Restoration in Old Town [RESTAURANT REVIEW]
Former Bouchon Chef Camden Hershberger opens a lively new bistro in Torrance
by Richard Foss
The word restaurant comes from a French term meaning “I restore you,” and while that presumably refers to restoring hungry people to happy fullness it can be applied more broadly. A thriving restaurant can also restore life to a neighborhood, benefitting not only the proprietors but neighboring businesses that get more foot traffic and attention. More than any other tenant, the sight and sound of a lively bistro indicates a place where a neighborhood is alive and well.
A great example of this is the Restoration Kitchen & Bar, which has brought the 21st century to a sleepy section of Old Torrance. The architecture here is mostly from the 1930s, so the bright contemporary space with its stone-fronted bar is like an embassy of modernism. The room has one of the drawbacks of modern architecture, namely a loud, echoing environment, but when one of the owners stopped by our table he said they’re fixing it.
The menu is brief but well-written, and reflects award-winning Chef Camden Hershberger’s time at Bouchon Bistro in Beverly Hills. The cooking here doesn’t duplicate that country French aesthetic, but there are echoes of it in items like mussels steamed in ale with tarragon and the roasted salmon with eggplant and tomato. Add in a few dishes with Asian roots and some flatbreads and diners have some hard choices to make. Our server Jessica was remarkably knowledgeable about both food and wine and made the process much easier.
We began with a roasted beet salad, duck confit Caesar salad, and wild mushroom flatbread, plus some glasses of wine from their extraordinary list. The remarkable thing is not the size of the list, but the detailed descriptions of each wine. It is obviously a labor of love, and we found it very useful when deciding between brands and blends we didn’t know. Local beers are offered too, and one of our party enjoyed a local tasting flight for ten dollars.
The salads were very good but not quite what we were expecting. The beet salad was described as composed of prosciutto, arugula, and candied walnuts with an orange vinaigrette, but there was more of everything else than beets, and the dollop of creamy burrata cheese wasn’t mentioned. When we told the manager he said that the previous day someone had complained about the salad having too many beets, so they were experimenting with the proportions. I think they went a bit too far in the opposite direction, but it was still delicious.
The Caesar stretched the definition quite a bit, with kale instead of romaine and brown butter breadcrumbs instead of croutons, but the inspiration of the original was in there somewhere. The finely shredded duck was a good idea, and though I’d prefer a more assertive dressing I’d still order this again. The flatbread was an unqualified success, the thyme and lemon zest adding bright herbal and citrus oil flavors to a classic pizza.
When we debated main courses we discovered we all were intrigued by the same items, so we shared crabcakes, braised pork belly over udon noodles, oxtail ragu over rigatoni, and glazed short ribs over creamy polenta. We asked for the crabcakes to be delivered first so we could try them before the meaty items, which turned out to be a good strategy. They were made without Old Bay or Creole seasoning and tasted primarily of seafood and delicate herbs. They nicely suited the gribiche sauce based on mayonnaise, tarragon, and chopped pickles, and though the serving was a bit small for a main course there were two good bites each for the four of us.
Only after the oxtail ragu rigatoni and the pork belly over udon arrived did we realize that we had ordered meat with noodles from opposite sides of the globe. Any Italian restaurant would be happy to claim the rigatoni as their own, the classic cooked-down red sauce with meaty beef shreds topped with chopped basil and Parmesan. The udon were no less successful, the fall-apart tender pork glazed with sweet soy before being arranged over the noodles with chopped pickled greens and blistered shisito peppers. Those peppers packed some heat, which may or may not have been intentional – shisitos are notoriously variable. Planned or not, we liked it that way.
The standout item among our entrees, though, was the chunk of glazed boneless short rib over polenta, which arrived with vegetable confetti on the side. The chopped leeks, carrots, and sweet piquillo peppers were a perfect foil for the creamy corn flavor of the polenta and the rich short rib meat. It was world class comfort food, a rich full meal with subtle flavors. It’s all the more remarkable that of our four main items this was the most expensive, at sixteen dollars.
Only two desserts were offered, peach bread pudding and a chocolate pot de crème, so of course we got both. The pot de crème was my favorite thanks to a gentle tang of sea salt and richness of olive oil, but the bread pudding was also well executed and I liked the dash of cassis in the sauce.
Our food cost for four people was only about $90, astonishing for a meal of this caliber. Restoration Kitchen & Wine Bar is a treasure that seems destined to entice diners and other restaurateurs to an area that has seen little nightlife for decades.
Restoration Kitchen & Wine is at 1437 Marcelina Avenue in Torrance. Open daily at 5 p.m., closes 9 p.m. Mon-Thu, 10 p.m. Fr-Su. Street parking, beer and wine served, some vegetarian items, wheelchair access OK. Menu at restorationwinebarla.com, phone 310-328-8100. ER
by Richard Foss