Richard Foss

A quarter century later, Depot’s star still shines in Old Torrance

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Depot chef Michael Shafer. Photo bny Brad Jacobson

Depot chef Michael Shafer. Photo bny Brad Jacobson

by Richard Foss 

When the Depot opened in Old Torrance in 1991 it was a bold move on several levels. The neighborhood was then sleepy, conservative, and mostly vacant, the last place most people would consider for an upscale new restaurant. As if that wasn’t enough, the chef insisted on doing large parts of the design despite not being a trained architect. Once people got a look at the menu there was even more incredulity – it was a list of wild fusion ideas mixing Japanese, Chinese, German, and American influences.

Almost twenty-five years later it’s hard to remember how outrageous the whole concept was. The community around the restaurant has flowered, fusion cuisine has become part of our culture, and the odd architectural touches like Roman pillars going only partway to the roof still look kinda cool. The rest of the area has caught up with the innovations here, at least partially.

This is not to say that Chef Michael Shafer is resting on his laurels, because the menu is still exciting, reflecting current trends filtered through his unique culinary vision. The chef himself is a gregarious presence in the dining room, chatting with guests when not overseeing his kitchen. He’s happy to talk about his menu, as well as anything else that happens to cross his mind.

Some of the items on that list have been there since the restaurant opened, like his signature crispy “Thai Dyed” chicken and rock shrimp sausages, and others are handwritten at the bottom of every menu. I’d guess the sausages have a sentimental appeal for Shafer, since he invented them as part of his menu when he entered a culinary Olympics in Germany. He won the gold medal there, and you can still see why – it’s a flavor and texture we don’t usually associate with sausage, moist, rich and delicate with hints of cilantro and Thai spices. The shrimp sausages are served with fried wontons and a sauce that shows how sweet garlic can be when roasted. If you’ve never considered eating whole garlic cloves before, this could be a perfect introduction to the habit – the sharpness melts away leaving a rich creaminess.

The soup of the day was pumpkin with fresh corn on my most recent visit to the Depot, and we had to order it because it’s a sign of the change of seasons – corn is dwindling as pumpkin becomes available, and they’re not often served together. Combining symbols of summer and autumn was an inspired choice, and if this is still offered when you visit, get it. Two rich kinds of vegetable sweetness were mingled with herbs and what tasted like a dash of sherry, and it was brilliant.

We also ordered a plate of caramelized Brussels sprouts with almonds, figs, and shaved manchego cheese. I thought I had tried just about everything that could be done with Brussels sprouts, but the figs and manchego were new to me, and they worked, The cabbagey flavor of the vegetable with the sweet fig fit in a way I wouldn’t have expected, and the Manchego was creamier and richer than the usual Parmesan. Brussels sprouts have been a fad vegetable for a few years, but this showed there are still preparations to be explored.

Another trend that The Depot has embraced is craft cocktails, and we tried a few. My favorite was the Agent Orange – bourbon, orange juice, Cointreau, and Grenadine – though the Hendricks St. Germain with fresh mint was like a julep with a college education, sophisticated and cool. They also make a solid Manhattan and pomegranate cosmo, so proved they can execute the classics with panache.

For our main courses we chose a simple steak plus two from the specials menu, which is always rich in fresh seafood. The seared rare ahi was served over a bed of sticky rice with spinach and mushrooms with a slightly sweet ginger dip. It wasn’t a flashy presentation but this fish didn’t need one – the flavors were best left alone. The mahi mahi was designed as a more complex dish, blackened with Cajun spices, served over a cilantro rice, corn, and red onion mix, and topped with a bacon-barbecue onion jam. The fish with its crisp crust over the rice mix was so good that I was halfway through before it occurred to me that the flavors were not quite what had been promised – someone in the kitchen had forgotten to add the bacon jam. Our server was horrified when he found out, but I had been enjoying it even without that sweet and savory addition. Mistakes happen at the best of places, and I liked what I had even though it didn’t match the chef’s original vision.

The member of our party who was in a carnivorous mood opted for an all-American meal – ribeye steak, macaroni and cheese, and garlic bacon green beans. I had never thought of The Depot as a steakhouse before, but now I know they can be one when they want to. It was a simple concept perfectly executed, the green beans with sweet garlic and smoky bacon a particular delight.

Our server comped our dessert as an apology for leaving the jam off of my fish, and we had a mango-lemon tart topped with raspberries and a tart shell filled with chocolate mousse and topped with ice cream, whipped cream, and pecans, garnished with raspberries and a drizzle of caramel. The latter was like an adult version of the ice cream sundae of your childhood dreams, and it really would have been a sufficient dessert for at least two people. I slightly preferred the mango tart, which had citrusy and tropical flavors in exquisite balance, but kept taking nibbles of its more baroque companion just because it was so much fun to eat.   

Dinner for three, with a cocktail and glass of wine each, ran $237 – and we had over-ordered slightly, but not much. The price range, ambition, and high style are still an outlier for Old Town Torrance, but there’s a reason this place is still popular. They promise an adventurous, memorable, and elegant experience, and they deliver.

The Depot is at 1250 Cabrillo Avenue, near the corner of Torrance Boulevard. Open Mo-Fr 11 A.M. – 2 p.m. for lunch. Dinner Mon. -Thu.  5:30 p.m. – 9 p.m., Fri. – Sat. 5:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. Full bar, vegetarian/vegan options, private dining room. Corkage $20. Menu at depotrestaurasnt.com, phone 310-787-7501.

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