Le Cellier is the newest from the China Beach Bistro and Hinano teams and like those restaurants it is just steps from the beach. It’s a Vietnamese eatery as seen squarely through the lens of French influence on the culture, though if one traveled to Vietnam today they would be hard-pressed to find many menu’s like it in that country.
The space has been reimagined from its former iteration (a tapas restaurant) and it’s a modern spin on the space, with wine prominently on display. On the day The Monster visits he occupies the only table for lunch, so service is friendly and accommodating as the menu is perused.
There is a selection of small plates the likes of which include a gratinee of mushroom with bacon, Vietnamese Nems with shrimp and fried rice paper or a toasted baguette with salmon gravlax. At first blush one recognizes this restaurant’s aspirations go much farther than most Vietnamese in Los Angeles which tend to concentrate on pho and bahn mi. The menu further has soup and salad so perhaps French onion soup or a Le Cellier salad with apple, bacon, and Parmesan cheese with balsamic lime dressing may pique your interest. Charcuterie and cheese are also on offer, though the more interesting selections are those with a Vietnamese bent like the mushroom sausage, smoked minced pork cake and cured pork belly. Banh mi and main dishes fill out the menu with such unusual (for Vietnamese spaces) offerings as tomato sauce and bison meatball or duck rillette bahn mi and lemongrass sautéed mussels or seared black peppered beef tenderloin.
The Monster sees turmeric chicken wings with yogurt dressing and knows that will be part of lunch. So too must Vietnamese young duck rillette on crispy rice. Lastly, a wild pertunus crab cake with mango sauce will round out the small plates.
As for the main dishes, sautéed Red River “Mekong Delta” fish in turmeric with sautéed onion, fresh baby dill and a side of cold rice noodles registers interest as does the seared salmon fillet with lime paprika sauce on a bed of tender greens and a side of jasmine steamed rice.
The wings prove monstrous, meaty almost prehistoric looking things that have a bit of a kick to them. The Monster’s travels through Vietnam never saw him eating chicken wings and these, while not horrible, may prove why. The yogurt sauce is an innovative pairing but doesn’t ultimately work in this context.
The crabcake is interesting in that is has more in common with say, crab stuffing, than an actual crabcake. The flavors are well played if not a bit dry, while the mango sauce is a touch sweeter than The Monster would like. If more crab found its way into this dish it really could be a winner.
On a honeymoon with duck recently, the rillette are eagerly anticipated. Unfortunately, the duck is a tad more gamey than The Monster prefers so this dish isn’t a favorite.
As the main courses arrive The Monster begins to wonder about Le Cellier. It’s still in its infancy so perhaps the ambitious menu needs more time to work out the kinks.
And the fish prove as much. Both dishes score well enough, but seem to be lacking that explosion of flavor that so many associate with Vietnamese cooking. The Mekong Delta fish is a bit muddied in flavor while the salmon needs the accompanying sauce to keep it from falling into a very pedestrian place. It’s as if the more refined French influences have sapped the meal of some of its urgency. But one must applaud the restaurant for not becoming another fried rice joint.
The Monster hopes Le Cellier finds its groove as an inventive menu such as this within walking distance of the beach would be a score. The friendly service and interesting wine list may in fact make this a neighborhood favorite once it settles down.
Why go? Your favorite scenes in Apocalypse Now were the deleted ones.
Monster rating: 2½/5 Monsters
417 Washington Boulevard
Marina Del Rey, CA 90292