Richard Foss

Eight greats from 2010

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Food’s fine and prices in line at eight new restaurants

Bree-Anna Mustad with Four Daughters’ popular hamburger and green salad. Photo by Brad Jacobson

If you go by the simple data on openings and closings, 2010 wasn’t bad.  Slightly fewer restaurants debuted than in previous years, but there wasn’t as much of a drop as I expected in the sour business climate. But there was a change in the market. The year saw the closing of more expensive places such as Il Bocaccio, Upper Manhattan, Le Saint Raphael, and Café Catalina. The newcomers generally offered meals at modest prices.

There were exceptions, of course. Some owners obviously believe the economy will turn around soon and have planned for a return of the big spenders. As it happens, the two most expensive newcomers didn’t make my list of the best of the year, one on the basis of general inconsistency and the other because they offer mediocre food with a heaping portion of hip club attitude. Neither would have made the cut even if they charged half as much.

As always when I’m evaluating new businesses, I have to take into account that the employees haven’t had time to learn everything about their new job and their co-workers, so allowances are made for slight hiccups in service. I always wait at least a month before visiting to give restaurants time to work things out, but even so I’ve had some horrendous experiences. One waitress who was dealing with a stream of incorrect orders shared her low opinion of the chef with diners. At other establishments, servers seemed surprised by the idea that they should know something about the dishes on the menu, rather than merely taking orders. Standards of service in the South Bay are still below those of Los Angeles, and the places that have staff with a professional attitude are to be applauded.

The restaurants that opened in 2010 continued the trend from 2009, with gastropubs and Americana dominating, followed by Japanese cuisine. Four izakaya restaurants opened locally and three made my list. That style of Japanese dining looks well established in the area. Redondo Beach had by far the most openings, with Manhattan Beach unusually quiet. That ratio is likely to reverse this year, with four new openings announced and three other restaurants for sale or in the process of changing ownership.

Whatever those new businesses become, they might take some inspiration from the top eight of this year, who are doing the important things right already.

As always, it was difficult to create a list of the best because the overall standard was so high. Waterman’s in Hermosa and Rock & Brews in El Segundo both were in consideration because they elevate bar food to new heights, but I had decided to hold the list to eight this year and regretfully left them out. You can see the reviews of both establishments on our website. That said, following are my picks for the best new restaurants of 2010, in alphabetical order.

Asaka a gift for night owls

Asaka is one of several successful new Redondo restaurants. Photo by Brad JacobsonAsaka can be hard to find even when you are right in front of it. The sign for the adjacent bank is directly over their entrance. The décor is anything but bank-like, a theatrically stylish modern room that is very comfortable. Asaka stands out for very good sushi and small plate items at a modest price and at all hours – on weekends the kitchen is open late, and prices drop after 9 p.m.  Our server was very friendly and offered cheerfully opinionated suggestions about what to eat, enhancing the experience greatly. Asaka has good food any time, but is the perfect place to stop in for a snack after a show, it’s a gift to night owls of the beach cities.

1870 S. Elena Ave., Redondo Beach. (310) 373-5999.

Blue Salt Fish Grill gets it right

The Blue Salt Fish Grill’s location has been home to three restaurants in as many years, but if any operation can break the curse, this is it. Blue Salt offers diners an array of choices. You select the type of fresh fish you want, which sauce or seasoning you’d like on it, and which of an array of sides you’d like with it. They grill it up and serve it to your table, and you get exactly the meal you want. After some problems with consistency early on they have found their groove, and the sides and salads are now as good as the seafood. Their habit of offering free tastes of ceviche to everyone in the restaurant has made many friends, and they are as personal and friendly as you could ask for in a quick-service restaurant.

2515 Artesia Blvd, Redondo Beach. (310) 3 67-3771

Four Daughters Kitchen hangout

Bree-Anna Mustad with Four Daughters’ popular hamburger and green salad. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Four Daughters Kitchen’s cheerful room is full of natural light, which makes a good first impression. The mix of traditional American food with mildly innovative dishes confirms it. Four Daughters Kitchen has a pleasant hangout feel, and though it is small and the servers are sometimes harried, they have always been pleasant and helpful. Pastas and salads have been standouts. Their eccentric version of carbonara is a favorite of mine. I have found their lunches and dinners to be better than breakfast, but know people who rate them highly among the many choices in the area.

3505 Highland Ave., Manhattan Beach. (323) 384-9204

Izakaya-ya from Katsu-ya a hip traditional inn

Izakaya-ya from Katsu-ya. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Katsuya Uechi is a major name in the Los Angeles restaurant scene, a successful entrepreneur who opened four restaurants before starting his fifth in Manhattan Beach. No expense was spared in making the former Octopus look like a hip version of a traditional Japanese inn, and they opened with a polished staff and sense of purpose that usually takes time to attain. The South Bay’s largest selection of tapas-style izakaya dishes are the big draw here, and the ever-changing specials show a commitment to fresh seasonal ingredients. The restaurant is loud, some tables are a bit cramped, and waits can be long, but that can be the case in izakayas in Japan too. This place has more of a Japanese feel than any of their local competitors, and the lines outside show that locals appreciate their effort.

