The Rockefeller, in downtown Manhattan Beach. Photo by Aaron Bush
A few years ago we remodeled our house, and when on surveying the result my wife said approvingly, “This is what this place always wanted to be when it grew up.” I knew immediately what she meant – it suddenly felt right. The odd corners and rough edges were gone, and it felt like our nest.
That happens at restaurants too, and it can take several tries. A case in point is The Rockefeller in Manhattan Beach, which has been a barbecue place, hip creperie, wine bistro, and contemporary restaurant, with major remodels each time concepts changed. The bar has migrated around the room, alcoves and angles created and destroyed, the entire feel of the place changed. While some of incarnations of the room have been stylish and pleasant, there was always a slight feeling that things were pieced together rather than completely integrated.
Things are different now. The room is open, with lots of wood and white trim, and by day the sun shines through a skylight – it has the feel of a sidewalk café, which is what works in this neighborhood. It’s actually better than the original Rockefeller space in Hermosa, which has a bit too much Disneyland in the design.
The food has been generally good, though with occasional inconsistencies. Among the starters and small plates, the fries, sautéed green beans, and fried zucchini are absolutely reliable, consistently hitting the table hot, fresh, and crisp. The “seared ahi tostadas” are interesting but not what most people expect to get when they order them – when you request a tostada, you think you’ll get something involving a fried tortilla topped with lettuce and cheese. Instead you receive a plate with five slider-sized crisp tortilla and guacamole sandwiches topped with ahi tuna and a drizzle of crema, with a sprinkle of vegetable confetti on top. There’s a shot of Sriracha sauce in the guacamole, and the combination of cool and crisp with a dash of spiciness is excellent. It’s a fine appetizer, just misleadingly named.
The only starter that we didn’t fancy was a side of Brussels sprouts sautéed with sweet onions and caramelized garlic in a sauce that had elements of sweetness and citrus, with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese on top. I would have liked that sauce with something else, but it didn’t mesh well here – the sprouts would have been better with less adornment.
There is a very good selection of microbrews and wines, and we started with a Bynum pinot noir and Cono Chilean pinot meunier. I had never tried the meunier grape varietal before, and was pleased with this Chilean wine’s bright, fruity flavor with a hint of smokiness. The by-the-glass prices here are reasonable, providing encouragement to those who enjoy experimenting.
The main courses have ranged from good to great – braised short rib tacos with pepper-orange salsa were delicious, and the grilled fish tacos were almost as good – the only problem was an exuberant portion of Mexican crema that made them a mess to eat. (There’s a pattern of over-saucing here, and I recommend requesting sauces on the side.) The tacos are served with a mild but flavorful black bean, corn, and cheese mix, and work well as a meal or as a starter for three.
The Korean-style short rib cheesesteak with kimchi was slightly less successful – the flavors were spot-on, but the beef was in large chunks and not quite tender enough to bite through, so you end up alternating bites with and without meat. If the beef had been cooked and then cut into smaller pieces, it would have been perfect.
The daily flatbread pizza special tends to experiment Pictured is a thin-crust pizza topped with three cheeses, Mexican chorizo, arugula, and a fried egg. Photo by Richard Foss
I have tried other things here, including a fine burger, but the star was one of their flatbreads – a thin-crust pizza topped with three cheeses, Mexican chorizo, arugula, and a fried egg. They offer a daily flatbread special, and you should check before you decide to order, because these are made exceptionally well.
There are only two desserts offered, and I’ve tried only one of them– apple pie with a lightly salted caramel ice cream. It’s nicely done, and one of these days I’ll try the housemade chocolate chip cookies that are the other option. It’s easy to plan a return visit here – prices are moderate for Downtown MB, and good food in a pleasant environment is always a draw.