Thursday, July 15, 2010
You’ve probably driven by it unknowingly, given its humble hideout between an industrial-sized Vietnamese market and a laundromat in an unassuming, pink Del Monte Boulevard strip mall in Marina. In that way, it’s easy for Frutti De Mar Grill to go unnoticed.
But its minimal menu of fresh seafood and straightforward pasta dishes – inspired by the cuisine of northern and southern Italy but given a Latin touch – can’t be ignored. Same goes for the simple elegance of Salvadoran transplant chef-owner Tito Perez – who’s worked as a chef everywhere from the Rio Grill to Flaherty’s since 1980 – and his cleverly concocted dishes.
Perez’s old school-meets-new school Italian recipes shine brightly on the small tabletops of Frutti’s dimly lit, cozy dining room. The ambiance is charming and the visible kitchen attached to the dining room yields a neighborhood feel; it’s a place where you can feel comfortable drinking wine and chatting with friends into the night, after eating a satisfying meal.
Friendly waiter Frank started me out with a glass of 2008 Lockwood Sauvignon Blanc ($6; $20/bottle), one of 12 wine selections including the nuanced 2008 Carmel Road Pinot Noir ($7.50; $29).
As someone who comes from an area close to Chesapeake Bay, I’d like to think I know a thing or two about crab cakes, and it’s rare that I find anything in California that can compete with what they do in Maryland. But Frutti’s crab cakes ($8.95), pan-seared and drizzled with a lobster cream sauce, have an über-fresh essence that comes damn close to the goods back East. The morsels of fresh crabmeat are intertwined with a mellow blend of spices that doesn’t overpower the sweet crustacean taste. And the cream sauce’s light covering ensures a consistently moist texture with every bite.
For a second appetizer, I order the carpaccio ($8.95). The thinly sliced filet mignon with wild arugula, Parmesan, mushrooms, virgin olive oil, lemon and capers is a medley of flavor. The slices of filet melt in your mouth; the acidity of the lemon and capers are tangy delicious. But the crab takes the cake in the appetizer category.
In between our apps and main courses, Frank brings us some complimentary bruschetta, with roma tomato, virgin olive oil, kalamata olives and garlic on a grilled baguette slice – a nice palate cleanser before our entrées.
For the main course, my dinner partner goes with the championed Frutti De Mar fettuccini ($15.95). The seafood splendor of shrimp, scallops and crab is sautéed in a garlic cream sauce and tossed with the fettuccini. The intensity of the garlic plays well with the silky sauce and together they enhance the flavors of the sea. And the plate’s also as big as tide pool – I dare you to try finishing it.
I go for the fusilli con luganega ($14.95), sausage and chicken pasta in a pink sauce. The real standout of this dish is the sauce, a fusion of marinara and cream sauce – not too heavy on the cream – that brings out the best of both the sausage and the chicken, and is definitely a worthwhile choice for folks not in the seafood mood. Other non-seafood options include the bisteca alla griglia ($19.95), a grilled center cut rib eye smothered with sautéed onions and mushrooms and pollo piccata ($14.95), free-range chicken breast sautéed with artichoke hearts, white wine and lemon caper sauce. There’s also the rich cannelloni ($12.95), and rolled pasta with veal, spinach, mozzarella cheese served with meat sauce and basil cream sauce.
For a second meal, we start with the fried calamari ($6.95). The ubiquitous appetizer fares well: The lightly breaded, medallion-sized curls are impressively fresh, not too greasy, but in need of a touch more pounding. The velvety, homemade tarter sauce, meanwhile, is a quite good (and quite crucial) detail.
After learning that the snapper ($14.95) is line-caught and sourced from the Monterey Fish Co., I’m ready to place my order. The fish is grilled Cajun-style with basil and mint pesto and has a nice New Orleans kick. Overall, the snapper – served with seasonal steamed veggies and dirty rice – is a tasty choice; a couple bites, however, taste too fishy.
My friend gets the coveted vegetarian lasagna ($12.95) with béchamel, mushrooms and a light cream marinara sauce. He leaves happy.
Tonight, there’s no complimentary bruschetta but Frank indulges us with a stellar dessert instead, on the house. After a first bite of the warm pecan cake topped with cinnamon sorbet – yes – words like “addictive,” “heaven” and “Hawaiian beach” flutter my mind.
In addition to the quality of Frutti’s seafood and its lovingly constructed dishes, they get a gold star for service. On my first visit, Frank noticed the high beams of an SUV blasting through the front window. Without uttering a word, Frank quickly made for the front entrance to close the blinds.
I could see again – and see even more clearly that the service and the food demonstrate that their in-the-know local following is well deserved.