Evolution of a Manhattan Beach Dining Destination [Restaurant Review]
by Richard Foss
Strand House opened in 2011 to the very highest of expectations. The former dance club had been renovated by an internationally known design team, and founding chef Travis Lorton collaborated on the menu with Neal Fraser, one of LA’s top chefs. The menu was easily the most ambitious in the South Bay, featuring unusual heirloom vegetables, arcane seasoning combinations, and housemade cured and smoked meats. Crowds showed up to see if this was going to set the standard for fine dining in the South Bay or be the biggest flop ever.
Seven years later the Strand House still has a crowd most nights and is still leading the pack when in adventurous dining. That said, there have been subtle changes in style that show a refined focus. In the early days an exuberant kitchen team decided that they could do everything in house. They they made their own bacon and performed other time and labor intensive tasks. As the restaurant’s chef-partner Greg Hozinsky observed, when he took over they were doing some things just because they could, not because the result was a superior product.
Hozinsky made some changes when he took the reins, and new Executive Chef Austin Cobb has added his own signature to the eclectic mix of items here. The flavors are still complex but more reliant on the natural flavors of seasonal produce, and there is a an American sensibility rather than the Italian focus earlier days.
Some items from days past are still on the menu, such as the hand-torn pasta with housemade lamb sausage, roasted fennel, blistered tomatoes, pine nuts, and chili. Since this involves using several cooking methods before combining them, you can see that the tendency toward complexity is alive and well. Those different methods give each bite bursts of flavors that are complementary rather than unified so that you’re still finding new harmonies of flavor in the last bite.
Another small plate shows Cobb’s gift with simpler but still inventive combinations. I never would have thought of roasting cauliflower with bits of pineapple and adding pickled onions. This was served over coconut cream with faint notes of chili and curry, and the combination of tropical flavors with a winter vegetable was brilliant. Another starter offers comfort food for the modern crowd, Spanish octopus in a Peruvian-influenced style. The crispy corn kernels, confit potato, and yellow chili and garlic sauce are traditional pairings, and thanks to fine technique there were many textures and flavors to savor. This showed a restraint that is rare in the industry, because a creative chef knew when to just leave a winning combination alone.
The same was true of a main course of a grilled Kurobuta pork chop, which was served with braised purple cabbage, crispy spaetzle, and apple chutney. This is soul food if you’re from Germany or places in the U.S. that have a large German population. If your grandmother is visiting from Wisconsin and wonders if she can find anything to eat here the answer is yes. Grandma may find the décor a bit modern and the sound level a bit high for her taste, but the hearty flavors will win her over.
Other items are more multicultural, such as the Ora king salmon that is topped with a mix of sliced radishes, pickles, and roasted tomato in a Japanese yuzu sauce and served over a French-style pesto. The mix of citrus and vinegar in the vegetables made a superb complement to the rich, crisp-skinned fish. I ignored the pesto at first because I was so entranced by the other flavors but found that adding a dab to alternating bites enhanced the experience. Ora King is a New Zealand sustainably farmed fish with a flavor that rivals the best of the wild fish. If you haven’t tried it this is the place to do so.
When I scanned the menu to see if I could deduce Chef Austin’s culinary signature I found an easy clue: an item called “Chef Austin’s saltimbocca pizza.” I probably would have ordered that even if it wasn’t his signature item, because I was curious about the name. Saltimbocca is traditionally a preparation of veal stuffed with prosciutto and sage, occasionally with cheese. The item here was a pizza stuffed with housemade porchetta, fontina cheese, a dash of fresno chili, and pesto. This was served as a sandwich in a folded and cut, freshly baked flatbread. I can’t say that it reminds me much of the traditional favorite, but it was exceptionally good.
To pair with these items the Strand House offers a dizzying variety of wine by the glass as well as craft cocktails. I strongly recommend the Clyde Barrow, a new drink in the classic style made with Chivas Regal, Cointreau, ginger liqueur, blood orange juice, and chocolate bitters. This was a drink worth a long slow savor, the most outstanding of several I’ve tried there.
For dessert we tried a housemade doughnut sampler and a warm brown sugar cake. We would have tried more but we were dining late and the kitchen had run out of a few items. My wife ordered the doughnuts because she has a weakness for them that I don’t share because they’re generally too sweet. These weren’t, and though I liked the chocolate crunch and vanilla bean glazed versions I particularly enjoyed the caramel fleur de sel version. A glass of Sandeman port was suggested as an accompaniment, and it finished the meal with a flourish.
Dinner at the Strand House is not cheap – you may expect to pay between $75 and $100 per person with a glass of wine and a cocktail each, and more if you explore the high side of the wine menu. But that’s about typical in downtown Manhattan Beach now, and this experience is anything but typical. The cooking here is assured and inventive, the service impeccable, and I suppose I should mention that they have a great view because every review has to mention that. It’s pretty, but the least of the attractions.
The Strand House is at 117 Manhattan Beach Boulevard in Manhattan Beach. Open for lunch Tues.-Fri. 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. Brunch Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Dinner daily 5 p.m. – close. Pay lot adjacent, elevator to upper floor but steep sidewalk outside. Full bar, corkage $30 but waived with bottle purchase. Menu at TheStrandHousemb.com. (310)-545-7470.
by Richard Foss