Richard Foss

Rustic fare meets Rancho Nuevo at Sausal in El Segundo

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Sausal’s Jorge Valdivia serves the chicken tostada. The restaurant is named after Rancho Sausal Redondo, the farmstead that once encompassed El Segundo and much of the rest of the South Bay. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Sausal’s Jorge Valdivia serves the chicken tostada. The restaurant is named after Rancho Sausal Redondo, the farmstead that once encompassed El Segundo and much of the rest of the South Bay. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Chef Anne Conness built Sausal around a Spanish California cookbook written in 1898. The result is a spectacular dining experience in which a native cuisine is combined with farm-to-table ingredients and brought vividly to life.

by Richard Foss 

When a chef wants to add some energy and sophistication to a cuisine, a natural tendency is to add contemporary or even futuristic ideas. This can add elegance and style to traditional dishes, as it did in the 1970s when John Sedlar opened a restaurant in Manhattan Beach where enchiladas were served with crème fraiche and caviar, chile rellenos with mushroom duxelles, and dessert crepes were made with blue corn and topped with cinnamon ice cream. It pioneered high style Mexican food and started a culinary movement that continues to this day.

The next revolution in Mexican food may have just begun in El Segundo, where a chef decided to look in the opposite direction. Anne Conness has based the food at Sausal on the mostly forgotten cuisine of Spanish California from the mid-1800s, as documented in a rare cookbook written by a Hispanic woman in 1898. Those recipes are a blend of Spanish, Mexican, Basque, and native ideas – meat is cooked with dried fruit and pickled chilies, stews and sauces thickened with powdered almonds and enlivened with vinegar. It’s a foreign cuisine to modern Californians, and it came from the place we all live.

Conness’ take on this cuisine is served in an elegant space that has been transformed from the Indian restaurant that used to be here. A fireplace takes up the center of the room, its flickering light occasionally outdone by the flare of flames from the grill in the open kitchen. There is an interesting blend of rustic and sophisticated elements in both the architecture and décor. It’s not overtly Spanish or Mexican, but you start noticing those themes after you’ve been there a while.

The same is true of the menu – at a glance you’ll notice items you know like ceviche, carnitas, tostadas, and lamb mole, and some modern ingredients like kale and quinoa make you think you’re in for another reiteration of the contempo-Mexican mix. To some degree you are, but there’s a consistent and intriguing old world twist in almost everything.

Consider the empanadas, which are made with oxtail meat, raisins, and olives and served with a tomatillo sauce. The use of richly flavored oxtail instead of standard ground or shredded beef is an improvement by itself, but there’s much more going on – the dense mix of meat and onion has hints of cinnamon and other spices, and the raisins and olives are traditional in Spain where this dish is called picadillo. The crust is different too – it’s as flaky as any European pastry rather than the usual shortcrust.

The ceviche also has some unusual ingredients – there is sweet corn and celery along with the shrimp, fish, and squid. Celery was popular in Spanish California, and the cool, fresh crunch fits right in. It’s served on a tortilla tostada-style, with a ring of habanero salsa around the edge for those who like a sense of heat and coolness at the same time.

A starter that achieves this effect more emphatically is the albacore crudo, which is served in a very spicy soy-based sauce that includes jalapenos sautéed in oil. If you imagine pushing every one of your taste buds down into its socket, you get some idea of the effect – it’s sweet, spicy, and salty but somehow doesn’t completely obscure the fish. Order this only if you have a tolerance for peppery flavors, but if you do, it’s a must.

I was surprised by the relative mildness of another item, the “angry mussels,” which were in a very pleasant mild yellow chili sauce that had bits of chorizo. If these mussels were angry they were very polite about it, because there was a nice hint of heat but no explosion.

The bar at Sausal is as hyperactive as the kitchen when it comes to ideas, sometimes using unusual ingredients. If they happen to offer the cocktail that includes fermented pineapple juice, get it – it’s only occasionally available because the distiller is having trouble keeping up with demand. The Jalisco Pear – tequila, pear brandy, allspice dram, and lemon – seems to always be available and is very fine. If you like the standard drinks the margaritas are excellent, and they have a fine tequila selection too. The Spaniards of early California would have preferred wine, and there is a short but well-chosen selection of vintages and microbrews.  

The entrees include several typical Mexican items like pork chili verde, tacos with all the usual fillings, and arroz con pollo, but all of these that I have tried have been executed with a slight twist. The chili verde was mildly but richly spiced and topped with roasted corn and “fancy pico” that included quartered cherry tomatoes, pickled onion, and cilantro. The chicken in the arroz con pollo was conventional in concept, mild achiote marinade and tangy chili sauce adding sweet spiciness, but the rice was moist and flavored with roasted tomato and mushrooms. It was much more than the usual background starch, and made this standard a standout.

Beef and goat birria at Sausal.

Beef and goat birria at Sausal.

Birria is a Mexican tradition that is rarely seen in the South Bay, a stew usually made with goat meat and onions slow-cooked in a slow-burn chili broth. The version here mixes goat and beef, which creates a range of textures and is probably sensible in a gringo neighborhood where goat is a hard sell. I like traditional goat birria but had to admit that this one hit the spot, and the tart jicama slaw served with it was a counterpoint to the rich meatiness.

I have no idea what the inspiration was for the tamale stuffed with duck confit, chanterelle mushrooms, butternut squash, and Oaxacan cheese, but it’s a fine combination of fall flavors and a beautiful presentation.  The tamale was topped with pickled onions and a dusting of cheese, and surrounded by a thick, dark chocolate mole sauce – you’ll want chips to get every bit. We had that same mole with lamb and it was just as delicious, but even so one of the side dishes almost stole the show. The sautéed black kale with olives, currants, and chili oil has Californio roots and puts bitter, fruity, and pickled flavors in a way you may not have experienced before – it’s available as a side with many dishes, and highly recommended.

On every visit but one I’ve been too full from dinner to try desserts – actually that was the case every time, but on one occasion our server surprised me with a slice of pumpkin pie in a ginger snap crust with a garnish of pumpkin seed brittle. It’s the season when I’m weary of pumpkin pie already, but this one had enough spiciness to hold my interest. One of these days I’m going to save room for the Spanish sticky date cake, but that day has not arrived yet.

Sausal is open for lunch midweek and brunch on weekends, and on both midday menus they offer a salmon sandwich and some other more standard fare. I can’t help but think of these as mainly for timid eaters who find the rest of the menu too challenging, though I must note that my friend who ordered the salmon said it was the best fish sandwich he has ever had. If someone does order the standard items starts trying things from their companion’s plates they’ll be hooked, because so much that is so interesting is going on here.   

Sausal is at 219 Main Street in El Segundo. Open daily at 11 a.m., close 10 p.m. Sun-Thu, 10:30 p.m. Fri-Sat. Street parking or pay lot in rear, wheelchair access good, patio dining, vegetarian/vegan options. Full bar, corkage $25. Menu at sausal.com, phone 310-0322-2721.

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