A steak in the Mid-Century spirit: The Arthur J’s ode to simple ideas, elegantly executed
Executive chef David LeFevre brings 1950s era of steaks and cocktails to downtown Manhattan Beach
by Richard Foss
Eating steaks has been a symbol of affluence for hundreds of years and not just on this side of the Atlantic. Beefsteak clubs were established in London as early as 1705. Wealthy members dined on steaks, baked potatoes, wine and beer, a menu that would delight their counterparts today. It was such a national trait that the guards at the Tower of London were nicknamed the beefeaters and a French slang word for Englishmen was “rosbif.”
Still, the place we associate with big steaks is the USA and the era is not the 1750s but the 1950s. It was an era of cool music, strong cocktails, big steaks, and big dreams. Even people who weren’t born yet can get nostalgic for the era of optimism and opulence.
The place to do that today is The Arthur J. It’s mid-century visually and the kitchen serves up dishes in that spirit, but made attractive to a contemporary palate.
The restaurant is an homage by the Simms brothers to their late grandfather Arthur J. Simms, who was a restaurateur and whose portrait hangs by the front podium. The grandfather is also oddly but touchingly remembered with a pair of battered golf shoes by the front door.
Executive chef David LeFevre taps into nostalgic and historic veins both with what is served and how it’s presented. Some very modern items are served in the blue-flowered Corningware baking dishes that were in every kitchen when Eisenhower was president. These and other touches show a genuine affection for what’s going on here.
The menu is heavy on steaks, naturally, but there is much more here. I have visited The Arthur J twice — once with someone who is a connoisseur of cow, the second time with someone who hadn’t eaten beef for decades and both visits were successful. Both times we were served by a cheerful pro named Rachel who was an excellent guide to the subtleties of the menu.
The starters are mostly classics. We tried an emmental popover, split pea soup, Hamachi tartare and a grilled Treviso salad. The popover and soup were on different visits, but I wish I had ordered them together because they would complement each other well. The very light, savory roll with funky cheese filling would have been great with the soup, which had a slight peppery tang and extra flavor from rye croutons and the chunks of Virginia ham. A note to those who haven’t had it before: Virginia ham is saltier and chewier than most other hams, so adjust your expectations when you bite into one of those nuggets of meat in the soup. Including it in this soup adds a rare flavor of Colonial America in a California beach town. The only modern element was the garnish of smoked chicharrones, which added a rich crunch to the mix.
The flavor of the Hamachi was another coast and another century; marinated chopped yellowtail with micro-greens, tomato, radish slices, cucumber, Thai chili, peaches, and peanuts. A puffed rice chip with sesame on the side adds an additional texture, if one is needed. Those items don’t sound like they should work together but they do. There’s a slightly different balance in every bite.
We wavered between a classic Caesar and the Treviso salad, but decided on the latter because we were intrigued by the combination of bitter lettuce with ricotta cheese, mission figs and pine nuts with a sherry vinaigrette. It was interesting but not entirely successful. Our server had mentioned that the Treviso had been marinated and seared, both of which usually diminish the bitterness of this heirloom lettuce variety, but it still had a rather sharp flavor in bites that didn’t include the cheese. Using the velvety, aged ricotta rather than the usual parmesan was an inspired move, but I would have preferred more of it, and that it be cut in smaller pieces so it was spread through the dish more evenly. The idea of bitter radicchio with figs and cheese was excellent, but at least that day the balance was a bit off.
Unusual variations on classic cocktails are offered, under inexplicable names. A sidecar is renamed “Gromit’s whip,” a blood and sand “Ultimate Degradation.” The fact that they have any variation of blood and sand is near miraculous —
it’s a mix of scotch whisky, vermouth, cherry liqueur and orange juice that was invented in the 1920s and is unjustly obscure. If you have ever enjoyed good cocktails, you must try them here. The booze is top shelf and the people behind the bar are masters of their craft.
Wine is better with dinner, of course, so we asked the sommelier to suggest something. He suggested Champagne with the split pea soup and a white Montrachet with the salad.The pairings were spot on. I’m going to want sparkling wine with pea soup from now on.
The main courses here are served on an a la carte basis, though you wouldn’t know that from the menu. The vegetables and starches that are mentioned on the same line as the chops and seafood are mere garnishes. On the visit with the carnivore we ordered a ribeye and the sea bream, on the second visit rack of lamb and a pork chop. (I had been attracted by an artichoke and cheese dish that someone at an adjacent table was eating with gusto, but couldn’t resist the pork.) The meats followed a simple formula: top quality product minimally seasoned and expertly cooked. The pork is from a rare crossbreed of Hungarian and English breeds, the meat darker, sweeter and more richly flavored than even most heritage breeds and the Colorado lamb will make you forget that bland stuff from the antipodes.
The sea bream was less exotic, but used an interesting, modern preparation. It had been dusted with fennel pollen, which lends a delightfully sweet, spicy scent. Bream is similar to bass but is more sustainable. The moist, rich fish came away from the bone easily. Scottish salmon and lobster are also offered and based on this meal I’d like to explore their other seafood options.
As for the steaks, the item that is the centerpiece for most meals here, both prime dry-aged beef and wet-aged Angus beef are available. Supermarket beef is wet-aged and not for very long. It has an agreeable, mild flavor. Dry aging intensifies the flavor and adds a funky richness that is generally associated with lamb and game meats. Dry-aged steaks are also more expensive because they lose volume in the process. We decided on the dry-aged ribeye and after dithering over the 13 sauces and eight toppings to choose from, decided to have none. We wanted to experience the meat by itself. It was a superlative steak, and as we ate it we mused that The Arthur J is missing a bet. They should offer small portions of both wet and dry aged steak so that customers could learn the difference. Offhand, I think that they’d sell more of the dry-aged to repeat customers because they will have a basis for comparison.
A variety of sides was offered and these change with the seasons. A terrific fava bean dish that I enjoyed on the first visit was gone on the second, replaced by acorn squash with candied pecans. The mustard spaetzle was gone too, though I know of no reason German handmade noodles would be seasonal. Perhaps they weren’t popular because nobody knew what they were.
A steakhouse favorite that seems to have a perennial place on the menu is creamed spinach. The version here is the classic — cooked down with real cream and topped with crisp fried onions.
Desserts were offered, but here the menu is out of balance. With the exception of some sherbets, everything was heavy and rich. Had something light like a fruit tart or other, similar pastry been offered we would have ordered it, but on both visits we didn’t see anything that called to us.
Dinner at The Arthur J is on the high side by local standards. The less expensive of the two meals ran just over $250 for two, with two cocktails and four glasses of wine. That could have been much less if we had watched the wine budget. One the sommelier suggested was almost $25 for a three-ounce pour. It was a splendid pairing, but there were other good ones at more modest prices.
The Arthur J is a temple to a certain kind of dining, the mid-century modern décor in harmony with the ideas on the menu. At their best both are about simple ideas elegantly executed. In one case it’s wood polished and sculpted to show its beauty, in the other dishes crafted to show off minimally enhanced, excellent ingredients. One could only wish that the patriarch of the family could have lived to see it.
The Arthur J is at 903 Manhattan Avenue in downtown Manhattan Beach. Open daily at 5 p.m., close 10:30 p.m.. Sun-Wed., 11 p.m. Thu-Sat. Street parking, wheelchair access good, full bar. Some vegetarian items. Reservations suggested at thearthurj.com, phone 310-878-9620.