Is there a distinct, emerging South Bay palate? Local celebrity chefs weigh in
Taste buds are as individual as fingerprints. This might seem to indicate that predicting what people will order at restaurants is doomed to fail. Nevertheless, there is such thing as regional flavor, and I thought it might be interesting to ask local chefs if there is a South Bay taste.
I was particularly interested in the views of chefs who moved here after being successful elsewhere.
Every one had stories about dishes they thought would be blockbusters but flopped, and others that became surprise hits.
David LeFevre of MB Post was pretty sure people would like his bacon-cheddar biscuits, but was surprised when they became his top seller.
“They’re great biscuits, light and moist inside, but I didn’t expect them to become the number one item. I think of the area as very health-conscious, and I created the menu so there were lots of vegetables and low-carb items, but it’s the biscuits that get the cult following. We’re also selling a lot of pork belly and pork jowl, which I expected to be niche items.”
The theme at MB Post is shared small plates of endless variety, which LeFevre started doing for aesthetic reasons but found to be a practical advantage.
“We have a very large selection and can accommodate just about any diet, and that has turned into a selling point. Having that range reflects the people in this area – if someone wants to come in and get a great cocktail and some French fries or some stinky cow cheese, and friends want a full meal, we have something that’s accessible and exciting for both, that they can share.”
The shared food idea has had one unexpected downside, a category of food that isn’t popular no matter how well it’s made.
“We had gazpacho this summer that was delicious but didn’t sell – It may be that soups just don’t go well at a place where you expect people to share things. We run a lentil soup here that doesn’t sell hugely, but it’s such a favorite with the servers and the crew that we keep it on. “
LeFevre also said he sells fewer desserts than he expected to, which may be because locals are health conscious.
“They are a pretty small percentage of sales for us. I only keep three or four on the menu. People in Manhattan Beach would rather have another glass of wine.”
Which does LeFevre chose when he goes out to eat locally?
“I have both the dessert and the glass of wine. I like to finish with something sweet.”
Asked whether he’d run his restaurant differently if it were in the trendy West Side or downtown areas, LeFevre answered in the negative.
“I wouldn’t change a thing. Our guests are looking for well-seasoned, flavorful food that is exciting, so I don’t cook any differently here than I would downtown. People here are well-traveled and educated, and I created the menu with that in mind. We do get guests from Malibu, Beverly Hills, others who drive here, but we opened to be a neighborhood restaurant. It’s people in the beach cities who inspired us and keep us open.”
Around the corner at the Strand House, Executive Chef Neal Fraser has detected a slight difference between the South Bay and the West Side.
“People like a little less salt down here, whether from personal taste or diets I don’t know. Otherwise, it’s about the same.”
Fraser admits that’s not what he expected, and he underestimated his audience before he got here.
“I thought the dining community here was likely to be trend-driven, into fashionable things. Instead it’s much more mature, very much like the dining community in Los Angeles.”
The Strand House is only yards from MB Post and would seem to compete for the same clientele, but Fraser perceives a big difference in the culture of dining.
“What I appreciate about the South Bay is that even though small plate grazing is the big craze, people want to come in and have dinner. They might share their appetizers, entrees, and desserts around the table, but they’re getting all of them. That’s the way I was raised to eat and to cook, so I appreciate that they do that. As a chef, it makes me happy. When (co-chef) Travis Lorton and I devised the menu, we thought it would be more appetizer-driven, but we’ve become an entrée restaurant.”
Many of those entrees involve exotic meats, and, with one exception, they’ve gone over very well.
“Roast suckling pig sells any time we offer it. People are buying items that they wouldn’t have considered a few years ago, like pork belly. They’re trying charcuterie and cured meats very happily, but for some reason they won’t buy lamb shoulder. Rack of lamb, yes, but I had a wonderful lamb shoulder a while ago and there was almost no interest…”
On the other hand, an arcane cured meat item has been the surprise hit.
“Head cheese was something I didn’t think we’d sell any of, but we go through 10 pounds a week, which is a lot, because we serve it two ounces at a time. I couldn’t have predicted that, but it’s what has happened.”
Michael Fiorelli of Mar’Sel at the Terranea in Palos Verdes has had a similar experience when it comes to exotic meats – with one exception.
“I’m selling all sorts of things – pork cheeks, octopus. The surprising thing that sold like mad was lamb tongue. I put it in a salad, and people went wild. We put liver and onions on the menu one night, just as a retro thing. We couldn’t make them fast enough. What have I tried that didn’t work? Head cheese. We were trying to add charcuterie to the restaurant, cured meats, liver mousse, and most of it went very well, but we just couldn’t give away the head cheese. It was the biggest flop I had.”