1133 Highland Ave., Manhattan Beach. (310) 796-1888

La Campagna a rustic trattoria

La Campagna servers Danae Lester and Keri Anglun. Photo by Kevin Cody

Chef Manny from Il Bocaccio opened this little space below Banzai Beach as a high-end restaurant, then changed it to a more modest place for thin crust pizzas and homemade pastas. It was the right decision. The ground floor location under Banzai Beach isn’t suited to a high-end destination, but works fine for a rustic trattoria. All entrees are priced between $12 and $20 dollars, and though it’s pretty enough for a date place, families are welcome. I’ve had quibbles about menu items that were not exactly as described and service that was friendly but disorganized, but I can’t fault the cooking here. The flavors are real Italian, and that counts for a lot.

934 Hermosa Ave., Hermosa Beach. (310) 374-3747

Mamma Mia Pizzeria a taste of Italy

Mamma Mia thin crust pizza. Photo by Brad Jacobson

There is much confusion about Mamma Mia Pizzeria, which opened last year as The Good Pizza, changed names and owners in spring, and changed ownership again in late fall. This tiny strip mall eatery survives on their take-out business, but has three tables for those who wish to dine in. Despite the Spartan surroundings it is worth a visit. Those who eat there can enjoy the thin-crust pizzas at the peak of freshness, plus an endless supply of fresh warm breadsticks with your salad. The menu is short and traditional, and the prices very low. The homemade ravioli and other pastas are big portions of good food. You may bring your own wine if you don’t fancy canned sodas and bottled water, or you can get the food to go and open a bottle at home if you prefer more luxurious surroundings, but the taste of Italy is there either way.

446 Pacific Coast Hwy., Hermosa Beach. (310) 374-4040.

Ocean Tava raises bar, temperature

Ocean Tava server Shan Rai with lamb curry, chicken biryani, raita and garlic naan. Photo by Kevin Cody

This restaurant obviously is not surviving on the basis of a great location, since their upstairs room is difficult to see from the street. Their considerable following is based on serving exceptional, regional Indian food, including Hyderabad-style specialties rarely seen outside South Asian neighborhoods. Dishes can be very hot if you request them that way, but are always subtle. Excellent service and a good wine list add to the draw. (See review in our issue of January 6, 2011.)

1212 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Redondo Beach. (310) 540-2240 .

Sushi Duke expands

Server Casey Nishikawa and owner and sushi chef Sanji Perera. Photo by Kevin Cody

Though this restaurant shares a name and owner with its sister establishment on Hermosa Avenue, it is a much more ambitious operation. The menu is more wide-ranging and includes an excellent selection of izakaya, both traditional and modern. I visited with a friend who has done business in Japan for years and who confirmed my impression that the flavors here are the real thing. Prices are modest and the place is uncrowded so far. Here’s hoping that people find and support this little gem on Catalina Avenue in South Redondo.

320 S. Catalina Ave., Redondo Beach. (310) 374-6929.

Closings and upcoming attractions

As is often the case, some promising restaurants that opened last year have already closed. Kip’s in El Segundo would have made my list of the best had they not shuttered the place, and neighbor Dolce might have done the same had they not transformed into a burger joint. Kip’s had replaced Three Good Things, which had replaced Mi Casa, so that location operated under three different names and owners last year. There is nothing obviously wrong with the location. Some neighbors are doing fine. My bet is that these good places were undercapitalized.  

Last year Riviera Village was the hotbed of change, with four new restaurants opening within a few blocks of each other. Another is expected soon, sporting the trendy name of Avenue I.taly. Several restaurants in the pier and boardwalk area may close, having been hit with exorbitant rent increases by a management company that allegedly refuses to make even basic repairs. Given the neglect of the area by the city, this looks like a deliberate attempt to drive those businesses under so that some larger redevelopment plan can be executed.

The prestige openings for 2011 will be in Manhattan Beach. Memphis will transform with a new name. Also, a chef from the prestigious Water Grill, The former Beaches will open with a celebrity chef as Strata, serving contemporary Italian cuisine with ingredients from boutique producers, while the downstairs waterhole will celebrate the long-departed La Paz restaurant and bar.

A new Italian deli is scheduled to open in North Manhattan Beach on Highland, and Sharkeez will move into the space vacated by Upper Manhattan. The fact that so many changes are already scheduled as of January point to the Manhattan Beach dining scene of 2012 looking very different from what it is today.

The big news in El Segundo is the impending opening of the new Ragin Cajun in El Segundo Plaza. Hermosa’s rank as a dining destination took a hit at the end of January night when Stephen Dominque served his last bowl of Cajun gumbo on Pier Avenue. Meanwhile, the reopening of Il Bocaccio on the pier plaza by the owners of Sharkeez is eagerly anticipated.

For a list of South Bay restaurant openings and closings, dating back to 2001, visit easyreadernews.com and search for “restaurant timeline

Please advise me of other openings and closings at Richard@richardfoss.com. ER

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