Welcome to Ritz-on-the-Marina, a small, exclusive community with all the amenities: shops, gymnasium, marina view, a top-hatted major-domo who'll see to the parking of your car--and the shortest restaurant row you've ever seen. Since The Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey, is a hotel, its Cafe and Grill have to be all restaurants to all people, from the steak-and-Scotch crowd to foodies mad for goat cheese, fitness-minded nutrient counters and people who just feel like a good burger for lunch.
The Grill, open only for dinner, has an old-fashioned chop-house menu, but The Cafe shoulders the rest of the all-things-to-all-diners work, such as the burger detail.
The Cafe's lunch menu has higher ambitions than burgers, even among its sandwiches, though it does have a great sirloin burger: thick and charcoally, topped with Swiss, Cheddar or Brie and accompanied by non-mushy fries and The Ritz-Carlton's own custom-made mustard and ketchup in tony little jars that hold about a tablespoon or two. This is a $6.50 burger that can hold its own against any $8 premium burger in Southern California . . . though that house ketchup does taste overwhelmingly of tomato paste.
The Cafe's Fitness Cuisine menu offers two choices for appetizer, entree and dessert, all identified by calorie count and fat percentage. All I can vouch for are a scallop casserole that tasted like scallops in water and a far better filet of venison, heavily peppered, that was unexpectedly meaty (and generous, as fitness food goes, with the approximate volume of an old-fashioned blackboard eraser). It came in a simple meat reduction, and I'd order it again, except that the Fitness Cuisine menu has been changed to a more conventional choice of swordfish or chicken breast.
The Cafe is also the foodie's choice. After the obligatory bread basket (baguette, walnut bread, powerfully flavored olive bread), you can't go wrong ordering the soup of the day. I've had a model seafood chowder, thick with shrimp, scallops and salmon, rich with flavors of the sea and quietly dashed with Parmesan. Even a stodgy-sounding potato-and-turnip soup, sprinkled with a little dill, turned out fresh flavored.
The best of the appetizers must be the lobster-and-artichoke ravioli, because I ordered it twice. Anyway, it involves good, sweet chunks of lobster and fresh artichoke heart, in a sort of beurre blanc sauce flavored with thyme, bay, tarragon and pungent specks of green onion. Pimentos and corn kernels swim along in it.
Escargots with basil and fennel consist of big, tender snails on a bed of what looks at first like a grainy sort of pasta but reveals itself as sliced fennel root--somewhat less sweet than you might expect but oddly enjoyable. In addition to a basil cream sauce, the plate holds some peeled tomatoes, because we live in a peeled-tomato age, and The Cafe puts peeled tomatoes in all sorts of places.
We also live in a game-and-carpaccio era, and The Cafe obliges with a venison carpaccio made from the tiny sika deer. We're talking tiny slices, necessarily, and brownish at the edges (evidently the partly cooked sort of carpaccio). Unfortunately, you can't taste much but garlic.
The appetizer identified as "duck liver, asparagus, apples, pears, Xeres vinegar sauce" teems with flavors, as you'd expect, but the menu somehow does not mention the predominating flavor: onion. This is a dish as rich as the carpaccio is austere.
At $30, the Maine lobster fricassee costs $9 more than anything else on the menu. It tries cautiously for a continental-nouvelle alliance, and you really can't dislike it. The meat, removed from the shell, comes in a saffron cream sauce with scallops, mussels, black linguine and two carefully carved carrot olives.
The kitchen gets excellent scallops, though it has a peculiar idea of how to serve them. They come with tomato fettuccine in a mild cream sauce with a hint of tarragon. The sauce is slightly sweet, though, in the Boyardee fashion. In the pasta department, I'd always take the white-truffle fettuccine with large prawns, rather soft porcini mushrooms and an unannounced scatter of caviar.
Though the exclusive carnivores dwell next door in The Grill, The Cafe does serve some excellent meat dishes. The beef filet, a beautifully tender piece of steak, is crusted with herbs in a rich red-brown reduction of meat juices.
The long-winded name "veal tenderloin, Parma ham, spinach, braised Belgium ( sic ) endive, port wine sauce" would seem to tell you in advance everything that will appear on your plate, but I also found the following: a little stuffed potato, a stuffed segment of zucchini and some broccoli. The trouble was, I'm not sure I tasted any endive at all. That's a small gripe, but the roasted air-dried duck is a big one--pears in Merlot, honey and vinegar sauce could not save this tough bird.