Delius Restaurant Is the Real Deal
For a place surrounded by auto dealerships and housed in a building butted up against a menacing electrical substation, Delius Restaurant has a remarkable sense of confidence and swagger. Or perhaps it's exactly these things that bolster its resolve. Like its host city of Signal Hill, the independent hamlet completely surrounded by Long Beach, Delius is bold and unique. Look at the website, and you see not just a menu, but a breathless, all-encompassing manifesto that includes cooking classes, chef-for-a-day events and a 10-night Mediterranean cruise embarking in October.
Its grand ambitions are those of chef Louise Solzman, an expat Brit who owns the place with her husband, Dave, the restaurant's sommelier. They met while working on a luxury ship, which may explain the cruise offering. When they started the restaurant in 1996, only prix-fixe meals were available. They still do it now, one seating per night, five times a week, with a seven-course menu they change about twice per month. Over the years, they've introduced an upgrade option to a private wine-cellar dinner, to which they added three more courses and the hook of the chef herself preparing the meal through a peep-show window.
I've not seen this room, but if it's anything like the main dining area, it will impress with its polished lines and the sumptuous leather of a Porsche. But no restaurant, not even one that can offer cruise packages, would survive on prix fixe alone. So around 2007, the couple introduced an à la carte menu. This will be how most try Solzman's food—the first date, if you will. From it you will determine whether the prix fixe, the cooking classes or even the ocean voyage are worth further investment.
If your decision hinges solely on the crispy-pork-belly appetizer, you'll likely buy anything the Solzmans sell. Delius' rendition of the de rigeur restaurant standard is so far the best pork-belly dish I've tasted from a non-Filipino source. Requisitely crispy and crackly in the right places and melting like ice cream in the rest, these hog pieces could be mistaken by Pinoys for their beloved lechon and the Chinese for their siu yuk. Solzman isn't shy about featuring the rich, white fat because she knows everything else she puts on the plate equalizes it: Flame-blistered shishito peppers burst with a seeped-in soy marinade, a sticky honey glaze sweetens, and the jiggly cubes of yuzu jelly cut through it all like a lemon-fortified antidote.
Get the appetizer, even though all entrées come with a soup or salad. Pick the soup over the ordinary fancy greens. Insist on the wholesome, flavor-packed lentil, which lords over the salmon chowder even though the latter has generous chunks of fish swimming in its tomato-based broth. Then order the linguine, not because it will change your mind about pasta, but because it's supplied with an excessive amount of monster-sized, nicely cooked shrimp. Doing so also entitles you to a free ticket to the Aquarium of the Pacific as a reward for choosing this sustainable-seafood dish. You won't get the same deal if you order the sea bass, but you will if you take the salmon.
The rest of the entrées are land-based protein sources you've come to expect, crowd-tested stuff such as flat-iron steak, grilled filet mignon and a braised short rib that would fall off the bone if the kitchen didn't already remove the thing. A lamb shank is also braised, and an apple-fennel-goat cheese mix stuffs the pork chop. But the advertised "crispy skin" for its take on chicken marsala will draw you in even if it doesn't include any sort of free-ticket-bribe. It's a great piece of breast meat, Frenched so the boneless hunk of hen has a wing drumette you can nibble on afterward. Though Solzman cooked it so exactingly that the breast cuts are milky-moist, it wasn't the skin that gave the dish the texture the menu promised; instead, as often is the case, it was the fried potatoes, here in tiny, crunchy cubes mixed with brie and pancetta.
If the pork-belly appetizer and the chicken are a good first date, the whole leg of duck confit—with its bronzed and brittle skin, soft meat, smoky mole sauce, a tart salad, and globules of spiced tomato yogurt encased by spherification—is where you really start falling in love. Also on that second trip, I collected another free aquarium ticket by ordering the salmon; the dish turned out to be its own reward. Cauterized to crispness, brought to the table searing-hot over a sauté of shimenji mushrooms and Brussels sprouts, my tongue still bears the welt from where the first forkful of fish scalded it.
By the time I scooped up the last cooling spoonful of the Russian cream dessert, a simple five-ingredient parfait similar to panna cotta with the added tang of sour cream, I was ready to commit to the prix fixe for a third date—perhaps even the wine-cellar dinner for a fourth. The cruise? I'm not at that point in the relationship yet.
This review appeared in print as "What's the Delius? Getting to know the Solzmans' ambitious Signal Hill restaurant beyond the first crush."
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