There’s a sign I have seen in stores selling handcrafted or custom-made goods that encapsulates one of the sorry truths of the universe. It reads, “Fast, cheap, and good: Pick any two.” With rare exceptions, that rule holds at restaurants – consider any good restaurant and there is always someplace you can get a meal that is faster, cheaper, and worse.
One of the rare places that scores well on all three metrics is Lemonade, a new restaurant in the Metlox development in Manhattan Beach. They’re part of a quickly-expanding chain that is trying to introduce the idea of stylish and healthy dining, cafeteria style. There is an historical precedent in this; when cafeterias first became a fad in Los Angeles in the early 1900s, they were seen as a healthful alternative to the sketchy roadside food stalls where office workers could get a quick bite. Clifton’s, which was established in 1931, still survives in downtown L.A., a relic of the first wave of “choose and dine” restaurants.
Lemonade is recognizably the heir to those establishments, with customers sliding their plastic trays down the rail and being served on paper plates, but the food being dished up is strikingly modern and sometimes quite ambitious. It is nicely displayed, and some thought has obviously gone into presentation. It would be nice if as much thought had gone into explaining the pricing of different items – selections from the “Marketplace” salads are priced differently from the “Market Tossed Salads,” but there is no clear delineation about where one category ends and another begins. To add to the confusion, when you order some main course items you can get a salad for a dollar extra – but only some entrees and some salads, and it’s not clear which. Diners are also offered the choice of splitting a portion of salads or side dishes, though at the point this offer is made it’s not clear how big those portions are. It’s a lot to absorb for a first-timer who has a line of impatient people behind them, and I did what I assume most people do on the first trip – point at things that look interesting and ask the counterman to explain things as I went along.
We decided to start with items from the “Marketplace” section: my companion had watermelon radish slices with seared ahi and snap peas with black sesame and ginger dressing, plus a salad of kale and mushrooms with kumquat vinaigrette. I decided on wheat berries with green beans, Bermuda onions, and goat cheese and a portion of roasted heirloom carrots with mixed herbs and basil. The roasted carrots were decent but ordinary, a simple dish of smoky, sweet vegetable flavors. This was the only one of the dishes I might have expected to see at a traditional cafeteria. The radish and tuna salad was an eye-opener, mild spiciness of radish complementing the tuna with sesame and ginger very well, and the wheat berry dish reminded me of a high-style version of Russian and Eastern European traditional items. I’d have these or the fresh, lightly tart kale salad again anytime.
I could have easily made a meal of the various other Marketplace items, and some people do – there were over twenty selections, some of which had chicken, steak, or other protein. We moved to the entrees anyway because we wanted to try at least one of the braised hot dishes, of which there were fifteen. The server offered tastes of a few – a relatively mild Jamaican jerk chicken, and a tangy pot of short ribs in miso broth were both considered – before we settled on beef stroganoff. We also considered a Basque-style chicken cooked with olives – I tasted that on a later visit and decided I liked it a bit more than the beef, though both were praiseworthy. The only odd thing about the stroganoff was what was missing – stroganoff is nearly always served over noodles or rice, but though both were served in other dishes neither was offered with the stroganoff.
I decided to test the kitchen by ordering something that I thought couldn’t possibly be done well in a cafeteria setting: a Moroccan-style skewered chicken breast with harissa sauce, served with apple cucumber tzatziki. Unfortunately, I was right – the chicken was served cold, and it was so dry that I could hardly eat a piece without drinking some water to help it down. The harissa sauce lent color but not flavor – it was so mild I could hardly taste it, which is very unusual in any dish featuring this North African chili sauce. I went to the counterman who had served me and explained the problem, and he offered to replace it with a piece of the buttermilk fried chicken. This was better but the crust had turned damp and soft while it sat, so was still not the equal of anything else we had on this visit. There are indeed limits of what can be done well cafeteria-style, and we had found them.
For dessert we had surprisingly good banana mascarpone cake and a dark chocolate pot de crème, a rich mousse. Both were tasty codas to a dinner for two that cost a total of $32 – very modest for food of this caliber, even if it was eaten from paper plates with plastic forks.
I went back two days later to try another section of the menu – their sandwiches, which are made to order. A fair variety is offered, including exotica like green apple curry chicken and chicken with beets, apples, goat cheese, and honey, but I decided on salami with artichoke, gouda cheese, and red wine mustard on a baguette. It cost $4.25 to add a pair of Marketplace items, so I had curried cauliflower with golden raisins and almond, plus spaghetti squash with faro in a pomegranate vinaigrette. Once again the sides were impressive, in particular the squash, but this time the main item was the equal of the sides. It had been freshly made and toasted, and tasted as good as any deli sandwich I might find in town, and a bargain at nine bucks with a side of salad. I washed it down with mint lemonade, figuring that since the restaurant was called Lemonade I should drink some. It had a fresh, mild tartness, which is how I like it – too often it is over-sweetened. My lunch had cost $18, and once again some salads came home for later.
Downtown Manhattan Beach is short on places where you can get a quick bite for sit-down dining, and Lemonade has stepped in with an admirably well-executed solution to the problem. The things that a cafeteria can do, like cold salads, stews, and sandwiches, they do extraordinarily well. They sometimes push beyond those boundaries, but that is to be expected by any ambitious establishment. For high quality fast food on a budget, this isn’t just your best option in downtown, it’s your only option.
Lemonade is at 451 Manhattan Beach Boulevard – open daily 11 a.m. – 9:05 p.m. Street parking or Metlox underground pay lot, no alcohol served but you may bring wine. Menu at lemonadela.com, phone 310-545-5777. ER