glasses of Joel Gott and Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, both of which went nicely with the shellfish.
For main courses we selected fried jidori chicken, beef stew, and five-spice seared tuna with garlic chili mashed potatoes and bok choy. The tuna was rich and meaty, the thin white line of seared fish surrounding the pink center visual evidence that it had been properly cooked. The fish was fresh, moist, and meaty, the subtle anise, cinnamon, and pepper of the spice rub complemented by the soy-mint vinaigrette drizzle. Along with the potatoes and bok choy with sesame it was a balanced and filling meal.
The fried chicken was more of a surprise – two boneless breasts had been breaded in a lightly spiced batter and put over mashed potatoes with sausage gravy, then topped with flash-fried onions. Nothing about the menu description hinted at the unorthodox presentation, which I count as a flaw even though I liked the result. I know many people who might like the gravy with their potatoes but not moistening the batter on their crispy chicken. That said, it was quite tasty, the jidori chicken more flavorful than the average bird and very deftly done.
The most traditional dish, and the only one that had some relevance to the restaurant’s nominally British theme, was the beef stew topped with a delicate popover biscuit. The broth had the mild smokiness and caramel flavor that comes from a sauce made with stout, and it was simple comfort food nicely done.
We had ordered one side dish with dinner, shredded Brussels sprouts sautéed with bacon. As it turned out the portions were so large that this wasn’t needed to fill us up, but it was certainly appreciated, the wintery cabbage flavor of sprouts and smoked meat a warming pleasure on a cool evening.
Desserts were offered, a crème brulee, pear bread pudding, or milk and cookies, but the large portions of our entrees and starters had left us with no room. Dinner for three with a glass of wine each had run $120 before tip, reasonable for the quality of food here. I might consider bringing a bottle of wine in case the list isn’t straightened out by my next visit – corkage is $15 a bottle – but I would not hesitate to return.
Oliver’s Café, 6300 S. PCH, Redondo Beach. Open daily 4 p.m. to midnight, happy hour midweek in bar only. Parking lot, full bar, children OK, wheelchair access good. Phone 310-375-5481.