When told that head cheese was the surprise hit at the Strand House, Fiorelli burst out laughing, then said “I’m going to have to try theirs.”
Fiorelli thinks that he and other South Bay chefs are benefitting from media that have put obscure dishes under the spotlight.
“People are so into food these days – they see these shows on the food network, everybody is reading about chefs and watching shows about cooking, about traveling all over the world for food. They’re getting educated, and they’re excited about dining. TV does misinform them sometimes, but it gets them interested.”
Diners are also health conscious, right up to the point where they actually order something.
“We have people who look over the menu before coming in and tell us they want to be sure they can eat healthy. They want to see things with no fat, lots of vegetables, but when I put something fried on the menu, it’s the biggest seller. They like having options, but what people say and what they do can be very contradictory.”
Asked about introducing new items to the relatively conservative Peninsula dining scene, Fiorelli reveals a careful strategy.
“We’re bringing out new ingredients and getting people accustomed to them. People in Palos Verdes, you have to give them a fastball down the middle, not a curve ball. I’ll get an idea for something and I’ll introduce pieces of the dish, and then bring them all together. I can do that because I have a lot of repeat diners – I’ve built up a rapport, I can say trust me and try this. About 75 percent of our customers are locals, not hotel guests.”
“We’re gradually moving toward grazing, but in Palos Verdes it will take longer. Many times we’re hosting people who haven’t seen each other in a while, and they like to order something that they share around the table. I think it builds a sense of intimacy, somehow.”
Asked about whether he has had the same experience LeFevre had in selling few desserts, Fiorelli showed another difference in local culture, and also remembered a surprise success.
“We sell a lot of desserts, mostly rich chocolate items. Fruit based items sell too – a fresh plum sorbet, a blueberry crisp, something delicate rather than just a bowl of fruit. On the other hand, this summer we offered a bowl of iced cherries with mint chocolate chip ice cream, and it was one of our biggest sellers. My manager Neil convinced me to do it. I doubted it would sell, but decided, okay, I’m willing to prove you wrong.”
Hermosa Beach seems to be much more of a trend-driven town than the peninsula, but restaurateurs there reported that they have trouble selling the most adventurous items. Melba Rodriguez of Chef Melba’s said that despite the young crowd that parties a few blocks away on the plaza, locals are sometimes wary of unfamiliar items.
“This area is a bit more conservative than people think. I have had items like halibut cheeks that are wonderful but I ended up throwing them away. Unusual combinations can be hard too. I created a foie gras and sea urchin combination that was amazing, but people didn’t order it. I had some kumquat relish on the side, to clean the palate between those rich flavors. It was very intense, but you have to have a high-end palate to enjoy that item. The people who did try it raved about it, but my staff ended up eating most of it.”
On the other hand, there is a mystique about some items, like Kobe beef, that helps diners overcome their initial reservations.
“I served Kobe beef with avocado, capers, tobiko caviar, and truffle oil. It sounded like a weird combination when I wrote it on the menu, but people ordered it and came back the same week to have it again. I tried to take it off the menu but people kept requesting it.”
Asked if there is a South Bay palate, Melba echoed Neal Fraser’s observations.
“I think the South Bay eats more fish. They’re more health conscious than the places on Melrose. I get more people asking about gluten-free and other dietary restrictions. I use less salt than I might, but you can’t cut it out – there has to be a balance, a pinch of good sea salt. What I have noticed that people here really like is Meyer lemon; it’s like a cult item. I use Meyer lemon in several dishes, and they are many people’s favorites.”
Asked about small plates versus traditional dining, Melba says she sees a mix.
“The executives always want four courses, but many of our regular customers go straight to the main course – no appetizer. More people are just having another glass of wine and not having dessert. In some cases they are price conscious, others just like eating that way.”
Hermosa as a conservative bastion seemed unlikely, but Zane Koss of Zane’s confirmed that the town prefers simple dining. He opened an Italian restaurant at what might seem like a perfect time – just before a surge of interest in that cuisine.
“When we opened as Italy’s Little Kitchen I had one of two or three Italian restaurants in Hermosa. A few years later there were maybe eight or 10. I had all this competition selling twelve-dollar pastas, and I wanted to take my place a little more upscale. I had the idea of offering fine dining in flip-flops, and we came up with some very fancy items. Over time, I cut back on the sauces, because the simpler, less cluttered items were what sold. We’ve evolved to an American-style restaurant where you could get a little something for everyone.”
