Manhattan House’s rising star Chef Diana Stavaridis hopes to bring life to an oft-failed location [Restaurant review]
by Richard Foss
There are a pair of well-worn proverbs about the secret of success. In comedy it’s based on timing, in real estate on location, location, location. These answers can also go the other way. Real estate can change in desirability based on timing, due to changing demographics or neighbors, and if you think location doesn’t affect comedy then try telling a great joke at a funeral home.
There’s a particular location in Manhattan Beach that has had its ups and downs over the years. It was spectacularly popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s as The Bourbon Bush, Chappie’s and Manhattan Bar & Grill, but experienced a succession of failed ventures over the last 15 years.This was partly because the location near Pacific Coast Highway was eclipsed by the growth of Downtown Manhattan and partly because some of the ideas that went into that space were either weird or dull. It would take a bold idea, well executed, to bring attention to what has become a backwater.
The space may have the tenant it needs in Manhattan House Gastropub, which has an interesting take on several popular contemporary concepts. They sound like the product of a hipster focus group — it’s a farm-to-table gastropub using hyper-local ingredients. But chef Diana Stavaridis has a distinctive style and vision and while some adjustments are still needed, the direction is promising.
Repeatedly redecorated over the years, the interior has some old-school style, now suitably updated
with moody beach photos, chalkboards for specials, and an extension of the exterior mural. It’s a pleasant space with some energy of its own, but not the frantic buzz of downtown places. The menu is relatively short and divided into small and large plates, with notes about items made in-house or by boutique producers.
Sometimes the high quality ingredients elevate mundane dishes. My wife had fond memories of cheese toast with mushrooms as a quick breakfast when she was in college, and ordered the upscale version here. The sourdough bread was baked in-house and topped with local mushrooms and taleggio cheese. It was delicious. The luxurious version of a student lunch ran $15, equivalent to the same dish at Love & Salt and other places near the beach. So, if you have been expecting a discount for the non- trendy location, think again.
We were also happy with the beautifully arranged and tasty seared yellowtail salad with avocado, radish, and citrus ginger vinaigrette. Many of the greens are from a Manhattan Beach Middle School garden, which gives this place better localism credibility than most of its competitors. The house salad with herbs, flowers, and pistachios over greens in a fresh lemon vinaigrette is also very good. But the standout vegetable is their “Carrotology” plate. I had the Carrotology 101, which featured carrots prepared eight different ways. The current menu offers a plate with 11 variations. The flavors are concentrated enough to stand out even though each individual portion is small. It’s a must-try.
We also tried the lamb meatballs from the small plates menu and were impressed. They’re served Middle Eastern style with yoghurt, fresh cheese, buckwheat tabouli and a few shreds of herbs and pickled radish. The flavors were excellent and varied enough that a larger version would be a good entrée.
The large plate offerings change regularly, but a few seem to be always available. Among these is a polarizing item, black pea fritters over African yellow curry with peanut chili relish. The fritters are similar to falafel, which makes sense because there has been commerce between East Africa, Arabia and India for over 1,000 years. The combination of fritters with curry is delicious, but it’s missing something – rice. That would be served in East Africa, India, or anywhere but here. It’s needed to soak up the soupy curry. This is a problem throughout the menu. Except for fries served with their burger and steak, there are no starches with items that would usually be served with bread, rice, or potatoes. It makes dishes unbalanced and it’s hard to imagine why they do it. If I made bread as good as their sourdough I’d serve it with everything just to show off.
When we ordered the roast half chicken, we were served nothing but the pieces of bird with a bit of sauce and shreds of pickled onion. We might have dismissed this as a way to run up the bill with side dishes, but they only offered two sides that evening — creamed corn and some of the same carrots that are on the carrotology plate. While those are both enjoyable items they’re sweet and rich and a simple starch or a sautéed vegetable like chard or spinach would be a better pairing.
When the kitchen does hit that balance, Stavaridis ranks with the best chefs in the South Bay. The pan-roasted wild king salmon over cranberry beans, sweet corn, and summer squash is an example. The vegetables with beans are an American classic combination that perfectly suits the fish. The fresh cress that topped it added a wonderful peppery, grassy finish. I hope they keep this on the menu as long as they can get the fresh salmon.
The Cook Ranch pork chop is another winner, a steakhouse-style treatment of meat from a farm near
San Diego where free-range pigs live on their natural diet of acorns. The meat is phenomenally flavorful, and benefits from being carefully cooked to medium rather than the medium-well that is typical in California. The herb salad with lemon-mustard vinaigrette was nicely chosen to counter the richness of the meat. If you’re a dedicated carnivore this could be the best meal of your week.
The bar has a good selection of boutique bottles and knows how to use them in cocktails. The Hollywood Bowl, berries with cognac, sparkling wine, and Cointreau, is a good summer cooler, and they make very good Manhattans and other classics. The oddest is their “Howard” cocktail, a Sazerac made with duck fat-infused rye whiskey. If someone had served me one without telling me what was in it I would never have guessed it, but I would have wondered about that elusive rich, slightly smoky flavor. It’s an off-beat drink worth trying.
Desserts are offered. We tried a creamy, tart lemon ricotta pudding and a very light flourless chocolate cake that had an unusually rich chocolate flavor. The bill for all this goodness was hefty. Our most recent meal for two ran $165 with three cocktails. Both in price and quality, this restaurant is not to be compared with the much more modest offerings currently in the area, but more with places like Arthur J’s, Love & Salt, and the Strand House. To say that Manhattan House deserves to be in that company is high praise, but to stay in that company they’ll need to broaden the menu and improve minor service hiccups. The gentrification of East Manhattan and the highway corridor is in progress so this could be the place that sets the pace.
The Manhattan House is at 1019 Manhattan Beach Boulevard. Open 5 p.m. ‘til midnight daily. Parking lot, wheelchair access good. Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free meals available. Full bar, Corkage $19. Menu at manhattanhouse.pub. Reservations recommended: (310) 574-2277. B