Steak & Whisky
Rich flavors and superb ingredients catapult a new Hermosa Beach restaurant, featuring both stratospheric quality and prices, to regional acclaim
by Richard Foss
The chef’s art has an interesting bell curve. At one end is simple diner food, uncomplicated home cooking served somewhere other than home. As prices and expectations rise, the preparations get more complex, the presentation more ornate. At the other end of the graph, where price and expectations are highest, we find simplicity again – traditional sushi bars and steakhouses, where vast sums of money are spent to procure the best possible ingredients and serve them with subtle seasonings.
This dynamic explains the menu at Steak & Whisky, Hermosa’s most expensive and upscale restaurant; whether you love or hate the place will have much to do with your appreciation for meat applied to fire. Oddly, after several meals here my favorite items had nothing to do with either beef nor grain beverages – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
My first visit was in March, shortly after they opened, and I started with an item that turned out to be one of the few constants on the menu – a salad of iceberg lettuce, fried green tomato, and blue cheese with green goddess dressing. This is a deftly updated version of the classic steakhouse salad, and it’s a keeper. I’ve never seen both fresh and fried tomatoes in the same item before, but the combination is marvelous.
On that first trip I was a solo diner, and encountered the problem I’d face on every visit: the smallest steak was a 14 ounce filet, not my favorite cut, and it was priced at $80. A T-bone, New York, or Porterhouse were offered if I felt like attacking eighteen or twenty-two ounces of meat, which I didn’t. Japanese wagyu ribeye could be had for $34 per ounce, but I have never been a fan of wagyu and didn’t feel like spending over $150 to see if they could convert me. I decided to have kurobuta pork short ribs in a shoyu glaze instead, figuring that was a way to get something in a modest portion from that grill. It was excellent, served over creamy white polenta with greens, and actually a bargain at $25.
I wanted to try something with whiskey, so decided on a cocktail called Bill The Butcher – Earl Gray-infused Maker’s Mark with Americano liqueur and falernum. The gentle bergamot flavor of the tea in the whiskey was a beautiful balance for the sweet and rich liqueurs, and I ordered that cocktail on subsequent visits.
That visit to Steak & Whisky set me back about $55 and was intriguing enough that I returned a few weeks later, this time with someone else so I could order a steak. We started with ham hock ravioli over a codfish brandade – a Provencal codfish and potato cake. It was brilliant: salted fish and salted pork that were both winter provisions in medieval Europe presented in ways that elevated them to haute cuisine. The ravioli was in a sweet and sour pork jus, the codfish and mashed potato cake crisp, and the contrasting textures added to the delight of eating it. This dish is off the menu now, but if it comes back, order it – it’s splendid.
The variety of steaks had increased since my previous visit, though the ribeye (my favorite cut) was only available as a 42 ounce tomahawk chop for $120. That was more than we wanted to spend for much more than we wanted to eat, and as we hesitated over the menu our server offered to send over someone to advise us. This turned out to be General Manager Micah Clark, and after listening to our preferences he suggested we share a 20 ounce Kansas City Strip. We also ordered a lamb T-bone and sides of Moroccan-spiced carrots and grilled asparagus with crisp shallots and gribiche sauce.
The Kansas City strip cut – otherwise known as a New York Strip – isn’t quite as tender as a ribeye, but this one was as good as they get. The flavor had been concentrated thanks to a month of dry aging, and it was a piece of meat to savor. The seasoning was minimal, and it was served without steak sauce – that’s available if you want it, but we didn’t. It had taken a while to come out – steaks here do, because they’re cooked at high heat and then allowed to rest, but it was worth the wait.
As good as it was, we found the lamb even more noteworthy. The seasoning was more baroque, as it had been seasoned with cocoa nibs, allspice, coffee, chili flakes, and dried lamb jerky – an odd combination of powerful flavors that were used so subtly that the meat wasn’t overpowered. The steak was a triumph of minimalism, the lamb proof that the kitchen can deploy condiments artfully. The lamb arrived with an heirloom tomato and mint salad that was an appropriate complement to the exotically spiced meat, fresh natural flavors to complement art.