Zane is convinced that something about the soul of Hermosa makes people prefer simplicity.
“Hermosa has evolved into a more upscale area. Not as much asManhattan Beach, certainly not as much asBeverly Hills, and I hope it never does because we’d lose our casual feel. While that wouldn’t happen if we were out of sync with wider trends, people are coming here to dine like we do.”
There may be another reason that Hermosa is conservative – the nightlife crowd. “People want a nice, fresh meal before they go out for a couple of drinks and to listen to music. They don’t want to eat stuff that is so heavy they’ll feel uncomfortable at the end of the night. They are trying to find simple, healthy foods that make them feel like they’re not only getting value, they’re treating themselves well – it’s the smart lifestyle. That’s my opinion, but if you ask somebody at a gastropub, they might tell you that the future is onion soup with lots of cheese on top.”
If it’s surprising that Hermosa is conservative, adventurous dining at a Redondo waterfront hotel restaurant might seem stranger, but Jesse Souza of Baleen says that the stylish items are the big sellers.
“We make carnitas using duck meat and serve them on cornmeal crepes, with blackberries on the side. I knew a few people would like it, but I had no idea it would take off like this. People who wouldn’t normally order duck try it because they’re intrigued by the preparation, and we sell out frequently.”
“Last year we ran a special for restaurant week. We brined a chop and then coated it with spices and cane sugar and glazed it with maple and Dijon. We called it sugar and spice pork chop, served it with homemade applesauce and bacon and potato hash. We sold so many and got so many requests that we had to put it on the regular menu.”
“I think the duck carnitas would work up onMelrose, but the pork chop wouldn’t. It’s what I think of as uniquely South Bay, an unfamiliar take on a meat and potatoes dish. It satisfies the traditional appetite that many of our diners have, but very forward in its flavors. That’s the key to the local palate – something with roots in American food, but bigger flavors.”
Souza doesn’t think that Redondo is particularly interested in the wilder edge of contemporary cuisine.
“The culinary world went with things like lobster corndogs and molecular gastronomy, but we haven’t tried to do any of that here. It doesn’t fit our restaurant or this vibe. I like to riff on American classics, but not to the point of something campy like lobster corndogs. We’ve used a few of those techniques, taken some sweet items and made them savory, and vice versa.”
The restaurant that has been at the forefront of local dining trends for decades is of course Chez Melange, where chef Robert Bell has made hits of some very unusual items.
“If things are priced moderately, people will order them just to see what they are. I can sell fried watermelon rinds at Bouzy’s, and people freak out over them, they love them. Same with fried pig’s ears. We have found that if we call the pig’s ears chicharones, they sell better than when we call them pig’s ears. We wanted to play around with them because they are available now – five years ago if I called my meat company and said ‘send me some pig’s ears’, they would’ve hung up. It’s one of the only upsides of the recession – chefs being creative and using the whole animal, taking advantage of exotic but inexpensive cuts.“
Bellhas a current passion that unfortunately hasn’t caught on with diners.
“I’m really into savory cupcakes right now – things like spaghetti and meatball cupcakes, eggplant parmesan cupcakes, falafel and chicken cupcakes. I’ve done shrimp hash quesadilla cupcakes, a meatloaf cupcake with piped potato on the top sprinkled with vegetable confetti – it looked just like a cupcake. I’m having a lot of fun with those and they’re really delicious, but people just don’t get it. If I serve them as a party or a charity event, people just freak out over them. Maybe if I changed the name, they’d sell.”
Bellhas also noticed the South Bay’s wariness about salt, and he has an answer.
“When I’m in Europe, or for that matter inNew York, the food is almost always too salty. I think that a lot of West Side chefs who have trained in Europe faithfully follow traditional recipes might carry over that tendency. At my restaurant Mama Terrano’s I don’t have salt and pepper shakers on the tables; I put what I think is the right amount of salt in it, and I want people to at least taste it first.”
Asked about the South Bay palate, Bell echoes both Zane and Souza: simplicity is the future, at least in the short term.
“I think people in the South Bay are becoming more conservative about what they eat, not less. In times of worry, of economic stress, they go to comfort food – meatloaf, steak Diane, lasagna — those are selling now. I think people expect to get a little sizzle, a little twist on the traditional version, but people are looking for things that they recognize. That may not be what I want to be making, but that’s where I see the public going, at least right now.”