Hook & Plow, a new restaurant that has helped enliven Hermosa Beach’s Upper Pier Avenue area.
Years ago, I interviewed an architect about South Bay restaurants, and he started naming the design elements that are the signature of this area.
“We love light here, indoor/outdoor spaces and patios, high spaces and old wood,” he said. “That’s the look you’re going to see for the foreseeable future.”
A case in point is Hook & Plow in Hermosa Beach, which was remodeled from a cozy, dated cottage environment to the modern aesthetic. The number of people who fit inside has gone up considerably; the decibel level, ditto. It’s a lively, bustling space. The menu hits all the modern notes, too – the restaurant’s slogan is “farm to table, ocean to plate,” which fits the current culinary craze, and it offers the craft beers that are required in any place catering to a younger crowd.
So can a place that might have been designed by a focus group show individual character? As always, the skill and creativity of the chef makes the difference; in this case Johnny Lopez has the ideas and execution to pull it off. Though the menu is short and changes very little (unusual in a place that claims to offer seasonal cuisine), everything I’ve tried has been good and accompanied by a sense of fun and whimsy.
Consider the panko-crusted avocado. Deep-frying avocados isn’t often done because they’re fatty and moist – usually the coating steams and falls apart. In fact, this is the only place I can remember where the idea was actually successful, and the cilantro-lime sauce that was served with it was an inspired touch.
Among other starters, we also liked the house fries with Japanese seaweed and spices served with housemade spicy catsup. The peppery spices were cumulative and my wife stopped eating them about two thirds of the way through the basket, but I found them addictive and kept going. She liked the chowder much better; they rotate various fresh fish depending on what looks good at the market, and they make the creamy New England classic. The only item we were not impressed with was the house-cured salmon – the flavor was splendid and the presentation lovely, but the portion was tiny for the price.
The main courses include a very traditional and nicely executed pulled pork sandwich and some sky-high burgers, but also include an item that is misleadingly named but very much worth ordering. One might assume that a scallop and pork belly BLT might include some of the usual items associated with that sandwich – for instance, bread. None is actually present in this deconstructed version; instead three large grilled scallops and two big chunks of slow-cooked pork belly are neatly arranged on a long plate with cherry tomatoes, arugula, chips, and some colorful dashes of sauce. It’s a delightful presentation and it tastes wonderful. The scallops and pork were so tender that they had almost the same texture, and the flavors harmonized in every bite.
Hook & Plow’s Lauren Cassity sarves the restaurant’s scallop and pork belly BLT.
On another visit, we tried the chicken roasted with chimichurri sauce, set atop mashed parsnips, and topped with Parmesan gravy. Chimichurri is usually a very assertive flavor, but it was used moderately here and didn’t overwhelm the other ingredients. The parsnips had a fine vegetable sweetness and the sauteed kale on the side gave a nice slightly bitter and peppery flavor. It was very good though I found the gravy a bit bland – it could have used a dash of the garlic, pepper, and vinegar usually used in chimichurri.
This dish was a bit less spiced than I expected, but another was much more interesting. My wife had ordered the fish of the day, yellowtail, “LBC” style – served with lemon, butter, and capers. I was surprised by this because it’s a simple cooking style that I do at home – why order it out? It was far more interesting than described, served with a fresh salsa of chopped tomatoes, onion, and other vegetables over whipped Yukon potatoes. The fish was perfectly cooked and delicious, and I now have a new standard to try for when I make it.
On both visits our servers managed to get every dish to our table piping hot – an achievement given that on one visit we were as far from the kitchen as you could get, and there is very little space to move between tables. They also gave good advice about wines by the glass, a sign of a well-trained staff.
The dessert list is short; a goat cheese cheesecake and a coffee porter creme brulee, and on one visit, they were out of the cheesecake. We tried the creme brulee and found it exceptional, the coffee adding depth and a slight bitter touch, porter presumably responsible for some of the roasty malt notes in the background.
The Hook & Plow may have a decor and style that seem by-the-numbers, but the character of the food and quality of the service make the place stand out. It’s a welcome addition to the neighborhood, a new destination in a section of upper Pier that has been getting steadily more interesting.