The Black Whale was a Marina del Rey institution, famous for steaks, crab legs and . . . well, booze. Some patrons never actually ate anything there except the stew that was set out in the bar at happy hour. Then it closed, and the location was dark for a long time.
Two years ago, it was bought by Gerri Gilliland, Santa Monica's own One Hot Tamale. She still runs two restaurants in Santa Monica--Lula, and Jake and Annie's--but early last year she reopened the Black Whale as Washington Street Bar & Grill in order to have a place to showcase her latest obsession, Santa Maria-style barbecue.
Up around Santa Maria, you see, at places such as the Hitching Post in Buellton, there's a whole cult of barbecuing over red oak. So when you walk into the Washington Street B&G, about the first thing you see (through a window) is a big flatbed grill with a winch to raise and lower the gridiron over red oak coals. The first thing you smell is definitely oak smoke.
In the end, though, location cannot be denied, and Marina del Rey is still a beach town, with a beach town's tastes. Santa Maria barbecue may be the unique deal here, but Washington Street B&G moves a lot of seafood, just as the Black Whale did.
This is particularly so among the appetizers, where you see the usual seafood nibbles, such as oysters and peel-and-eat shrimp (the latter arrive hot on a bed of chopped ice, but they're more flavorful before they cool off). The menu boasts of a Really Good Crab Cake, which is at least pretty good, served on baby greens with a thousand island dressing.
The calamari are better, though. They're thickly breaded like old-time beach-town fried shrimp, and they're unusual among fried calamaris in coming with mustard. The best appetizer is the mussels, which are cooked in a quasi-Thai style, with coconut milk, curry spices and chopped tomatoes. The mussels rest on a slice of bread, which sops up the delicious juices.
As for the Santa Maria barbecue dishes, don't expect anything very exotic. They taste to me like very good California backyard barbecue stuff, particularly the pork ribs, only with a scent of red oak smoke. The tri-tip seems the smokiest and the rich, meaty beef ribs the best.
Maybe it's perverse of me, but I prefer the regular grilled items. There's an Angus filet mignon, pricey but tender and juicy. A sign outside the restaurant still advertises crab legs, and king crab legs are still a specialty here, smoky from the grill, served with drawn butter and very fresh green beans.
Even the grilled hamburger is great, as smoky as a shish kebab in the Aleppo souk. It's served on a distinctive fresh home-baked bun, which has a chewy, bready texture. The shoestring fries that come with it may not be literally as thin as shoestrings, but they are fried properly crisp.
The nightly specials, mostly seafood, also come from the grill. I've had a great halibut in a smoky, tangy chipotle pepper sauce.
There are also a couple of salads. A true Caesar (without anchovies). An arugula salad with pine nuts and shaved Parmesan, in one of those light, sweet dressings with no oil in them. Mixed greens with a variety of toppings, such as caramelized walnuts and good goat cheese.
And there's a list of pastas, most of them familiar, but the fettuccine with portabello mushrooms is distinctive. The mushroom slices are have a smoky flavor--hey, maybe they've been grilled over red oak.
At the end of the meal, they tempt you with a tray of desserts. You can get seasonal fruit, but most of them are very rich. There's a chocolate tart, which is like a warm brownie with an oozy chocolate center, and there's a blast from the '80s, a chocolate box--a lidless box made of chocolate, filled with chocolate mousse and strawberries. The mudd pie is partly chewy, partly gooey and partly crunchy, but all chocolate.
And there's a lemon meringue pie with a dense, lemony filling. Even the cherry tart is rich, a disk of puffy short crust studded with cherries. The Irish bread pudding, with its fresh caramel sauce, is positively sober in this company.
For that matter, this is a distinctly more sober place than the old Black Whale. When I've been there, the dining rooms were actually busier than the bar. Who'd ever have thought?
Washington Street Bar & Grill, 3106 Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey. (310) 823-9898. Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Full bar. Parking lot. All major cards. Dinner for two, $28 to $81.
What to Get: fried calamari, mussels, hamburger, crab legs, Santa Maria beef ribs, mudd pie, cherry tart.