Square meal, good deal, in a Torrance hotel
The Marriott’s 21 Square restaurant is deliciously fun
Restaurants inside corporate hotels have a tough time drawing a local clientele for a variety of reasons. Since the primary business at the premises is selling overnight stays, their restaurants are perceived as an afterthought, something for the convenience of out-of-towners who either lack transportation or are too timid to venture into the wider world. They also lack curb appeal, because the typical hotel is a nearly featureless and generic box. The sight of one doesn’t spark your imagination and make you wonder what’s exciting on their menu.
Despite these drawbacks, sometimes a fine place thrives in a hotel setting. The South Bay’s most revered restaurant is an example; Chez Mélange started in a hotel coffee shop and succeeded in that location for over twenty years. It’s proof that it can be done, and a Torrance restaurant is betting that it can happen again.
21 Square Bar + Kitchen is in a hotel that really lacks curb appeal because very few people drive by it; it’s on a side street called Fashion Way by the Del Amo Shopping Center and gets a fraction of the traffic of nearby Hawthorne or Torrance boulevards. You enter the bar and restaurant after you pass the lobby, and it’s a bright, cleanly designed space with a few whimsical touches. These include a display of brightly lit colored bottles by the bar and overhead lighting that looks like wineglasses.
The menu by chef Victor Miguel isn’t huge, but it too has whimsical elements. I was pondering whether to order something called “Dog on a Board,” an Andouille sausage and pretzel combo, or cauliflower with toasted hazelnuts and golden raisins over green goddess dressing, when an order of fish and chips served in a beer can went by. We ended up skipping the dog on a board, but got the other two, along with a crispy shrimp starter, flatbread pizza, and roast chicken. On another visit we tried the loaded tater tots, fish tacos, a scallop and gnocchi special, and a burger, so all in all we’ve sampled about a third of the menu.
What comes through almost all of it is a sense of fun, of excitement about the many flavors, colors, and shapes of food. Yes, shapes — this isn’t one of those places where every plate is arranged down to the millimeter, but there is definitely some artistry in the presentation. The ten medium-sized crisped shrimp were served in two neat rows over a bed of spiced aioli and were topped with a sprinkling of corn and bell pepper chow-chow, the sweet pickled vegetable relish beloved of Southern cooks. I had forgotten how much I like chow-chow until I had this, and the flavor combination was superb.
There’s only so much you can do to dress up a flatbread, but they did that on the vegetable flatbread with pesto. It looked like something out of a magazine shot. The roasted mushroom version with bacon, fontina, and watercress was a bit more plain to look at but even more savory.
The starter you should definitely order is the roasted cauliflower with golden raisins, Vidalia onions, hazelnuts, and green goddess dressing. This isn’t just because it brings back Green Goddess dressing, a mayonnaise, tarragon, and anchovy based relic from the 1920s that is now sadly hard to find. I would have never thought of that dressing with cauliflower and raisins, but the flavors meshed brilliantly. The raisin and nuts gave a hint of North African or Spanish flavor to the dish, but whatever the inspiration it was a good one.
If you prefer something heartier and don’t care even slightly about carbs then you might order the tater tots tossed with Italian deli meats, cheddar, mozzarella, and scallions and then topped with a fried egg. While this is on the list headed “quick bites and shareable” it’s the size of an entrée, and only appropriate as a starter for at least three people.
Not everything had this level of showmanship. Shredded brussels sprout salads aren’t all that odd any more, and the one here with pickled onions, candied pecans, and a cider vinaigrette was nicely balanced. The same was true of the mahi mahi tacos, which were topped with a nice mild cilantro crema and served with chips and salsa. They don’t need exotic touches because some days you just want good fish tacos, and that’s what these are.
The fried fish served in an oversized Absolution beer can next to chips in a small fryer basket were the only entrée that took artistic presentation a bit too far. Serving hot fries in something that conducts heat and exposes them to air on all sides guarantees that they will cool very quickly, and even though lots of places do this it’s not a good idea. The fish had more density and so remained hot and crisp despite the metal can, and the arrangement was so eye-catching that it has to be retained.
The flavors of the main courses were generally well calibrated but a bit more sedate than the starters. The only unusual thing about the very good burger was the side of giardinera beside the onion rings, and the pickled carrots, cauliflower, onion, and celery were a nice accompaniment to the meaty patty topped with bacon. The pan-roasted scallops over ricotta gnocchi were something any Italian restaurant might be proud of, and if they’re offered when you visit I’d recommend ordering them. We also enjoyed the roasted airline chicken breast over couscous with Meyer lemon, roasted artichoke, and tomato. Any vegetarians who dine here might see if they can get an order of the couscous, because it had enough flavor to be a light main dish along with a salad.
Two desserts are noteworthy: the warm bread pudding with a bourbon glaze, which might have come straight from New Orleans, and the “Tornado Sundae” which looks like it came from outer space. The sundae is made at tableside using liquid nitrogen, and the chef comes out of the kitchen grinning each time someone orders it because he gets to show off again. Fog spills theatrically out of the pot where he mixes the fresh cream with banana, salted caramel, nutella, and roasted peanuts, and anyone with a camera in their phone will be using it. The sundae is actually a bit too sweet for me, but it’s a great show.
The name of this restaurant includes “Bar + Kitchen,” and their drinks program is exceptional. The bar crew here actually participated in brewing their signature ale called “21 and Over,” and they have rotating selections from Absolution and Stone along with eight others on tap and some canned craft beers. The wine selection is similarly wide, with almost thirty by-the-glass selections and more bottles, and somebody here also knows how to make excellent cocktails. They make an excellent Last Word, a Prohibition-era favorite that demands the exact mix of gin, chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, and lime, and our server recommended a house special called the Village Navigator, a concoction of gin, Campari, lemon juice, orgeat, and bitters. This seems to be the same thing as a Chestnut Cup cocktail, but by whatever name it goes down easy.
All of this comes at a remarkably reasonable price; the dinner with the flatbread, cauliflower, crispy shrimp, and chicken along with two cocktails and dessert ran pocket change over a hundred bucks, and we took home leftovers. In a flashier location this meal might have run much more, which gives you another reason to visit this hidden gem.
21 Square is inside the Torrance Marriott at 3635 Fashion Way in Torrance. Open daily 6:30 a.m. – midnight, validated parking in structure, patio dining, wheelchair access good. Full bar, corkage $15, some vegetarian/vegan items. Menu at 21square.com, phone 310-543-6034. ER
by Richard Foss