The people who open new restaurants are usually seeking a perfect balance of the familiar and unusual – not something so odd that it attracts only those seeking novelty, or so similar to what is already there that nobody has a reason to visit. This can be surprisingly difficult to achieve, and until the restaurant has feedback from their customers they have no idea how close they are to the target. This is one of several reasons that I rarely review a place just after they open – they probably will need some time to figure out what they want to do and how they fit into the neighborhood.
Chez Soi is an example of a place that has evolved considerably since they opened on the Metlox Plaza in downtown Manhattan Beach. Restaurateur Thierry Perez and chef Mark Gold have a long resume of French eateries, including several classic restaurants, but they opened with a “Modern French” theme of globalized cuisine. Their early menu was challenging, innovative, and seemingly beyond the capacity of the kitchen to execute consistently – often a problem when a new team takes on exotic preparations. For every highlight like the fennel soup or puffed leeks there was something that didn’t work, like oily crab udon or very rare duck breast over buckwheat porridge. There were obviously ideas and talent there, but some items were more weird than good, and the kitchen had a tendency to deliver items out of sequence.
Four months later, the restaurant has morphed into something quite different – the regular menu offers food that is less complicated and more rooted in the new world than the old. They have dropped the prices a bit and have been trying out all sorts of ideas, some interesting, some bewildering, such as the Sunday fried chicken and keg beer special. We stopped in to see what whether the place has found a compelling theme, and whether they can execute it reliably.
Two things about Chez Soi have been consistently good from the beginning, and they are the things you experience first: the atmosphere and the bread. The restaurant was redecorated in cool colors when the interior was redone, and it has a comfortable space reminiscent of a living room. As for the bread, Chez Soi has a baker on staff who makes fantastic rolls – if these were for sale, I’d buy them. They’re served with good quality butter but fine all by themselves, and it takes self-control not to just keep eating them and asking for more.
There were promising starters coming, so we restrained ourselves. We selected a chopped salad; Spanish octopus with fried capers and olives; and a beet salad with strawberries, burrata cheese, and charred onion. The chopped salad was conventionally presented, a mix of chopped vegetables with fennel salami, fried capers, green olives, and cheese, and considering the instincts of this kitchen it probably took restraint to not decorate or serve it in some high concept manner. There was plenty of flash in the rest of our meal, and the flavors worked well together without embellishment.
The beet salad was served very artistically, a mix of pickled and simply cooked beets served roots-up so they looked like a forest, a smear of fresh burrata cheese and a path of candied chestnut crumble giving an architectural look to the plate. Mixing fresh and pickled beets was a fine idea, and so was the chestnut and charred onion – it was an everyday dish with an interesting twist, and one I hope they keep around. The octopus was firing on all cylinders too; it had been slow cooked with Spanish chorizo sous vide style, then grilled and presented alongside baby potatoes, which is a standard dish these days, but it was served over a over chopped cornichon and shallot mix with caper berries, which isn’t. The pickled tang of cornichon pickles and capers made the dish, as well as adding to a beautiful presentation.
Since we knew that Chez Soi has hired on well-regarded bartender Shane Croughan, we started our meal with cocktails. I was surprised when our server recommended a Moscow Mule, but this was no typical version – they use fresh ginger syrup rather than ginger ale, and it had a spicy kick. I ordered a boulevardier, one of my favorite pre-prohibition style drinks, and my wife selected a peach and thyme drink that paired fruity and herbal flavors very well. Croughan has a gift with flavor that harmonizes with the ambitions of the restaurant, and his drinks suited the food well.
For main courses we selected salmon with smoked potatoes, herbs, and a lemon verbena foam, coq au vin, steak with Belgian fries and asparagus, and the fried chicken. All were sophisticated versions of peasant food, and most of the innovations were improvements. The salmon was surprisingly delicate, the lemon verbena giving a citrus scent without sharpness, the smoky potatoes a surprise even though I knew they were part of the meal. I also liked the coq au vin, the broth reduced to almost jellylike thickness, musky and rich with wine and vegetables. This was served with baby carrots, but might have benefited from some potatoes or other starch – the portion was a bit small for the price. There was no such problem with the steak, a perfectly cooked piece of meat that was served over a very mild horseradish sauce with excellent fries and aioli for dipping – this was a classic dish very well executed.
The one unsuccessful dish, the one that everyone at the table found odd, was the fried chicken. It was half a bird nicely fried in a very lightly seasoned batter, served with a huge amount of hot sauce and butter for dipping, and nothing else. We thought that some vegetables might arrive on a separate plate, but no, this was it. It was a strange decision, especially since the restaurant has also been promoting it as an all-you-can-eat item – all fried meat with no variation would get dull pretty quickly. It was well made – the technique and timing were in top shape when we were there – but I wouldn’t order this again.
For dessert we shared an olive oil biscuit topped with lilac over mango and raspberry purée, an excellent chocolate layer cake with homemade strawberry jam and fleur de sel, and a “vacherin semifreddo,” a baked meringue with assorted fruits that included nectarine and raspberry coulis with a pistachio semifreddo and chestnut crumble. All were excellent, and I’d consider coming here for dessert after eating at other places downtown with less interesting offerings. Even so, I wished the baker who made that bread had been given a chance to show off with a tart or some other amusement.
Given the considerable improvement in food and service, the place is obviously going in the right direction. Modern American ideas and classic French technique is a combination that doesn’t get old, one that will last when others go out of fashion.
Chez Soi is at 451 Manhattan Beach Boulevard in MB. Open Sunday to Wednesday at 4 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 12 noon, and Saturday at 10:30 a.m., closing at midnight. Starters average $15, entrees around $25. Full bar, wheelchair access good, parking in underground lot. (310) 802-1212.