Look closer and you’ll see that most of these have nothing to do with Spanish tradition – the branding is about portion size rather than flavor. The real Mediterranean tradition is one of small plates, but that’s about the only thing it has in common with the Asian-inspired exotica that have the same name.
One of the few places to serve the real deal is Hermosa’s Mediterraneo, which celebrates a decade in business this year. Unusually, the restaurant has held on to talented chef Amber Caudle, and though many menu items have come and gone over the years, the fidelity to Spanish flavor has remained the same. This is in contrast with many restaurants that opened on the Pier Plaza with ambitious menus and either closed or switched to party people food; Mediterraneo has remained a bastion of authentic food in an adult atmosphere.
When my wife and I went in last week, we noticed a few changes, such as a sushi bar-style check-off menu that you can fill out to hand your server. If you had a large party and wanted to keep track of a plateful of small items this could be helpful, and I could imagine needing one of these in the louder places around town. Mediterraneo isn’t quiet, but the noise level is low for Hermosa, and we could easily hear our server explain the specials of the day. We were surprised to find that one of these, a stewed octopus dish, was an old favorite that had rotated off the main menu. We didn’t order it, but were pleased to know that anything we had ever liked here might come back.
We decided to order three traditional tapas, a seafood fennel salad, Basque Pintxo, and sausage sobrasada, plus a Sicilian-influenced fried risotto dish and a modern item, eggplant fries. The seafood salad and pintxo arrived very quickly; tapas started as snacks in busy wine bars, and most require little preparation. The word pintxo is Basque for “spike”, referring to the toothpick that traditionally is used to hold meat and fish on top of a slice of bread. (Ironically, there is no spike on the pintxos served here.) The versions served here include smoked fish, onion confit with goat cheese, and fresh anchovies with prosciutto and pickled vegetables. Combining fresh fish with cured pork was an intriguing idea, so we opted for that one. Not many places in the South Bay offer fresh anchovies, which are worlds better than the salty little things in cans, and it was a delicious item. The flavors of seafood, pork, and mildly spicy giardinera were complex and rich, and I could have easily eaten several servings. It contrasted well with the bright flavors of fennel and lemon in the seafood salad, which had plenty of shrimp and tender calamari in an herbed citrus dressing.We continued with the eggplant fries and risotto balls, both of which arrived far too hot to eat. The eggplant had a light crispness when it arrived but softened rapidly – by the time it was cool enough to enjoy, it was on the mushy side. I enjoy eggplant and it was an interesting experiment, but I wouldn’t order again. The fried risotto balls called arancini were another story, the balls of rice and peas wrapped around mozzarella cheese crisp outside, the cheese inside still molten. I highly recommend this dish, though I caution you to be patient while it cools, because I burned my tongue with the hot cheese. A sip of wine – a very nice Alma Blanco Monnterrei – helped soothe the scald. Mediterraneo has an excellent by-the-glass selection, with twenty mostly Spanish and Italian wines. This cuisine was made for the fruit of the vine, and our server Michah showed considerable knowledge of their wide selection.
Wine couldn’t help the sobrasada, a tapa of cured pork sausage with quince paste and melted manchego cheese. The sugar-cured sausage was sweet by itself, and an over-generous portion of quince paste made this inedibly sweet. When our server saw that we hadn’t finished it and we explained, he graciously removed it from our bill.
We finished with carrot cake that was one of the best carrot cakes I’ve ever had and was actually less sweet than the sobrasada. There was a bold flavor of ginger in the batter, and the shards of carrot and the walnuts that garnished the frosting gave plenty of variety in texture and flavor.
Our bill for two persons with three glasses of wine was only $68 – a remarkable deal for such a feast. I was so happy with the experience that I went back the next day to try a few items that I had found intriguing. First was a farro and spinach salad with zucchini, fennel, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, and feta. I haven’t had many experiences with farro, the Italian heirloom grain that has suddenly become popular with chefs, but I now understand the appeal. The large whole grains had a rich nutty flavor that went perfectly with the spinach – I’ve had spinach and walnut salads before, and this had a similar flavor balance and superior texture.
I complemented the salad with a flight of three white wines, reasonably priced at $13. The King Estate Pinot Gris was a bit too light for my tastes, but the Breton Iuvene Rioja was very good, the Capestrano Verdicchio excellent. Several flights are offered, and give the perfect opportunity for variety without excessive consumption. I decided on a Ciro Rosso red from Calabria to pair with my next item, a tapa Basque-style flank steak topped with a compote of sweet piquillo peppers, mild espelette peppers, and shallots. I hadn’t tried espelette peppers before and found it hard to sort out just what flavor in this mix came from what, but it was tart, tangy, and agreeably sharp without being at all hot. The compote was served over a surprisingly large piece of meat that had been perfectly grilled and set on a bed of arugula. At twelve dollars, this steak was a bargain, and I’d happily have both of these dishes again.
I enjoyed this second dinner on the outside patio, and as I relaxed with the last sips of wine, I watched the revelers on the plaza with a sense of well-being. This is civilization, Spanish style, reminiscent of experiences I have had in Spain, and Mediterraneo deserves high praise for bringing the best of Iberian culinary traditions to Hermosa.
Mediterrraneo is at 73 Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach. Open daily for dinner, half-price tapas on Tuesday. Parking in pier lots, not validated, wheelchair access good, full bar. Menu at mediterrraneohb.com – phone 310-318-2666.