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Martinique Fills One Tall Order

Franco-Caribbean eatery in Hermosa Beach features jerk, curry and other spicy things.

September 14, 2000|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Suddenly, sleepy little Hermosa Beach is hot. I mean, how many Southland communities can boast two Cajun restaurants within a couple of blocks? And it's now home to Martinique, a stylish nouvelle Caribbean restaurant with a chef formerly of the Shark Bar and a menu designed by the current chef at DC3.

True, you may have to jump through hoops to get there. On the weekends, Hermosa Avenue is a bumper-to-bumper ordeal, and parking is squeaky tight; I've had to park as far as five blocks away. (Martinique does have three spots in its name in the underground garage a few doors north.) But this is the place to go in the South Bay for Franco-Caribbean tall food served on triangular plates in a room painted coral red.

The appetizers are less consistent than the main dishes. The restaurant seems proud of its chilled red and yellow tomato soup, but I've found it dull and bitter with way too much thyme. And the Caribbean Caesar salad has an odd fishy smell--not unpleasant, but peculiar.

But there's a very good appetizer of three lovely, plush scallops with fava puree and tomatoes in balsamic vinegar (don't bother eating the heart-shaped tortilla chips, they're just for looks). There's a good lobster salad with asparagus and cashews in a sweetish mango vinaigrette. The escargots a la Bourgogne (didn't know that was Caribbean, did you?) are tender and lightly flavored with anise. The snail butter floats on a pointless broth that tastes like onion soup, though.

The French entrees are both terrific. There are lots of crispy confits of duck leg around, but this one is exceptionally moist and meaty, as well as being really crisp. It comes with a whole-grain mustard sauce and garlic mashed potatoes topped with tart rapini.

The "dancing" lamb chops are the tallest tall food on this menu. From the ground floor up, they read like this: thyme-infused potato pancake (more like a mashed potato patty, in fact), fresh favas, strips of shiitake, tiny boiling onions and a tangled superstructure of fried onion strings. The lamb chops--four of them, sweet and moderately tender--are arranged upright around this impressive pile. At the base, there's a sauce, called tamarind sauce on the menu, but it gives the impression of a really good, strong red wine reduction, which is the best thing about the dish.

The jerk dishes--chicken or salmon, sometimes pork or other meats on special--taste of allspice with a carefully calculated slap of habanero pepper. Jerk salmon is a moist, flavorful piece of fish and comes with crispy rice cake (a perfectly round crumbly disk of rice with a few vegetables in it) and green mango salsa.

Calypso chicken is reddish brown and tangy from its marinade of achiote and ginger. It comes with caramelized mango and rice and beans. The Caribbean chicken curry has a huge wallop of fenugreek, giving it a sweet, almost fennel-like herbal aroma.

One of the best dishes is the pork loin glazed with molasses and pineapple, which comes with orange-rosemary demiglace (not over-sweet) and quartered small potatoes roasted appetizingly brown. The Bajan-style rib eye, which is said to be flavored with Barbadian spices, gives an impression more like prime rib than steak--soft, meaty--but with an elusive flavor that resembles butter when the dish is hot but seems almost like a fish sauce as it cools. This is another dish with a topping of fried onion strings.

For dessert, there's a rum chocolate cake--very moist, something between frosting and a fallen souffle in texture--and a suave allspice-ginger creme bru^lee with a very delicate sugar crust. But the attention-getter is the white chocolate cheesecake: a tall food cheesecake, set on the plate pointy end up. It's actually very good; in a world where white chocolate is often just a vague creamy flavor, this dish really tastes like chocolate. For contrast, it has a crumbled dark chocolate wafer crust and a bit of tart lime caramel.

The wine list is not very long but well chosen. Keep an eye out for the tangy, satiny Treane Marsanne-Viognier, redolent of peaches.

BE THERE

Martinique, 934 Hermosa Ave., Hermosa Beach. (310) 376-9300. Dinner 6-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday. Beer and wine. Street parking. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $46 to $68.

What to Get: scallops with fava bean puree, lobster and mango salad, jerk salmon, dancing lamb chops, crispy duck leg, glazed pork loin, rum chocolate cake, white chocolate cheesecake.

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