The asparagus with shallots was worth ordering because the gribiche sauce made with mayonnaise, mustard, chopped pickles, and herbs, suited the vegetable so well. Gribiche is traditionally served with chicken or fish, and the slight pickle tartness was perfect here. We were less happy with the Moroccan carrots because the balance was off – when properly made the garlic, cumin, and honey are in balance with a dash of chili sauce, but here the sweet flavor of the carrots and the honey dominated the wisp of chili and herbs. It was the only dud item in three visits, and when we expressed our dissatisfaction to our server he removed it from the bill.
We had chatted with the bartender about drinks, and when asked what we’d like, invited him to surprise us with any drink as long as it was made with whiskey. He delivered a cocktail of bourbon with Americano liqueur, marjoram, and sherry, and it was delicious. I don’t know what the name of this concoction was, or if it has one, but it was delightful. With our meal we had wine from their extensive by-the-glass list, which has been curated with bottles that go well with meat.
We thought our meal was over but noticed that they offered a plum panzanella – a dessert version of an Italian bread salad, using fruit instead of tomatoes. It wasn’t much like any other panzanella I’ve had– an almond crisp and coffee torte was substituted for the usual bread chunks and there was caramel ice cream on the side – but it was a delicious and satisfying finish. Our dinner for two ran just over $150, and was worth it.
I was going to review of Steak & Whisky then, but held off because I had heard a rumor that the menu was going to change substantially. It didn’t, but I returned anyway to sample their summer offerings. First was an heirloom tomato and watermelon salad because they give it an unusual twist, adding yuzu watercress puree, and bottarga. Bottarga, fermented and dried mullet roe, has a pungent, funky, briny flavor that is usually used to flavor pasta and other neutral items. I’ve seen caviar added to fruity tomatoes with citrus, and this works the same way.
I chose an eight ounce flat iron steak this time, though flat irons aren’t one of my favorite cuts – I wanted to see if they could make it so I liked it. I had asked for squash risotto as a side, and to make up for a delay in getting my meal out they offered another side for free.
I had requested the steak to be served as the chef thought it best, and it came out just past rare. It was unusually flavorful, with a little of the pleasant gaminess associated with lamb, though it was a bit less tender than expected. The additional appetizer, charred shisito peppers with bonito shavings, was not bad but not particularly interesting – it felt like it was missing an ingredient that would take the two sharp flavors and bind them. The winner of this course was the squash risotto with hazelnuts and sheep cheese, which was creamy, rich, and multilayered. I finished with their tart-sized German chocolate cake with alcohol-infused cherries. The texture was more dense and moist than the traditional version, the cherries an outsized part of the flavor, but it was a successful reimagination of an American favorite.
I had two cocktails on this visit, both excellent, and a bill for $95. I also had a lot of thoughts about where this restaurant fits into the South Bay. After my first visit I thought it would be successful only if they drew from the tourist trade, because locals would be unlikely to support an expensive restaurant centered on meat. I have changed my mind since then – while this is the most expensive restaurant in town by a wide margin, their competition is not other Hermosa restaurants, but Nick’s, Fleming’s, and the new Arthur J’s – regional draws offering sophisticated, adult surroundings and premium American classics.
I am tough to impress when paying this much for American food, but on each visit there was at least one item that changed the way I think about an ingredient or preparation. That’s about the nicest thing I can say about any contemporary restaurant, and it’s what makes a visit to Steak & Whisky a must even if you aren’t a fanatical fan of distilled grain or chunks of cow.
Steak & Whisky is at 117 Pier Avenue in Hermosa – open daily 5. – 10 p.m., street parking only, noise level moderate. Full bar, wheelchair access OK, reservations recommended, vegetarian options. Menu at steakandwhisky.com, phone 310-318-5555. See previous story on Chef Tin here.